The City Reliquary began in 2002 as a display in Dave Herman’s window in his ground floor apartment on Havemeyer Street. Visitors used to stop in the street to listen to Herman recount the history of the objects exposed in his window. “It started as a way to connect the new and old members of the Williamsburg neighborhood,” he said.
Although the museum was born in Brooklyn, it celebrates the cultural contributions of the five boroughs. Fragments of Manhattan skyscrapers, a fire bucket from the Paradise Grand Ballroom, and a folk art shrine to the Virgin Mary of Staten Island can be found scattered throughout the two rooms and backyard of the Reliquary. Objects from the collection are donated, bought, found. Everything has a place in the collection as it grows with the city that surrounds it.
Despite Herman’s appearance, a stereotypical Brooklyn hipster with beard, tight jeans and a blue printed shirt, he grew up in Florida, and moved to New York City in his 20s. “I was drawn to the city by its infinite promise of opportunity and motivational force. I also appreciate the tactile history that is visible on streets every time we walk outside,” he continued.
Sarah Celentano is the assistant director and curator of the Reliquary. One of her favorite objects is an original architectural fragment from Cass Gilbert's Rodin Studios on West 57th Street, with a fingerprint on the fragment's underside, presumably from the artist who created this work around 1917. “I find physical records like this really powerful,” she said. “They remind us of the human connections to the past that surround us in this city.”
Objects donated to the museum often have an interesting story behind them. A neighbor at the original location donated a rail spike from the trolley line that once ran down Grand Street. When the line was removed, he took one spike as a souvenir and left it on his mantle for twenty years. Herman said, “When he saw our museum, he said he finally knew where the spike belonged.”
Just last week, a woman came in with papers she had found in her apartment walls and ceiling that supposedly were from a numbers runner in the Mafia. “The living history you encounter just sitting at the front desk is amazing,” Celentano said.
Currently exhibited in the backroom of the Reliquary is a show called “Closet Archeology: An Accidental Time Capsule.” In 2015, 4th graders at the Children’s Workshop School in the East Village unwittingly discovered evidence of former students tucked beneath their 104-year-old school’s floorboards. Those 4th graders excavated artifacts of everyday life; love notes, candy wrappers, 1943 silver pennies, milk capsules, and more.
The City Reliquary offers a history unknown to younger New Yorkers and tourists. It preserves the zeitgeist of a city that could have easily disappeared beneath new buildings and shops. A trip to the City reliquary is akin to a voyage back in time.