Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Museum of Jewish Heritage / Tribute WTC Visitors Center

Becks on Vacation, 1933 Crikvenica, Croatia
5/9/2010, Sunday 
Museum of Jewish Heritage …….......…. 2.25 hrs
Tribute WTC Visitors Center ….........…... 2 hr (with tour)

Museum of Jewish Heritage …….....…... $12 per adult, plus $5 for audio tour
Tribute WTC Visitors Center ……............ $10 per adult, plus $5 for tour

Most of the time, we select the museums we see in a day based on geographical proximity.  Generally museums are only open from 12 to 5, so, if you want to see more than one or two in a day, it's important to keep transportation times between museums to a minimum.  This necessity has lead to some amusing museum combinations, like last weekends High-Brow/Low Brow combo (United Nations Headquarters followed by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not), Old/New pairings (the Tenement Museum followed by the New Museum of Contemporary Art), and just plain weird contrasts (the Ukrainian Museum followed by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts). 

Gardens of Stone, by Andy Goldsworthy
Occasionally we are able to work in a few theme days, intentionally or not, such as Tibet Day (Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art followed by Tibet House) and Performing Arts Day (NY Library of Performing Arts followed by the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall) or the Day of Money (American Numismatic Society Coin Collection followed by the American Museum of Finance).  Today was one of those theme days, in this case completely unintentional.  In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to see the two bleakest, most depressing museums in New York City on the same day, but as Paul said, if we had seen the mythical “Museum of Sunshine and Rainbows” today, we’d still be depressed.  And it would ruin the sunshine and rainbows.

Destruction of the WTC on 9/11
Badge used to label Jews during WWII
Today’s museums were the Museum of Jewish Heritage (the Holocaust museum in NYC), and the Tribute WTC Visitors Center (about the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001), so the theme for the day was, essentially, death, mass murder and the horrible consequences of religious intolerance.  Regrettably this was also the day that we had persuaded Priti, a friend new to the area, to come along on a museum trip for the first time.  Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to talk Priti into a second trip.

Museum of Jewish Heritage
However I don’t mean to give the impression that either of these were bad museums.  They were both interesting and thought provoking, effective at evoking the loss and horror of their respective subjects.  The Museum of Jewish Heritage, befitting the scope of Holocaust, was by far the larger of the two museums and had a wide spectrum of detailed multi-media exhibits in a modern hexagonal shaped building with tiered floors and a memorial garden (called the Garden of Stone, see picture above).  The museum is built right on the water at the southern tip of Manhattan, and has a great view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York harbor.  Paul and I have been to a number of Holocaust museums, both in the U.S. and in Europe, and we both felt this was one of the best.  We liked the fact that, while it certainly covered events of the Holocaust, it didn’t focus on just the tragedy.

Alder Family Having Tea, 1924 Vienna
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is divided into three distinct floors.  The first floor, titled “Jewish Life A Century Ago,” covered Jewish life in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before World War II.  No other Holocaust museum that I’ve been to spent so much time on how Jews lived before the Holocaust, and it was eye opening.   To me the most surprising thing was how much it revealed that Jewish people in Europe were a disparate group, living in many different countries and influenced by different cultures, and they didn’t always agree.  One exhibit had 5 different video screens, each featuring people arguing different schools of Jewish thought: Zionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Reformed and Socialist.  It was also interesting to note points where Jewish culture had influenced the people around them.  For example, Priti is from Poland, and realized that, although she is not Jewish, her mother believed it was unhealthy to eat meat and dairy together.  That belief is part of kosher dietary law and probably came from Polish Jews.

Joseph Fuchs, 1945 Germany
The second floor was titled “The War Against the Jews” and focused on the events of the Holocaust, told through the people who lived through it using artifacts, photographs, testimonials and historical footage.  It was a detailed series of exhibits, and, as we were looking at and hearing actual survivors, it felt very raw.  It brought home the horror of the people imprisoned in ghettos and concentrations camps, the loss of families torn apart, and the isolation of realizing that everyone you know is dead.  The museum also covered non-Jews who came to the aid of Jews during the Holocaust (called the Yad Vashem), and had a whole room covered with their names.  Paul was grateful for this oasis of good on a floor that detailed the evil humans are capable of.

