Friday, May 21, 2010

New York Botanical Gardens

4/11/2010, Sunday 

MUSEUM: New York Botanical Gardens (
TIME:        3 hr
COST:       $15 parking, free admission with guest passes from a friend)

We were warned.  Looking back over the events of the day, I can say that for certain.  Like characters in a fairy tale, we were taken aside and given quite clear instructions, which we ignored.  “It’s the biggest flower show of the year, and it can get crowded,” we were told.  “You’ll be fine if you just go early in the day.  It’s indoors, so if possible, go on a day with bad weather.  And whatever you do, don’t wait until the end of the show.”  Yet there we were, in the afternoon of a beautiful sunny spring day, on the last day of the New York Botanical Gardens Orchid Show. 

The crowds were massive.  It was a 30-minute wait just to get into the parking lot.  It seemed like everyone in the city of New York and their mother just had to see flowers today, and I definitely mean “their mother”, as two thirds of the crowd were middle-aged to older women.  I have nothing to say in defense of our foolishness, except that we were given free tickets to the very expensive flower show (normally $20 each, plus $15 for parking), and we just hadn’t been able to fit it into our schedule before this weekend.  Somehow, we had convinced our friend Peter that this was a good idea, so at least we had company waiting in lines (see picture at right) on this badly planned outing. 

On the plus side, the flowers were lovely.  The orchid show is a yearly event, and takes place in the magnificent Haupt Conservatory, a Victorian era wrought iron framed, "crystal-palace style" structure designed by the famed Lord & Burnham firm, and without a doubt the largest and most beautiful greenhouse I’ve ever laid eyes on.  This year the show’s theme was “Cuba in Flower” and there was an emphasis on Cuban orchids and “Caribbean atmosphere” which consisted of a few adobe and grass hut-like structures spread through the different rooms conservatory.  A little hokey, but honestly I didn’t even notice the huts until they were pointed out.  The real stars here were the orchids, and they were everywhere.  Brilliantly colored orchids sprouted along side every path, dripped in vivid cascades from nearly every tree and rafter, and seemed to poke at you from every bush and branch in the place.  There were areas where you literally had to brush hanging strands of these delicate flowers aside to get by.  Of course Paul, being a bit of a plant rebel, was much more impressed by the large display of carnivorous plants than any mere orchid, and mused for several minutes over his lost pitcher plant collection, abandoned in our move from Seattle.

In most areas of the conservatory, there were so many flowers to take in that I didn’t mind waiting for the line to move.  However, there was a lot of waiting, and while you’d think the crowd at a flower show would be sedate and polite, this is New York after all, so that was not always the case.  In the most orchid-dense room, toward the end of the tour, there was a long delay as nearly everyone pulled out their cameras to snap pictures of their favorite flowers.  Not having brought my camera today (more bad planning) the time dragged a bit, but there was group of women behind us that was just fuming.

They complained loudly for several minutes about everyone taking pictures and discussed an organization system where people taking pictures would move to the left so those who wanted to get through could move by on the right.  They eventually started yelling this and pushed past people, including us.  Their organization system wasn’t a bad idea, and they initially got a bit of movement in the mob, but then they stopped and blocked off the entire path so they could take group pictures.  Peter, who had been the closest to them when they were complaining, just about lost it right there in a justifiable orchid-fueled rage.  When we finally got out of the conservatory, he had a good 30-minute rant.

Fortunately, there is more to the New York Botanical Garden than just the orchid show, so we had a lot of places to walk while Peter cooled down.  It's one of the premier botanical gardens in the US, spanning 250 acres, and containing 50 separate “curated” gardens as well as 50 acres of un-logged virgin woodlands, the last piece of the original forest which once covered all of New York City.  It also has the Mertz Library and Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, containing the most important botanical and horticultural library in the world, the largest herbarium in the Western Hemisphere and a large research center and graduate studies program dedicated to the study of plant genetics worldwide.  As impressive as the library was, it was too beautiful a day to be indoors, and we spent our remaining time wandering the gardens.  The curated gardens are wonderfully diverse and designed to be seen at all different times of the year.  While we were there Daffodil Hill and the Cherry, Magnolia and Lilac Collections were in full bloom. The Conifer Arboretum and Rock Gardens were also lovely, and we all enjoyed the forest paths next to the babbling Bronx River.  I was a little disappointed that the roses weren’t blooming (I’m a sucker for a good rose garden), but that just gave me a good reason to come back. 

