Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art / Alice Austin House

Alice Austen, Auntie Minn and Oswald Müller. 1884, by Alice Austen
8/15/2010, Sunday
Alice Austen House ……………………………...… 0.5 hr

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art …....… $5 each
Alice Austen House ……………………………….... $2 each

In our museum travels, we’ve seen quite a number of historic buildings made into museums, and we’ve begun to realize that these types of museum fall into two distinct categories: 1) buildings preserved for their historical significance, like being the setting of an important event, or 2) buildings associated with a notable/notorious person.  These two types have different styles of exhibits and tours and end up being very different experiences.  In most of NYC, the second category is far more rare than the first, but not in Staten Island. 

Throughout its history Staten Island has been legendary (perhaps infamous) for its resident odd balls, characters and misfits.  A surprising number of artists, actors, poets, inventors and revolutionaries have lived on the island, often seeking refuge from Manhattan and the world.  As an example, two notorious revolutionaries lived here during their periods of exile: Mexican President Santa Anna, and the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi.  There is a bizarre rumor that Santa Ana was critical in the invention of chewing gum on Staten Island, as he imported chicle, the base of chewing gum, to replace rubber in carriage tires. 

Gum isn’t the only innovation connected to Staten Island.  Charles Goodyear (rubber vulcanization) and Antonio Mecci (possibly the first inventor of the telephone) both worked on their inventions here, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge built the first tennis court in the US on Staten Island (it caught on quick).  The island has been home to a number of extremely odd musicians, from Gene Simons (of Kiss) to Lady Gaga, and the writers who have lived here are legion, ranging from the poet Langston Hughes to the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.

With so many creative characters on the island, it’s not surprising that four of Staten Island’s historic buildings memorialize a few of it’s odder residents: spiritualist Jacques Marchais, turn of the century photographer Alice Austen, maritime artist John A. Noble, controversial inventor Antonio Mecci and his unlikely roommate the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Girabaldi.  

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
While all of these people certainly had their quirks, to us the strangest of these museums was the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art.  Jacques Marchais (born Edna Coblenz, 1887-1948) was an actress from Ohio who, for reasons known only to her, became fascinated with Tibetan art, architecture and Buddhism.  She never visited Tibet and didn't consider herself a Buddhist, but she was a charismatic member of a group of New York spiritualists in the early 1900’s and is credited for being one of the people who popularized Buddhism in American

Jacques Marchais
Jacques Marchais owned a Tibetan art gallery in Manhattan and eventually amassed a personal collection of over 3000 pieces, once the largest collection of Tibetan art in the United States.  Toward the end of her life, she built a meditation center and retreat in the hills of Staten Island, designing it and the surrounding gardens to resemble pictures she’d seen of Tibetan monasteries.  This historic building was the first Himalayan-style architecture in the United States and is now a museum, with meditation cells and a series of small gardens arranged in steps down a leafy, terraced slope.  

Sadly, the collection has shrunk since Marchais’s death.  The museum passed through a number of hands and many pieces were lost, sold off and possibly stolen.  However, today the museum is in better care and runs an active events program.  During our visit they were setting up for a Tibetan cooking demonstration.  Two rooms of the house are open for viewing: the library and the "Temple Room,” with a three-tiered mica altar.  While the collection is smaller than in Marchais’s day, exhibits still include a number of valuable and interesting pieces of Tibetan art, including ritual knives, alter sets, furniture, textiles and lots of bronze deities.  The museum also hosts the occasional modern displays.  Paul particularly enjoyed a colorful photography exhibit showcasing the current people of Tibet.

To Paul and me, the Tibetan art at the Jacques Marchais Museum was similar to what we had seen at the Rubin Museum (the large Tibetan art museum in Manhattan), and, unfortunately, we encountered the same problems that we had had at the Rubin.  Namely, that the objects were presented with very little explanation.  As we have no background in Buddhism or Tibetan art, we were left with a lot of questions.  We also wanted more information about Jacques Marchais herself, an intriguing woman who lived life on her own terms, inspiring others with an ancient religion and culture that she had no connection with, other than her own curiosity and imagination.