Louis Bannet, 1938 Holland
Fortunately, the museum ends in a better place.  The third floor was titled “Jewish Renewal,” and tells the story of how Jewish individuals rebuilt their lives after World War II.  Most of the exhibits featured American Jews and focused on familiar subjects, like Jewish entertainers in Hollywood.  There was even a Mah Jongg game room, telling the story of this game in Jewish-American life.  Despite the more uplifting, occasionally playful nature of this floor, we had to rush through it, as we had spent over 2 hours in the museum and wanted to make the last tour at the next museum.

Tribute WTC Visitors Center
The Tribute WTC Visitors Center is a very different style of museum.  Instead of a spacious modern building on the water, the WTC Visitors Center is in a small storefront next to a pizza parlor, across the street from the construction site that used to be the World Trade Center.  Many of its exhibits are hand made and not always well explained.  However, the rough edges of this museum served to make it more personal and heartfelt.  For example, there was an entire wall of handmade posters that families put up around the city in the weeks after the World Trade Center towers fell, each with a picture of a lost loved one and a plea for their return.  We looked at picture after picture of people playing with their children and hanging out on vacation, realizing that these people are never coming home. 

Photographs of the dead at the WTC Visitors Center
Other exhibits included things pulled out of the rubble of the World Trade Center, like a shredded fireman’s helmet and a twisted iron girder, demonstrating the destructive power of the towers’ collapse.  However the best part of the museum was the walking tour around the World Trade Center site, with a guide going over the events of 9/11.  There isn’t a lot to see on the tour, as the site is under heavy construction, but you get to look at the construction from several angles and the guide gives a lot of description of what it was like before, during and after 9/11. 

Girder from the World Trade Center
The guides are all people who were present or whose lives where profoundly affected when the towers fell, adding a deeply personal element to the tour.  Our guide was biking along the waterfront when the first plane hit, and afterward stayed in the area to help.  He painted a grizzly, hopeless picture of the rescue effort, as there were few survivors.  As he described it, the biggest task of the rescue workers was to attempt to piece together bodies, so that people could be identified and all of the correct pieces buried together.

Eleven Tears, by Ken Smith
The tour ends at the only memorial to the World Trade Center that has been completed in the area.  Called Eleven Tears, it's a small fountain in the neighboring American Express building honoring the eleven American Express employees that died on 9/11.  However, the official World Trade Center Memorial is set to open this year, in September 2011.  The controversial design will feature two huge waterfall-lined reflecting pools set in the original footprints of the Twin Towers, engraved with the names of the 2,982 victims of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the site (see picture of the future memorial at the end of this post).  I don’t know if it counts as a museum, but Paul and I are looking forward to seeing it.

Guided tour of the WTC site
In summary, both the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Tribute WTC Visitors Center were heartfelt, effective museums that used personal items and intimate stories to evoke the tragedies they covered.  For the sake of your emotional well being, we would not suggest that you see them both on the same day, but we learned a lot from each and would certainly recommend them individually.

Model of the future World Trade Center memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker
Images in this post, from the top: Becks on Vacation, gift of Elsa Beck, photograph in 1933 Crikvenica, Croatia; Gardens of Stone, by Andy Goldsworthy.  The garden consists of trees growing out of stone, and was planted by the artist, Holocaust survivors and their families; Yellow star, Jood, Gift of Mimi Weiner, Dutch; the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; exterior of the Museum of Jewish Heritage; Alder Family Having Tea, gift of Peter Warren in memory of his mother Heda Lieberman, photograph in 1924 Austria, Vienna; Joseph Fuchs, gift of Robert Marx, photograph in 1945 Germany, Indersdorf;  Louis Bannet, photograph in Holland 1938.  Louis Bannet was a Jewish musician known as the “Dutch Louis Armstrong.”  After the German invasion, Bannet was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but survived as a member of the orchestra, entertaining his captors and accompaning the death march of many of the 1.3 million who perished in the gas chambers during this period. Most of Bannet’s own family members were killed at Auschwitz. After the war, Bannet married a fellow survivor and eventually settled in Canada, where he continued to play music. He passed away in 2002, after recording 17 albums; exterior of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center; wall of photographs of people who lost their lives on 9/11; girder from the WTC site; Eleven Tears, the American Express memorial by Ken Smith; guided tour of the WTC site; future World Trade Center Memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Staten Island Museum / Noble Maritime Collection

