Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

1/18/2010; Monday (MLK Jr. Day)
TIME: 2 hrs
COST: $10 each, plus free audio tour

Today we continued our exploration of the famous “Museum Mile” in the posh Upper East Side, a stretch of 5th Avenue across the street from Central Park with a grand total of 11 museums, including one of the largest museums in the world (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and one of the most distinctive (The Guggenheim). However today our selection was based on the sole criteria that the museum be open on the holiday (MLK Jr. day). Surprisingly for institutions so integral to the tourist trade, not many museums were open today.

Our first stop was the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a NY branch of the Smithsonian. The Coopper-Hewitt claims to be the only museum in the world “devoted to historic and contemporary design”, and I’ll admit that both Paul and I were a bit puzzled as to what the museum would contain. We both pictured exhibits of household goods and furniture, like maybe “the history of the chair” with rows of historic and modern chairs. Fortunately for us it was much more interesting than what we imagined.

The Cooper-Hewitt is housed in the former mansion of Andrew Carnige, a lovely Georgian-style “country-house” built at the turn of the century, and notable as one of the first residences to have central heating AND air-conditioning. The lobby is breathtaking, with the floors, walls and ceilings covered in elaborately carved and gilded wood, making you feel like you were standing in a massive and ornate hollow tree. Sort of like visiting very wealthy Keebler elves. Unfortunately, at some time in the past the interior decorations were stripped out of the rest of the mansion, leaving only blank white walls and little personality, and leading us to wonder what the rest of it looked like when the Carnegies lived here.

The exhibitions at the Cooper-Hewitt change frequently, but during our visit the entire museum was devoted to the winners of the National Design Awards from the last 10 years.
These awards honor “outstanding contemporary achievements in American architecture, landscape design, interior design, product design, communication design, corporate design, interaction design, and fashion.” Apparently there have been a lot of them handed out over the last 10 years, and it made for a very dense exhibit. The rooms were full of rows of shelves divided into small spaces, with consecutive spaces dedicated to various things such as the design of the first laptop computer (see picture), a lifetime achievement award for architecture (see picture of I. M. Pei's dome below), a novel design for pants, the invention of a human propelled plane, and Tupperware. If you go we HIGHLY recommend standing in line for the free interactive iPod tour. There’s little text on the exhibits themselves to explain what each is and without the tour we would have been lost, pointing and whispering questions like “What’s with the pants?”.

We both enjoyed the exhibit, and felt it gave us a lot to think about. We didn’t always agree with the choice of winners, but even the disagreements we had gave us interesting things to talk about; for example, was the invention of Tupperware a revolution in food storage and conservation, leading to changes in kitchen design and the way meals were prepared after WWII, as well as being a radical change in home marketing techniques and an influence on women’s liberation with its all woman sales force? Or is it just a colorful plastic novelty item? Discuss...

Paul’s one complaint was that much of the museum seemed awfully commercial, and while the argument should certainly be made that good design can and possibly should be commercialized, it was disconcerting that some of the prominently featured companies (i.e. Target and Apple) were also the exhibit’s sponsors. It lead us to ponder what Paul called the “chicken and egg scenario.” What came first, the Design Award to these companies, or their sponsorship of the award? Food for thought.

Ta for now; we will fill you in on the Neue Gallery next posting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Museum of the City of New York/ El Museo del Barrio

1/16/2010, Saturday
Museum of the City of New York....................... 2hrs
El Museo del Barrio........................................... 1.5hrs

Snack at El Café (El Museo del Barrio)......... 0.5hrs

Museum of the City of New York ..................... $5 each
El Museo del Barrio........................................... Free day
    2 mexican sodas + taco + tamale....................... $11

The first museum of our quest was the Museum of the City of New York. Why did we start
with this one? The title says it all, but we considered other options like maybe the largest museum in New York (the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a.k.a the Met) or the most well known (again probably the Met), but we thought a Grande Dame like the Met would make a great finishing museum. We considered the newest museum of the city (Sports Museum of America), but sadly that museum closed less than a year after opening. So the Museum of the City of New York, located on the famous Museum Mile was our starting point.

The building is classically museum shaped, with a large courtyard and stairs leading up to huge ionic columns and a big marble foyer, but the exhibits are less conventional. The museum has a small permanent section containing a somewhat antiquated maritime museum and history of New York harbor, complete with model ships and dioramas, but the majority of the space is taken up by 4 rotating exhibits. At the time of our visit, the largest exhibition was devoted to the work of Scandinavian/New York architect Eero Saarinen, inventor of the office park in the 60’s and clearly a major inspiration of Ikea furniture. His most famous work is probably the St Louis Gateway Arch, a 630 ft arch of reinforced concrete that frames the city skyline. Some of his buildings seem a bit dated now, looking like Star Trek sets from the original series, but it was interesting to see what design was like back when asbestos was a revolutionary material and molded plastic was in vogue, and it was an in depth look at the roots of modern architecture.

Our favorite exhibits of the day were the ones devoted to photography. Sharing the first floor with Eero Saarinen was a photographic exploration of the parks of New York City. For those of you not familiar with the area, New York has a staggering amount of parkland and green spaces within the city. The exhibit was beautiful and educational, with vivid life sized portraits of meadows, brooks and woodland paired with maps and interesting facts about each park (i.e. the first park in New York was rented at a cost of 3 peppercorns annually). The second photography exhibit was crammed in a second floor hallway, but was, in our opinion, an even more interesting look at New York life through the photographs of Look magazine, a photography magazine based in NY from 1940-1960 (for an example see the photograph of the bagpipper above). These beautiful black and white photos documented a time when a teenaged Stanley Kubrick wandered the streets with a camera, taking pictures of a city so crowded that much of people’s private lives were very public. It felt like a very personal glimpse of NYC at that time, at times feeling voyeuristic.