In all fairness, I should note that Peter was not the only one to have a good garden rant this day.  There’s a tram that circulates in the gardens, blasting a loud audio tour at all times.  For me, it was more than little distracting from quiet garden contemplations.  While we were walking along one lengthy section of trail/tram path, we heard a whole section of the tour backwards, as we were walking in the opposite direction of tram travel.  It was so distracting that Paul started yelling spoilers to passing trams, telling them the next part of the tour.  “Kew Gardens!  It was inspired by Kew Gardens!”  It offended my garden decorum, not only to be interrupted every 10 minutes, but also just the fact that people would take a tram around a garden at all.  How can anyone experience a garden from a bus?  Yet all trams were full.  Paul, ever the nice one, made the suggestion that the trams were important for the handicapped or those with limited mobility, but most people on them appeared fully capable of walking.

To sum up, the New York Botanical Gardens is definitely worth a visit for any garden fancier, or just anyone who likes a good walk.  We would recommend not going to the Orchid Show on the last day, but clearly we don’t listen to that sort of advice.  Paul initially questioned whether or not a botanical garden could actually be counted as a museum, but I argued for the inclusion of this particular one based on its extensive library, watercolors collection and herbarium (which we didn’t see).  However, by the end of the day, Paul was won over by the concept of a garden as a museum, pointing out that the gardens are carefully curated (planted), exhibits (plants) change throughout the year just as in a brick and mortar museum, and can you really argue that flowers are not art?
Images from the New York Botanical Gardens in this post, from the top: Orchid from "Cuba in Flower"; the Lilac Collection; crowds at the orchid show; the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory; two more orchids and a collection of orchids around palm trees in "Cuba in Flower"; the Herb Garden; the Magnolia Collection; Daffodil Hill; and waterlilies blooming in the conservatory courtyard.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Van Cortlandt House Museum

4/24/2010, Saturday

TIME: 3 hrs 
COST: $5 each 

It was one of the first sunny weekends of spring: a warm 74 degrees, bright blue sky with little fluffy clouds, the leaves had just covered the trees again and were a spectacular shade of new-green, birds were singing, and there were flowers everywhere.  Paul turned to me and said, “It’s too nice to spend the day inside.  Lets play hooky from the museums and go for a hike somewhere.”

This flabbergasted me, as Paul hates both warm weather and the un-airconditioned outdoors, but I humored him. “Do I have the museum for you,” I said.  “There’s a historic house in the Bronx in the middle of a huge park.  The house is a tiny seven-room affair.  We’ll see some historic chairs and hear a story about how George Washington slept there, because every historic house from Boston to Richmond has a story about how old GW slept there.  The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, then we’ll have over 1100 acres of forest and trails to hike.”  Paul agreed and we packed a picnic lunch and headed to the Bronx.  It’s amazing how something that starts off sounding so reasonable can go so horribly awry. As Paul (and Carl von Clausewitz) said, “ No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” 

The “enemy” here is the Van Cortlandt House and it is indeed a small but charming historic house, and George Washington did actually sleep there.  It was built in 1748, making it the oldest building in the Bronx, but not the oldest in NYC.  That honor goes to the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn.  Built in 1652, the Wyckoff House is almost 100 years older, and yes, it’s on our Museum list, so expect to hear about it here.  We had a bit of trouble finding the Museum, as the house is small and the park is huge.  I had assumed there would be a sign, but no such luck, and we ended up driving around the periphery of the gigantic park for a while looking for something that looked “Museum-y”.  It’s hard to describe how big this park is to people with no experience of huge urban parks (like us).  There are 18 baseball fields, 7 football fields, 7 basketball courts, 8 tennis courts, 13 cricket pitches and a 3000-seat stadium.  Additionally, there’s a golf course and driving range, horse stables and jumping course, a lake, a nursery, a parade ground, a swimming pool, 4 playgrounds, 2 historic cemeteries and picnic grounds beyond count.  There is also extensive acreage of forest, a wetland marsh and a nature center.  All this, and it’s only the fourth largest park in NYC, behind Pelham Bay Park, Flushing Meadows Park and the cleverly named Staten Island Greenbelt.

After some wandering, we realized that we weren’t just going to stumble upon the house, so we stopped at the horse stables and Paul went inside to ask for directions.  Let me stop right here and give you a vital piece of information: Paul is afraid of horses.  Not “run screaming” afraid, more the “nervous, deep breaths, getting the shakes” kind.  So I was surprised when he volunteered to go in, and worried when he didn’t come back.  I watched the little girls on ponies bounce around the paddock for a few minutes, debating when would be a good time to rescue him.  Too soon and it might hurt his pride, too late and he might need something a lot stronger than what was in our picnic basket.  Fortunately he reappeared after about 5 minutes, and after some walking around to “shake it off” he was able to form complete sentences.