Alice Austen House
Another fascinating Staten Island woman was the subject of the next museum, the Alice Austen House.  Alice Austen (1866 -1952) was an early photographer at a time when images were captured with huge box cameras, glass plates and hand-mixed chemicals.  Austen started taking pictures at the age of 10, her first camera an exotic gift from a world-traveling uncle.  Photography soon became a big part of her life and she took a camera nearly everywhere she went, taking thousands of photographs and capturing a large slice of the life of a Victorian age New York socialite at home and at play.  
Alice and Girlfriends, by Alice Austen

New York street scene, Alice Austen
Alice Austen was active and athletic, and her pictures show Austen, her family and her close group of friends at island events, the beach, playing tennis, biking around the island and traveling around the U.S.  Austen also developed an early photojournalistic style, documenting New York City street life, and taking extensive pictures of the labs at the immigrant Quarantine Station on Staten Island. 

Trude and I, masked, short skirts by Alice Austen
There’s no doubt that Alice Austen was a highly skilled photographer.  However, she is known for reasons beyond her artistic talent.  There is a lot of evidence indicating that she was a lesbian who lived life fairly far out of the closet, during a time when that was rare, to say the least.  Austen was part of a close-nit group of woman who did not associate with men, called "The Darns" (short for "darn those women who won't date men”) and some of her photographs of this group are highly suggestive, showing women partially undressed or cross-dressed as men.  Austen lived with a woman, Gertrude Tate, for fifty-five years. 

Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men, Alice Austen
Thus the evidence of Alice Austen’s sexuality seems pretty clear, and the several groups of women in buzz cuts walking around the museum probably had strong opinions on the matter.  Alice Austen is held up in the lesbian community as an example of a well-documented lesbian life and artist at the turn of the century.  You’ll find her more gender-bending photography on a lot of gay and lesbian art sites on the web.  However, what you won’t find is any mention of her sexuality at the museum.  The museum does not show any of her suggestive photography and refuses access to any investigation of her sexuality.  This alleged cover up has been the subject of more than one documentary.

Alice Austen House
The Alice Austen House museum is in the house that Austen lived in most of her life, perched in a small park on the shore of Staten Island, with a glorious view of the entrance to NY harbor and all of its shipping traffic.  The house is well restored, with Victorian furnishings and an antique camera; however, on the whole, we were disappointed in the museum.  Thousands of Austen’s photographs survive, but only a handful were exhibited, and there was no tour and very little information on her life at all, with or without the lesbian question.  We found more information on a modern photography exhibit in the house than we did on Alice Austen.  (For the record, the modern photography was about distorted body images, and both Paul and I thought it was pretty cool.)  However, it seemed as if the museum, in an effort to remove any question of Austen's sexuality, had also removed most of her art and all of her personality, reducing it to just a small historic house.  

Miss E. Alice Austen, 1888 by Captain Oswald Müller
In summary, both Paul and I think that historical houses that focus on people, not events, are the best kinds of historical houses.  Instead of being caught in amber, these houses feel more active and seem to connect with the present.  It's no surprise to us that both of these museums had modern exhibits mixed in with historical ones.  However, at both the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art and the Alice Austen House we would have liked more information about the art exhibited and the fascinating people featured, and a good tour would really help both of these museums.  Despite this, we enjoyed the insight into Staten Island’s creative, odd-ball heritage at both of these museums, and loved the fact that the island works hard to preserve the memories of its more unusual residents, even if conservative museum boards don’t always approve of their lifestyles. 

Images in this post, from the top: Alice Austen, Auntie Minn and Oswald Müller. 1884, by Alice Austen; exterior of Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art; portrait of Jacques Marchais; two statues at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art; exterior of the Alice Austen House; Alice and Girlfriends, by Alice Austen; New York scene by Alice Austen; Trude and I, masked, short skirts, by Alice Austen; Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men, 1891 by Alice Austen; interior of the Alice Austen House; Miss E. Alice Austen at 22, 1888 by Captain Oswald Müller.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Historic Richmond Town / Conference House

Christopher House c. 1720, part of Historic Richmond Town

Historic Richmond Town ………………….….….1.5 hr
Conference House …………………………….… 1.25 hr

Historic Richmond Town ………………….….…. $5
Conference House …………………………….… $3
I’ve a confession to make.  Before I moved here, I thought New York City and Manhattan were the same thing.  Sure I’d heard of Brooklyn and the Bronx from TV and movies, but I didn’t realize that they were all part of the same city.  So, for all readers unfamiliar with the area, New York City is divided into 5 different parts called “boroughs”: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island.  Each of the boroughs is huge, ranging in population from 0.5 million to 2.5 million, and each has its own distinct personality and characteristics.  In any other part of the world they’d be cities in their own right. 

