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.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder why a guard yelled at Paul for taking off his coat? Maybe it was an implied criticism of their heating system? We visited a (much smaller) Hispanic museum in San Antonio and came away with a similar impression of the lack of theme. I expect they will get better at it as more Hispanics join the mainstream. - Mike