Museum of the City of New York offers a fascinating look at New York's battle against infectious disease

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Museum of the City of New York offers a fascinating look at New York's battle against infectious disease
Blood Mirror by Jordan Eagles, 2015-present, Photo by Leo Herrera.

NEW YORK, NY.- Humans and microbes have always co-habited and their relationship has had a profound influence on history, especially in cities, the crossroads of the movements of people, goods, and germs. Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, on view at the Museum of the City of New York from September 14, 2018, through April 28, 2019, explores the complex and fascinating history of infectious disease and epidemic outbreaks in New York City. It is a history involving government officials, urban planners, medical professionals, businesses, activists, and ordinary people. The exhibition will focuses on the personal, cultural, and political, as well as the medical dimensions of contagion. It interweaves historical and contemporary perspectives, blending art, history, and science to explore the meaning of disease in the urban context.

Germ City is organized by the Museum of the City of New York in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine and Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation which aims to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. Germ City the inaugural exhibition of Contagious Cities, a major international project led by Wellcome which explores the interplay of people and pathogens in urban contexts. Combining different perspectives and expertise, partners in the project co-produce exhibitions, interactive experiences, artist residencies, events, broadcasts and more. Contagious Cities is being staged in New York, Geneva, and Hong Kong.

“We are honored to be the New York anchor of this three-city global initiative and to work with a foundation like Wellcome,” said Whitney W. Donhauser, the President and Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “As a historic port city, New York is a compelling location to study the complex relationship between microbes, migration, and the metropolis.”

“The Academy is pleased to partner with our neighbor The Museum of the City of New York and with the Wellcome Trust on this important exhibition and program series,” said Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS, President of The New York Academy of Medicine. “This effort brings together our collective expertise on the history of health in New York and the impact that outbreaks of disease over time have had on New York City’s residents, infrastructure, and its many interlocking systems including housing, urban planning, water systems, migration, and public health policies.”

Germs are a part of life. They are the reason we wash our hands, cover our mouths when we sneeze, and take care when we get close to others. But the bacteria and viruses that inhabit and sometimes infect our bodies are also a major, if microscopic, feature of our urban environment. Indeed, the history of New York has been plagued, quite literally, by a variety of contagious diseases. Among them was the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide a century ago this year.

When tiny germs interact with a massive metropolis like New York City, no aspect of life goes untouched. Divided into five sections—“Microbes and the Metropolis,” “Containment,” “Investigation,” “Care,” and “Urban Environment”—Germ City tells stories about health and illness, immune systems and antibiotics, breakthroughs in treatments and vaccinations, and the lives and struggles of ordinary New Yorkers. But it is equally about the structure of urban life: housing, water systems, sanitation, individual and collective rights, and public policy at every level. And, because responses to disease so closely reflect the dynamic of their times, the history of contagion inevitably shines a light on social injustices and conflicts as they have played out over the generations.

“On the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, it feels more important than ever to explore the surprising connections between people and pathogens,” said Ken Arnold, Creative Director of Wellcome. “Inspired by Wellcome’s strategic concern with the prevention of and preparation for future epidemics, we are thrilled to have this collaboration as part of Contagious Cities, showing how urban environments can nurture ideas and, like any other contagion, help spread them far and wide.”

The exhibition has a hybrid gallery and library where visitors can view historical artifacts alongside contemporary artworks created for the exhibition, delve into the exhibition’s themes with a curated selection of books, and access a wide range of perspectives through digital interactives.

The exhibition also features the work of Blast Theory, a pioneering artist group based in Brighton, England, who create interactive art to explore social and political questions; multimedia artist and filmmaker Mariam Ghani; artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma; and artist Jordan Eagles, whose “Blood Mirror,” a sculpture created with 59 blood donations from gay, bisexual, transgender men, are on view. Other featured artists include Christopher Payne, Gran Fury, Glenn Ligon for Visual AIDS, and Louisa Bertman and Bob Civil for the LGBT Community Center.

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