Ranking the boroughs can be controversial around here, but most people (who are not in Brooklyn) agree on the best and the worst.  Manhattan is generally considered the greatest borough.  It’s home to NYC’s most famous industries (banking, Broadway theater and the NY Stock Exchange), its wealthiest residents (Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, etc), and a majestic skyline recognizable around the world.  Not surprisingly, it also has the most museums (110).  The least is Staten Island, known for the Staten Island ferry, the world’s largest landfill and not much else.

Map of Staten Island; from Historic Richmond Town
Despite Staten Island’s under appreciated status, it has its share of museums: 11 by our count, which puts it on our list for a visit.  However, Staten Island is the furthest borough from our home; it takes 3 hours and about $20 in tolls for us to get there.  To save us driving time, Paul and I booked a bed and breakfast and planned a 3-day weekend to see all 11 museums in one trip.  To us this sounded like a romantic weekend adventure, but we were widely ridiculed by the locals.  Around here, saying you’re going on a weekend trip to Staten Island seems to be roughly the equivalent of saying you’re vacationing in South Central Los Angeles.  Most New Yorkers don’t have much affection for Staten Island and seem to think it contains only polluted landfill and crumbling suburban sprawl.  One local called it “New Jersey without the charm.”

Paul and I saw the landfill (it’s closed, but hard to miss) and suburban sprawl on our trip, but we also visited some fun museums, walked in lovely parks and ate at great restaurants, including one of NYC’s best pizza parlors (Deninos).  Despite all the warnings and odd looks from our friends, we ended up having a great time and it was a remarkably inexpensive vacation (particularly by NYC standards).  Regrettably, on our last day Paul was called back for a work-related emergency, but we did see 8 of Staten Island’s 11 museums.  We’re looking forward to our return trip (and another visit to Denino’s, yum).

Staten Island's 3rd County Courthouse (1837) part of Historic Richmond Town
Staten Island has had an active historical society since 1856, and their activities have preserved a number of older buildings through several construction booms.  Thus, it’s not surprising that the largest museum on Staten Island is a collection of historic buildings: Historic Richmond Town.  Richmond Town was a small town in the center of the island, originally settled by the Dutch in the 1600’s.  After passing into British hands, Richmond Town became the county seat, with the island’s first courthouse and jail.  The town withered after the court moved to St. George, but much of it was preserved as a historic village in the 1950’s.  After the Veranzono Bridge opened in 1964, linking Staten Island to the rest of NYC, a huge construction boom changed the face of the island, and many historic homes facing demolition were moved to this site.  Now, Historic Richmond Town is a “living history village and museum complex,” occupying almost 50 acres and containing 30 historical buildings from all over the island.

Staten Island Historical Museum
This sounds like a bigger deal than it is.  In reality, only a few buildings are restored, and visitors are only allowed into those that are on the guided tour or occupied by a docent that day.  Paul and I saw only 5 buildings during our visit.  We started in the Staten Island Historical Museum, housed in the former County Clerk's Office and exhibiting a nice collection of artifacts from Staten Island’s historical industries (fishing and textiles), housewares and folk art.  The tour started there and moved to the oldest house in the complex; Voorlezer's House c.1695.  The house was built by the Dutch Reformed Congregation and served as a church, school, and residence for the Voorlezer (lay minister and teacher).  It’s the oldest schoolhouse in the nation, and a national landmark. 