There was no one in the stables, and he’d been wandering around futilely looking for anyone who wasn’t four-legged.  After some cool off time, we did what we should have done in the first place and consulted Paul’s Blackberry, once we found a place with signal.  Turns out we weren’t far off, so we found a place to park and hiked in with our picnic basket.  Already tired of being lost, we ate our lunch on the property’s back stairs, perched on the side of a small bluff with a view of some co-eds sunning themselves on a raised platform in the marsh.  You’d think they’d never heard of mosquitoes. 

We bought our $5 tickets at the modest gift shop and received what I realized only later was a warning.  (Cue ominous music.)  As she handed us our tickets, the receptionist asked if we wanted our tour to be self-guided or led by the docent.  We asked for the docent, as we’ve found that we get much more information from talking to actual people in museums than squinting at dry descriptions in small print.   She nodded and handed us the self-guide tour sheets, encased in plastic folders like a Chinese menu.  Confused, I asked “Is the docent not available?”

“He’s in there, but you may want to break from the tour at some point and explore on your own.”  Puzzled, we thought that maybe he was overly busy or had a large group, but when we got inside there was only a tour group of three: two school-aged girls and a woman, plus the docent, David Kappes.  The tour had just begun when we arrived, and Mr. Kappes was regaling the group with stories of the house’s past, setting the stage at 250 years ago, when this whole park was a massive grain plantation, home to one of the country’s wealthiest families: the Van Courtlands. 

Mr. Kappes was amazingly well informed and detailed, telling us everything from how many slaves lived in the house, to the story of the near arrest and flight of the Van Cortlands in the Revolutionary War.  During that war, the house changed hands multiple times as British and colony forces skirmished in the area.  George Washington used the house as a command center (and slept here) during the period when colony forces held the area.  Now Paul considers himself a bit of an amateur historian, so when the docent made a comment about Washington not being a great General, Paul began to debate him, and that’s when things really got going.

After 20 minutes of watching Paul and Mr. Kappes debating the minutia of Revolutionary war troupe movements, I was ready to move on, but the school girls had a paper to write and were furiously scribbling down every word and asking for more details.  Mr. Kappes, clearly enjoying such an enthusiastic audience, obliged them.  For the next 2 hours we got the most comprehensive history lesson of our lives.

We heard exhaustive details on every part of the house, from the placement of the original wainscoting to the lack of nails in the attic ceiling.  We discussed the shockingly high rate of infant mortality at the time and its influence on child rearing (the lesson: don’t get too attached).  We saw a crumbling piece of wood recovered from the mill pond, barely recognizable as a toy boat, and learned about the importance of a keel.  We questioned the design of baby bottles (originally made of pewter) and wondered about the leakage of lead and water acidity levels at the time.  We saw 200 year-old soap, had a horrifying discussion on past hygiene and the origins of germ theory, and went into great detail on how to use a bedpan.  We heard about bed tightners and the details of a remote door un-locking mechanism (now gone).  Mr. Kappes continued this amazing lecture until the museum closed for the day and we stumbled, exhausted and blinking, back into the bright sunlight.  Feet aching from standing for 2.5 hours, we no longer felt up for a hike, so we wandered around the grounds for 20 minutes and went home.

In summary, while the day did not go as planned, spending 2.5 hours with an extremely knowledgeable historian was a marvelous way to spend the afternoon.  Time and time again, we’ve found that leaving ourselves open to a change of plans leads to our most rewarding experiences and the moments that we’ll treasure for years to come.  As in museums, so in life.

Images in this post, from the top: exterior of the Van Courtland House; west parlor; and east bedchamber.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rubin Museum of Art/Tibet House

5/1/2010, Saturday

Rubin Museum of Art ………
Tibet House ……………....… 

Rubin Museum of Art ………. 2.5 hrs (with free tour)
Tibet House …………………. 15 min 

Rubin Museum of Art ………. $10 (with 2 for 1 coupon)
Tibet House …………………. Free

How many museums devoted to Tibetan art do you think there are in New York City?  Just make a guess.  Maybe one, at most two?  Surely no more than three.  After all, it’s not a place that has a lot of contact with the U.S.  Other than the odd documentary about Everest, and the occasional mention in the news about Chinese oppression, we Americans don’t get much exposure to Tibet, which is literally on the other side of the planet.  Well, apparently Tibetans want to change that, and there are actually FOUR museums just in NYC devoted exclusively to Tibetan art and culture.  We went to two of them today. 

We started with the Rubin Museum of Art, the largest and most well regarded of the NYC Tibetan museums.   I’d like to say it was because we were organized and wanted to start with the best, but in actuality it was because we had a coupon, good for two for one admission valid through this month only.  The Rubin is a huge, five floor museum that took over a defunct department store (Barneys).  The museum kept much of the old layout, so it has the open but compartmentalized feel of a department store, organized around a wide gleaming spiral staircase.  Its lovely, but you may find yourself thinking, as you get off the elevator “Fifth floor.  Ladies lingerie, Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, next to the shoes.”  There is also a bit of irony in it, as the former home of $35,000 dresses is now a primarily Buddhist institution celebrating release from worldly desires.