All in all, both Paul and I enjoyed the Museum of the City of New York. Paul was disappointed in the lack of a comprehensive history of the city, but I liked the detailed look at pieces of its history and current culture.

The second museum of the day was El Museo del Barrio, chosen as it was one block over from
the previous museum and free the third Saturday of the month. This museum is devoted to the art of Caribbean and Latin America, and the exhibit on display highlighted Latin American artists who lived in NYC from 1900–1940. Some individual pieces were fun, including a pink bed densely decorated with ribbons, toys, photos and glitter, and there was a nice collection of energetic streetscapes (see picture below), but the exhibits weren’t well explained, the collection didn’t feel very cohesive and I didn’t get much of a sense of the artists or what they felt about NYC.

The museum didn’t seem to be the main focus of the building. Most of the building is classroom space and the area was full of children. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that the exhibits weren’t set up for them; most exhibits were above a child’s eye level, and there were no interactive exhibits. Also, I have to say that the museum was far too heavily policed. Paul was yelled at four times for things
like getting close to exhibits, touching a pillar (that a child had been playing on minutes earlier) and, my personal favorite, taking off his coat. It didn’t make for a pleasant experience.

Paul enjoyed the exhibit on the history of Latin music in NYC, which was crammed into an office hallway on the 4th floor. It had some colorful costumes and posters and was an interesting look at the rich history of Latin music in NYC, and it might be worth seeking out if you visit the museum, but neither of us loved this museum as a whole.

Ta for now. More on Museum mile to come.

Monday, January 25, 2010

List of New York City Museums

List of all 190 Museums in NYC, plus the 9 children's museums.  Our combined rating is included if we have visited the museum.

Click on headings to filter table by name, our rating, cost, museum type, borough and/or neighborhood.

Same table, but sortable alphabetically.  Click on headings to sort.

Partial List of References Used To Create This List:
Wikipedia: List of Museums and Cultural Institutions in New York City
New Yorkology (fantastic New York travel guide blog) 
aGogh (great interactive list of museum free times)
New York Museums 
Historic House Trust of New York City
Time Out New York: Museum Page
Long Island City Cultural Alliance 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Rules


1) Museum definition
We define a museum as any non-profit, government or private institution that collects or cares for objects of cultural, artistic, scientific or historical interest and make their collections or exhibits available for public viewing.  Museums that exist only in cyberspace (i.e., virtual museums) are not included. Art galleries and other for-profit institutions that sell art will also not be counted as museums. (Thank you Wikipedia for that definition.)

2) New York City includes all five boroughs
Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, as well the small islands in the New York harbor: Governor’s Island, Ellis Island and Liberty Island (athough we recognize that the latter 2 islands are largely in New Jersey)

3) A museum shall be counted as visited when:
We have seen at least 75% of the current exhibits OR have been at the museums for at least 4 hrs. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, here we come.) Museums seen before this year do not count toward the total.

4) We are not art or social critics:

While we will certainly give our opinions on any given museum (just try and stop us), we aren’t going to evaluate every piece of art, nor will we be ranking museums on their value or giving detailed deconstructions of their impact on society.

5) Besides the exhibits, other aspects of a museum are fair game for discussion:

including museum shops, cafes, customer service or even restrooms if we think they are notable. We will cover the whole experience.

Warning of Possible Technical Difficulties
A quick glance at museum types tells Paul and me that we are going to have some problems. There are nine children’s museums in New York City, but we do not have children. I can think of few things creepier (and more likely to lead to an arrest) than two childless adults wandering around staring at and taking pictures of groups of children, so we are not visiting a children’s museum without kids. That being said, all of our friends with children quickly volunteered theirs when told about our problem. They seemed eager to help us, perhaps suspiciously so…. In any event, we are hopeful that we can acquire enough “loaners” to see these museums.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

About Us And Our Goal

Pauline and Paul
Two brand new New Yorkers and their friends getting to know the city, one museum at a time.

We move a lot. It’s common in our generation (that’s generation X to you), but I feel like we move more than the norm, certainly more than we should. In just the last 10 years, Paul and I have moved at least every two, switching cities four times. And we hate moving.

I think the worst part is not having a home. Not having a place where you can curl up in your comfy spot, hang out with your comfy people and do your comfy things. Surely every animal (us included) needs to have a safe, familiar den to retreat to. We’ve learned a few things that help in moving: it's best to unpack quickly (think of it like pulling off a band-aid; don’t prolong the agony) and you need to channel your inner Lucille Ball (in my case very inner) and brush up on your small talk so you meet people. But no matter how tired you are after all that unpacking and chit-chatting, you need to get out and explore. Really connect with the what's around you. No matter how big and intimidating the place is, it needs to become your “den”.

Paul and I have just moved to New York, just north of New York City, and there are few places that feel less “den-like.” This is one of the largest cities in the world, and it doesn’t have a reputation for being nice. Quite the opposite. New Yorkers are known for being rude, fast-talking, fast-walking and not easily impressed by small town, small time yokels from Seattle. So how do us yokels make the place home?

Everyone here has their favorite answer to this question, but Paul and I have come up with our own, possibly unique, solution.  We've decided that, in order to get to know this area, we're going to visit every museum in New York City.

On the surface, this may not seem like a great idea. After all, museums are only a small part of most cities.  However, New York is a city of museums; there are at least 180 (counted in Wikapedia and many google-ings, see our latest museum list here) and many of these are among the greatest museums in the world. Every New York borough has its share, as do most of the neighborhoods within them. Just taking the subway to all of these places will be an adventure (and possibly a challenge). Plus, at least half of the museums are focused on the history, culture or art specifically of this region. So here we go:  

180 Museums in 2 Years.