Voorlezer House c 1695, part of Historic Richmond Town
The tour guide painted an interesting picture of the Spartan life of the first settlers, particularly of the minister/teacher, whose tiny 2 room residence was also the church, school and meeting house (and we think current NY apartments are small and lack privacy).  Apparently, it was a mark of great prosperity for a town to be able to house a minister, even under these poor conditions, but they couldn't afford him for long and he left in 1701.  Next door was the Boehm House (c.1750), which was not fully restored but the exposed timbers and plaster were used as an exhibit on early building techniques.  We also saw Staten Island’s third courthouse.  (The first burned down; the second was destroyed by the British army.) 

Staten Island Historical Museum
All in all, while Paul and I enjoyed the glimpse into the lives of the area’s early settlers, we were a bit disappointed in Historic Richmond Town.  We expected more demonstrations, stories and interaction in a “living history” museum, and overall the museum seemed a bit unkempt and under funded.  However, Paul admired their dedication in saving so many pieces of Staten Island’s history with little to no budget.  Also, we should note that the museum does have demonstrations and events on its calendar, so perhaps it would be better to come on a day when something is scheduled. 

Conference House c 1680
We visited another historical Staten Island house today.  Called the Conference House, it’s was built c. 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp, the Collector of Customs for Delaware.  The house was home to a loyalist family and served as a headquarters for the British Army during the Revolutionary War, but it is best known for being the site of a famous peace conference.  On September 11, 1776, the newly formed Continental Congress sent John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and Benjamin Franklin to met with the King’s representative and commander of the British forces, Lord Richard Howe, at this home in an attempt to stop hostilities at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

Beach at the Conference House
The conference was a failure of course; the British would not consider independence and the congressional representatives had been authorized only to negotiate independence.  Thus, war was decided to be inevitable.  Four days later the British occupied New York City and the city would remain in British hands for most the War.  Every year on September 11th, the Conference House holds a popular reenactment of the conference, complete with boats, period costumes and an ersatz Ben Franklin.

In summary, the Conference House is beautifully restored and has a well researched and detailed tour, but I thought the best part of the museum was the surrounding park.  It has 267 acres of coastal forest and seashore overlooking a picturesque bay, with broad well maintained walking paths.  Paul and I walked down the beach a ways to see the “South Pole,” a large red pole marking the southern tip of New York State.  We were both highly amused and thought that only in New York would they think to celebrate something so innocuous.

"South Pole," at the southern most point of New York State
Images in this post, from the top: Christopher House c.1720, at Historic Richmond town, relocated from Willowbrook.  This fieldstone farmhouse was the home of Joseph Christopher, a member of the Richmond County Committee of Safety prior to the Revolution.  Map of Staten Island from the Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town. The 3rd County Courthouse c. 1837, at Historic Richmond Town. Preceded by two smaller courthouses, this Greek Revival structure was Staten Island's first monumental county building. It served as the Richmond County Courthouse until 1919.  Rocking Horse from the children's toys exhibit at the Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town.  Voorlezer's House c.1695, at Historic Richmond Town.  This structure was built by the Dutch Reformed Congregation and served as a church, school, and residence for the Voorlezer (lay minister and teacher) until 1701.  It was used as a private home and store until 1936.  This building is a National Historic Landmark.  Painted Wooden Statue of a Saint, Staten Island Historical Museum, at Historic Richmond Town.  The Conference House (formerly known at the Billopp House),  a two-story, rubble stone masonry building constructed circa 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp.  Beach in front of the Conference House.  The South Pole, placed at the southern most tip of New York State.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Museum of Arts and Design

Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw
5/15/2010 Saturday, continued
MUSEUM: Museum of Arts and Design
TIME: 1.25 hrs
COST: $15 each

Museum of Arts and Design
The Museum of Arts and Design exhibits contemporary art, but with a twist.  It focuses on the art and design of hand-made "crafts," exhibiting objects made primarily in 1 of the 5 traditional craft materials (clay, glass, wood, metal, and fiber).  I thought the twist really worked for the museum, making it stand out from the other contemporary galleries we’ve seen.  The art was applied and approachable, and exhibits had a 3-dimensional and sculptural feel.  Paul disagreed.  He thought the limitation to 5 materials was a gimmick that the museum didn't really stick to.  Also, he felt that the museum was either arts OR design; many of the design exhibits didn't work as art, and the art exhibits didn’t work as design.  He liked it when pieces hit that “sweet spot” and combined both, but felt that was rare.  We’ll leave it too the reader (and museum-goer) to decide for themselves.

Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa
Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin
If the focus on crafts and craft materials is a gimmick, at least the museum comes by it honestly.  For 46 years it has exhibited the work of American craftspeople, first as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, then the American Craft Museum.  Its founder and patroness, Aileen Osborn Webb, sought to bring awareness to the artistry and beauty of handmade objects in an age of machine-made products.  Today, the museum has broadened its scope and includes both traditional crafts (e.g. baskets and pottery, see example at left), as well as objects made more for their expressive and conceptual content (i.e. art, see example at right).  

In 2002, the museum moved into a modern 9 story building on the famous Columbus Circle, facing the southwest corner of Central Park.  We were lucky enough to walk in just as the (free) guided tour began and got extensive explanations of the exhibits, which was much appreciated.  The guide followed what we've come to realize is the preferred mode of museum viewing: starting at the top and working down.  We’d recommend taking the stairs at this museum, as there were installations in the stairwells, such as blown glass goblets and painted murals.

Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley
The top floor is dedicated to open studios, with young artists actively working on projects.  While we were visiting, there was a woman cobbling bizarre shoes and a group of people putting together a bicycle made entirely out of bamboo.  (The next thing in renewable resources?)  According to the guide, the next two floors down were dedicated to the “fiber” part of the museum, with fiber interpreted as anything organic.  The exhibit was called “Dead or Alive,” and presented the works of 30 different artists who work in organic materials that were once part of living organisms.

Skull, by Jan Fabre
It was an interesting collection, high on the ick factor but fascinating, like a particularly bizarre insect.  There were fanciful skeletons of extinct or mythical creatures made entirely from chicken bones from fast food dinners (I shudder to picture the artist’s cholesterol levels), a delicate chandelier of lit dandelion puffs, a shaggy horse-like taxidermy animal made from the manes of slaughtered horses (picture above), abstract sculptures made of pigeon feathers, a motorcycle with a cow skeleton frame (picture below), a suit of sticks, and lots of things made from dead bugs, including dried butterfly wallpaper, a beetle casing skull (picture at right), and a silk worm cocoon chandelier.
Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn

Tides, by Ferne Jacob
Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed
The next floor down contained the clay and wood exhibits, showing an odd collection of 1960’s semi-abstract ceramic sculptures and a number of baskets.  Most of the baskets were non-functional and clearly meant to be modern artistic statements, such as the baskets made of coiled thread (picture at left) or dried fish (picture at right).  I enjoyed the exhibit, feeling it stretched and challenged the idea of what a basket was, but Paul felt these impractical containers had lost the essence of what a basket was.  According to Paul, “If you can’t put something in a basket, it’s not a basket.”
Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt;  Miao Neckrings, China; Pair of Anklets, Upper Egypt

The lowest exhibition floor was entirely devoted to metal.  There was a section on the jewelry of tribal peoples in North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.  Most of the pieces looked heavy and uncomfortable, prized less for beauty and more as a show of wealth, used for trading or as a transfer of wealth in dowries.  It made for an interesting commentary on the history and practicality of jewelry.  The rest of this floor harbored a massive collection of bicycles in the exhibit “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle.”  For once, I agreed with Paul.  Neither or us saw much art of what looked like perfectly normal bicycles, but then we aren’t avid cyclists so we’re probably missing something.

Our take on things:  The Museum of Arts and Design was our second design museum.  The first, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, focused purely on design and design innovations, and was fairly technical.  The Museum of Arts and Design took a completely different approach and concentrated more on art, often seeming to leave design out of the equation.  We both liked its novel uses of traditional craft materials and felt that the museum’s exploration of art in common objects (and things made from common objects) made for largely interesting and approachable exhibits.  However, Paul would have liked to see more exhibits with both art AND design.