Most of the collection originated from a single person, Donald Rubin, the founder of the managed-health-care network MultiPlan, Inc.  What led a rich white Jewish American businessman to connect so strongly with Tibetan Buddhist art that he filled his home and offices with it?  According to a Washington Post article, his father, Jay Rubin, was a Jewish immigrant who came here alone from his family home in Grodno, Poland.  During World War II, his entire family disappeared.  Every brother, sister and nephew and niece was exterminated.  Donald Rubin explains, "I was a 10-year-old at the end of the war, and I watched my father's anguish as he tried and tried to find them.  Many American Jews went through this. It left a deep imprint. What is it in the human mind and the human heart that allows us to behave so barbarously?"

Tibetan art and religion embraces humanity’s "barbarous" side; its full of angry demons, murderous gods and macabre scenes.  We saw necklaces made from skulls, sculptures of zombies with decaying flesh, bloody human skins with bulging eyes hung over doors, and demons with knives in all four hands drinking blood and crushing people under foot.  Some of my favorite drawings were of the symbolic deities that Tibetan’s believe must be faced after we die.  These are derived from our own minds, and we face 58 wrathful reflections of ourselves, but only 42 peaceful ones, demonstrating where they think the balance lies in human nature, yet all must be recognized as illusions to pass out of the circle of rebirth. Clearly this art acknowledges the darkness in human nature.

In that spirit, the first exhibit we saw had the cheery title “Remember That You Will Die.”  It compared the Tibetan approach to death with the Christian one from the middle ages to the present, pointing out the similarities in the art that each religion uses to remind us that our time is fleeting and our deeds have an impact on the afterlife.  There were a lot of skulls and dancing skeletons, including a drawing of a “dance of death” mural from a German church (a line of people from all walks of Medieval life dancing with skeletons) and a haunting performance art video of dreamy woman walking through a veil of water. [Paul here- I saw it as a meditation of the cycle of life and death.  The oldest woman led the way into life and back across the veil, followed by a young adult and a teenage girl.  On one side of the veil they are in color, and drained of it on the other.  I was captivated and mystified and I kept going back to watch].  The exhibit was made even more creepy by the fact that the only other people in this exhibit were a pair of very old woman, one hunched and barely walking, the other mostly blind, with the one who could see yelling the descriptions of each item to the other.  “IT’S A SKULL WITH FANGS.  IT SAYS TO REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE.  THAT WE WILL DIE."  For me, that was the most effective reminder in the whole exhibit.

The other exhibits were less clear in their meaning.  We got on a tour from an obnoxious tour guide (I have been to India and am so much more spiritual than thou), who seemed to think that everyone who visits the museum knows everything about Buddhism, and just wants to discuss it with her.  We were left with a lot of questions about the art, like “Who is that 4 armed blue guy with the sea shell and the flower coming out of his naval, and why is he getting a foot rub?” and “Why is the guy with the 10 legs having sex on that cow?”  There wasn’t a lot of explanation, and after 5 floors of this it got tiring.  Paul said it was probably what someone with no background in Christianity would think if they visited the Vatican.  “Who’s the guy with the beard, and why did they want to torture him?”  Lots of pretty art, but without a background in the stories behind it, we were mostly puzzled.

The Tibet House is a much smaller museum, founded by the Dalai Lama as an outreach house to NYC.  It has some small exhibits, but focuses on talks about Tibet and Buddhist meditation groups.  It’s not usually open on Saturday, but they let us in anyway, and we tiptoed around trying not to disturb the meditation group in the next room.  There was some nice art, similar to what we saw in the Rubin Museum, but Paul and I both thought that the most interesting thing was a framed government document from the 1940s granting permission to an American journalist for a tour of Tibet.  The calligraphy was breathtaking and all done with a brush.  Clearly this simple document took hours to paint, harkening back to an earlier time and philosophy, when even paperwork could be beautiful.

Images in this exhibit, from the top: detail of Guhyasamaja with Sparshavajra, Secret Gathering, Tibet 17th century; Manjushri, The Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Tibet 15th century; Vajra Terror, Tibet; detail of The Red Yogini Vajrayogini, Eastern Tibet 19th century; dancing skeletons and skull from the "Remember that you will die" exhibit; image from Bardo Thodrol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead; Vasudhara, Godess of Abundance, Nepal 12-13th century; Garuda, Napal 13th century .