Valerie Paley '75

Valerie Paley ’75, makes history with her work at the New York Historical Society, which reopened in November. GCS caught up with Valerie to discuss her journey from ballet dancer to graphic designer to a doctorate in history, and her work on these new exhibitions.
GCS News:  You started out as a graphic designer. How did you go from that to a historian with a Ph.D.?

Valerie:  I was an only child and my father had a graphic design company, and I had grown up learning his trade so it just seemed like the most convenient thing for me to do after college.  I majored in English and Psychology, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So, I worked as a graphic designer until my son was born in 1990 and I became an at-home mom. After some time, I enrolled in the American studies program at Columbia.  I have always been interested in architecture and American history; I grew up in Greenwich Village where you really feel the past around you. My curriculum concentrated on New York City. After about five years, I earned my M.A. and I was volunteering at the New York Historical Society when my mentor from Columbia, Kenneth Jackson, who’s a premiere New York historian, became the president of the Historical Society. He re-launched the New York Historical Society Quarterly, and he made me the editor. This led to my going back to school to pursue a Ph.D. and becoming the Historian for Special Projects at the Historical Society.

GCS News: What’s going on now at the New York Historical Society?

Valerie:  First, there’s the total renovation of the Great Hall, now called The Robert H. and Clarice New York Gallery of American History.  And, I came up with the historical concept for the children’s museum, located on the lower level. I was the only historian on the team when we started developing an actual plan for what would be in the museum. The Children’s Museum and the Great Hall project have been undergoing massive renovations for more than 18 months. A $65 million project, it’s going to be a history museum like none other except for perhaps the Smithsonian.

GCS News: Tell us about the Great Hall.

Valerie:  Well it’s quite a large space. The centerpiece is a 42 foot, wall which we call New York Rising. It tells the story of New York in the nation--a city when it was the nation during the founding era of the Unites States.  It was a place where Wall Street began, where Washington was inaugurated, the first capital of the United States, and where the Hamilton/Burr Duel took place. Our collections are extremely rich, and we’re putting our most extraordinary treasures on display along the wall which will be held together by video touch-screen technology that helps tell the story.  We also have thematic columns that tell the story of New York as a hub of big ideas that we think of as uniquely American, which in fact originated in New York or, at least, are amplified in the New York experience.

GCS News: And the Children’s Museum?

Valerie: Well it was my job as the historian to find content that resonated for a fourth grade curriculum and didn’t make children just glaze over. We began by thinking what would interest kids the most. We decided to use case studies or stories of New York children through the ages, from the Dutch days of about 1920 to help us back into the history. For example, there was Alexander Hamilton, a young immigrant from the West Indies who made good.  He came over to study at Columbia when he was about 16 years old.   James McCune Smith, who went to the African pre-school, became the first African American doctor and also happened to be gay. We have a Cuban child who came over to study to go to boarding school, and he learned the game of baseball, which at the time was new.  And then finally there were the news boys and news girls; we have a rare group of photographs by Louis Hines muckraking about child labor, documenting children on the streets selling newspapers. All of this is, as well as other large topics, are spread around the museum. We have a history library in which we talk a little bit about doing research in a fun and lively way.  There are not many children’s history museums in the country, and we’re hoping to break some new ground with this one.

GCS News: Let’s go back to your history at Grace Church School.

Valerie: I had some great friends at GCS and one or two best friends, but by 7th and 8th grade there was a real sense of camaraderie. I was a ballet dancer then, and I had torn cartilage in my knee and it took about a year to recover.  I remember everyone being so supportive of me. People came to see me in the hospital, and they were kind of proud of me which was interesting.  There was this kind of respect for one another. I enjoy thinking about my childhood and the village and what Grace brought to me.

Someone asked me recently what it was that made me want to become a historian.  I tell you in all honesty, it’s because of Roy Lobel, my 7th grade history teacher at Grace. I never excelled in history at Grace, but he had this wonderful enthusiasm and sense of how to make the past accessible to children. I see this now with my daughter, who is 14, and she couldn’t be more bored by history.  It’s so important to have someone make that much of a difference early on in your education. I was never bored by history, and I think that was partly because of Mr. Lobel. When I was my daughters’ age we had such great teachers, like Maggie Staats, who was so gifted and so inspiring.  So, I’ve always had such a warm feeling about Grace and how it nurtured me and my education. I’ve always had a passion for learning. I went back to school years later to get my Ph.D., and that passion started at Grace.
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Grace Church School is a co-educational independent school in downtown Manhattan, New York City providing instruction for over 700 students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.