The bar at Robert
One last note:  The top floor of the building is devoted to a posh restaurant by the name of “Robert.”  Robert has a cool retro 60’s vibe with neon pink carpeting and sculpted plastic furniture, but the real reason to go is the view.  The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows frame a gorgeous panorama of Central Park and the ultra swank condominiums of Park Avenue.  As this was our 4th museum of the day, Paul and I split a 12-dollar pot of tea and relaxed in the bar, ogling the view and watching glamorous young woman in super high New York heels negotiate the treacherously slick tile floors.  (No one fell, but there were some close calls.)  We thought the experience well worth 12 dollars.

Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta
Images in the post, from the top: Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw, 2008; Image of the Museum of Art and Design; Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa, 2000, interlaced bamboo; Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin, 2005, chicken bones, bone meal, glue; Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley, 1995-2007, 1.4 million hand knotted horse hairs, fabric, taxidermy mannequin, resin; Skull, by Jan Fabre, 2001, mixture of wing cases of scarabs on plastic, stuffed animal; Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn, 2008, cow bones, bicycle frame, electric motor; Tides, by Ferne Jacobs, 2002-2003, coiled waxed linen thread; Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed, 1994, silver salmon skin, felt tip pen, dyed and undyed gut, driftwood, cane; Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt, 19th - 20th century, silver; Miao Neckrings from China, 20th century; Pair of Anklets from Upper Egypt, 19th century; interior of the restaurant Robert; Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta, 2010, phosphorous, bronze, dandelion puffs.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What 60 Museums Have Taught Us

We’ve just finished our 60th museum, and have thus completed one third of our 180 museum goal.  Seeing 60 museums in 9 months has taught us a great deal; we’ve learned many things about art, some things about museums, and a little about ourselves.  In the hopes that what we've learned can help future museum-goers, we offer this list:

Always, Always, Always Get the Audio Guide

Museum goers are often idealistic.  “It’s art.  It should elicit a response on its own.  It shouldn’t need explanation.”  Then you find yourself standing in front of a stack of Tupperware (Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), three nearly identical pictures of goldfish bowls (Matisse exhibit at MOMA) or a basketball suspended in an aquarium (New Museum of Contemporary Art), and you suddenly realize, you’ve got nothing…. 

It so much better to dial a number and have some erudite curator murmur in your ear, “Tupperware was revolution in food conservation, leading to changes in kitchen design and the way meals were prepared after WWII.  Also, its all woman sales force and home marketing was an influence on women’s liberation and a radical change in marketing strategy;” or “Notice the use of white paint in the first painting, creating luminosity in the fish bowl, while the painting on the left uses dark shadows in the room to emphasize the bowl.  Matisse was experimenting with the abstraction of light, which can never be painted, only represented.”  We didn’t get the audio guide at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, so we’ll aways wonder about that basketball.

Start at the Top and Work Your Way Down

Most museums are designed to be seen from the top down.  Detailed, high profile exhibits are placed on upper floors, and the lobby floor is generally the least interesting.  Paul and I have learned that, when in a multi-floor museum, take the elevator to the top, then work your way down; if possible, use the stairs to move between floors as you descend.  It’s the most efficient way to see a museum.  If you don’t believe us, try it some time.

Small Museum Does Not Mean Small Amount of Time

When we started this project, we assumed two things about the 180 museums of New York: 1) that while New York City has several very large, very famous museums (i.e. the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum), the bulk of the 180 would be much smaller affairs; and 2) that we could get through these smaller museums quickly.  “We’ll breeze through large swaths of them in 30 minutes or less,” I naively assumed.

We were right about the first assumption.  Outside of a few famous behemoths, most NYC museums aren’t very large (NYC real estate prices being extremely good motivation for small floor plans).  However, we were completely wrong on the second. Small museums have to fight for both patrons and financial survival, and as a result many are focused and captivating places with jewel-like collections: small but breathtaking.  Also, they’re often staffed by zealots.  People who have given up their Saturday, spending the entire day on their feet, without pay, just to talk to you about one particular subject.  These are not the sort of people you ignore. 

Free Times: Not Always a Good Idea

At small museums, free times can be a nice bargain, but at larger, more well-known museums, you should weigh the worth of a good deal against the inconvenience of standing in long lines and fighting through the crowds that will lie between you and every painting.  Sometimes it’s best to pay full price.

One addendum to this: if you’re looking for a bargain, there are other ways.  You can usually find coupons to the popular attractions like Madam Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and the Discovery Times Square Exposition on the web, and many other museums post discounts or coupons on their websites, particularly during the off seasons (spring and fall).  Additionally, students often receive significantly reduced admission, and even get in free at some museums, so it pays to ask if you happen to have a student ID.  Lastly, for the daring bargain hunter, several of the largest, most expensive museums (i.e. The Met, The Museum of Natural History and The Cloisters) are actually “suggested donation” museums.  You can pay just a penny, if you’re brave enough to push the coin across the counter.

Don’t Bring Knives to a Jewish Museum

Most museums put a guard at the door, a few guards in the rooms, cover the place with cameras and leave it at that.  However, Jewish museums can be more serious about security (for understandable reasons), and add metal detectors and purse/coat searches to the gauntlet.  Paul’s pocketknife does not go over well.

Be Prepared to Pay More Than the Admission Price

Transportation, parking, coat check fees, snacks, drinks, programs and souvenirs- it all adds up.

Maritime Museums: The Museums of the Common Man

New York City has a port city since it’s creation and salt water runs deep in its veins.  The city has a number of maritime museums (8 at last count), and most are built, staffed and maintained entirely by volunteers.  These are not members of the rich upper crust behind so many Manhattan museums, these are ordinary people with jobs and busy lives who give their time, their sweat, and their personal collections, making these spaces feel both passionate and intimately personal.  Maritime museums are not the prettiest museums, but in a world of expensive, polished, high profile collections, they stand out as being more honest, and have an emotional resonance that cannot be ignored. 

Modern Art and Contemporary Art May Sound Like the Same Thing, But They're Not

The exact definition may be debatable, but generally modern art means art produced 1860 – 1960, while contemporary art means art produced 1960 – present.  The two are VERY different.  Modern art involves the exploration of unique styles and a trend toward abstraction (Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc), while contemporary art breaks down the borders between all styles and media, and anything goes.  Don’t walk into to a contemporary art museum like the Whitney or P.S.1 and expect to see anything as mundane as a “painting,” and the impact of a Picasso painting at the Guggenheim is going to be very different from a pile of life-like male genitalia (Black Narcissus) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.


You Don’t Know What Kind of Art You’re Going to Like Until You See It

Paul:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed his love of photography and iconography.  He’s realized that he doesn’t particularly like modern art, and to his utter shock, has discovered that he enjoys a great deal of contemporary art, particularly performance art.

Pauline:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed her love of modern art and architecture.  She’s realized that she doesn’t hate medieval painting as much as she’d thought, and to her utter shock, has discovered that she enjoys some contemporary art, particularly sculpture.


Worst Borough to Drive: Brooklyn 

Worst Borough to Park: Manhattan 


Best Museum Café: Café Sabarsky at the Neue Gallery 

Best Pizza in New York City: Deninos on Staten Island (in our humble opinion) 


Images in this post, from the top: In the upper collage, listing the museums from left to right:  Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy; Whitney Museum of American Art; Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; Paley Center for Media; The Guggenheim Museum; Rubin Museum of Art; Museum of the City of New York; Austrian Cultural Forum; Morgan Library and Museum; Wave Hill House; Scandinavia House.  Images below the collage: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), by Jeff Koons; New Museum of Contemporary Art, with diagram; interior of the Guggenheim on Pay-What-You-Wish Friday; no pocketknives; Before the Mirror (1876), by Manet; Supper Sister (1999), by Lisa Lou.  Lower museum collage: Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens; Jewish Museum, Museum of Biblical Art; Neue Gallery; Valentine-Valerian House.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage/ Maritime Industry Museum

3/13/10; Saturday, continued

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage ……..……................. 5 min
Maritime Industry Museum ………………..…... 1 hr

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage ……..…………..…... under construction
Maritime Industry Museum …………………... Free

PAUL HERE:  Continuing the story of our visit to the Bronx during the “Day of the Storm,” our third stop was the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage.  This is just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  The Grand Concourse is an amazing street, easily one of the most aesthetically stunning streets I have ever seen.  Modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but larger in scope and length, the Grand Concourse is a 4 mile Art Deco masterpiece, and a drive down this road is a museum visit in its own right.

The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage was the final residence of the famous American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  In this farmhouse, after losing his wife Virginia to tuberculosis, Poe wrote some of his best known works, including Annabel Lee, Ulalume, The Bells, and Eureka.  The tiny white cottage is located on a small triangle of land in the middle of the concourse (not surprisingly called Poe Park), next to a visitor’s center, which seems to be perpetually under construction.  When we went, the building was closed so we did not go inside.  However, I felt that navigating through a torrential rainstorm to see a tiny cottage was a fitting tribute to the tormented author, so we checked it off our list and ran back to the car to find someplace drier to visit.

PAULINE HERE:  I have to say something here.  Paul, bless his heart, is somewhat of a hopeless romantic.  While he saw a cottage in a park, I saw a dilapidated shed sitting at a bit of a slant in a muddy traffic island, surrounded by a rusty fence that had clearly been there a while.   The “cottage” is under construction for at least 2 years.  While it's difficult to imagine what they could possibly be doing to a shed in a traffic island that would take that long, it does mean that we won’t be able to visit it during the duration of our “Museum-a-thon.”  I’ll try to overcome my disappointment.

PAUL HERE: Our next stop was clear across the Bronx, east to the Throggs Neck peninsula where the East River meets Long Island Sound.  Our destination was the historic Fort Schuyler, a pre-Revolutionary War fort once part of a gauntlet of forts built to protect the New York harbor.  Fort Schuyler has been lovingly restored and now houses the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College (founded in 1874 it was the first college of commercial nautical instruction in the U. S.) and the Maritime Industry Museum.

The location of this particular museum, jutting out on a low peninsula into Long Island sound, was probably not the best choice to visit during a major storm.  However, it was open (kind of).  There was no one around as we made our way through Fort Schuyler to the museum, making it difficult to find the right door, and we wandered around the chapel and an empty library before we found our way.  The museum ended up being located in the hallways of the old fort, which also doubles as classroom space for the school.  This is important as there was a troop of Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts getting maritime training during our visit there.  The hallways were largely echoing darkened corridors containing only ship pieces and models, but every once in a while we would surprise a scout intently working on a project, garnering quizzical looks, as if asking “I am required to be here during a massive storm, what’s your excuse?”

The Maritime Industry Museum houses exhibits on the history of the United States maritime industry, including commercial shipping, the merchant marine, and the port of New York, as well as exhibits on the history of Fort Schuyler.  It is a treasure trove of scale models of ships, artifacts from shipwrecks (including dinner plates from the Titanic), large pieces of shipping equipment, and a vast detailed history of the Port.  As we walked through the long, dimly lit barrel vaults of the old fort, we got a feel for the importance of the port, and the hard work and sacrifice of the people who ran it.  We also really felt the love some people have for ships.  There are at least a dozen detailed ship models of various classes and sizes, most of them built by a single person, Frank Cronican.  These are not just plastic snap-together models. No, these are hand made, delicately crafted models that are awe inspiring in their intricacy, and clearly took a huge amount of work. The man who built these models loved his ships. 

I think that is what sets this museum apart from others we have seen.  This museum feels like a labor of love.  There was a passion for the subject that we could feel in the bones of the place.  The museum is funded, staffed, operated and maintained strictly though volunteer support and donations.  Many Maritime College cadets volunteer time to serve as museum tour guides and provide exhibit construction and upkeep, and alumni participate in periodic "work parties" to do their share.  While the museum was modest, it made a very strong impression on both Pauline and I, and we were very happy to have braved the storm to see it. 

Images in this post, from the top: silhouette of a ship model in the Maritime Industry Museum, the front steps of the Bronx County Courthouse, located on the Grand Concourse; photograph of Edgar Allan Poe; entrance of Fort Schuyler; lobby of the Maritime Industry Museum; dinner plates recovered from the wreck of the U. S. S. San Diego; ship model in the hallway of the Maritime Industry Museum; scene from "A Day in the Life at the Brooklyn Naval Yard," a replica model of the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II circa 1942-44 built by Chief Yeoman Leo J. Spiegel, USN (ret.); sailor's wristwatch recovered from the wreck of the Relief Light Ship.