Soul of Sails, by John A. Noble
Sunday 8/15 and Monday 8/16 
Staten Island Museum …………………………. 0.5 hr
Noble Maritime Collection …………………….. 0.75 hr
Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens ......................  1 hr

Staten Island Museum …………………………. $2
Noble Maritime Collection ……………….……. $6
Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens ..................... Free

Paul’s favorite thing about our visit to Staten Island was its retro feel.  Unlike Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, Staten Island remains un-gentrified and has a rough around the edges “old-school” New York look, but without the crime rates of Queens or the Bronx.  Movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas have filmed on the island looking to capture the rough streets of New York in the 50’s and 60’s.  There are no skyscrapers here, no designer boutiques, and Staten Island’s version of haute cuisine is Enoteca Maria, a restaurant where a rotating roster of Italian grandmothers cook old world comfort food (sounds like a brilliant idea for a restaurant to us). 

Staten Island Museum
The Staten Island Museum is a good example of the island’s retro attitude.  Every borough of NYC has an eponymous museum.  In Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reins supreme with its massive 2 million piece collection that includes world famous holdings of old master paintings and ancient artifacts, such as an entire Egyptian temple rebuilt brick by brick in the museum courtyard.  The Brooklyn Museum comes in a close second with 1.5 million works, including a well-regarded modern art collection, a large Egyptian section and several complete houses built into its decorative arts section. 

Perhaps knowing that there is no beating these guys, the Staten Island Museum does its own thing.  It models itself as a “general interest” museum, with diverse exhibits on biology, geology, art, culture and history.  This is an old fashioned model for a museum, and the only one left of this type in NYC, but the Staten Island Museum pulls it off with style and ended up being fun, educational and kind of cool. 

Lenape carving
Part of the fun of this museum is that it focuses exclusively on its home borough, Staten Island.  Instead of temples from Egypt, the Staten Island Museum exhibits the stone carvings of the Lenape, the Paleo-Indians who lived on the island more than 10,000 years ago.  Instead of sculptures from Greece, the Staten Island Museum has a large taxidermy bird collection collected from the island.  Instead of paintings by Michelangelo, the Staten Island Museum exhibits Staten Island artists. 

Portrait of Otto Wigand, by Adeline Albright Wigand
While we were there, the museum had a large exhibit called "Beauty Rediscovered" on Staten Island painters Adeline Albright Wigand and Otto Charles Wigand, married artists from the late19th – early 20th century.  The two studied the classical painting in New York and Paris, but lived and worked on Staten Island from 1916 until their deaths in 1944.  The Wigands were well regarded in their day, but they did not embrace the modern art movements that took hold in their time and their notoriety faded.  The paintings in the exhibit were lovely and well executed, with colorful images of children, people and landscapes.  The couple often chose subjects they loved, such as their family, their home and each other, and the warmth showed in their art.  Both Paul and I enjoyed the look at these forgotten but lovely paintings.
Polly, by Adeline Albright Wigand

Butterfly from the Staten Island Museum
Fluroescent minerals from the Staten Island Museum
Our favorite section of the museum was the natural history room.  We had fun examining the jars of pickled amphibians and the large collection of taxidermy animals.  It brought back fond memories of school trips from our childhood.  My favorite section was the bug wall.  The museum has a half a million preserved insects, and we spent several minutes examining the multitudes in the beetle and butterfly cases.  Another great section was a collection of naturally fluorescent rocks.  It was childish fun to switch the lights off and watch the rocks glow.  Paul loved the microscopic mineral exhibit, complete with an actual microscope.  The minerals were collected by a single person, and Paul felt like he was sharing his secret miniature world.

Nobel Maritime Collection
As fun as the Staten Island Museum was, our favorite museum on Staten Island was the Noble Maritime Collection, within a large museum complex called the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.  Snug Harbor was once a retirement home for sailors.  After being abandoned and falling into neglect for years, this lovely collection of Greek Revival and Beaux Arts buildings was reclaimed by hardworking Staten Islanders and has been gradually remade into a community center and botanical gardens.  Much of the site is still being developed, but it's affiliated with the Smithsonian and has a lot of promise.

Neptune Fountain at Snug Harbor
Snug Harbor is a large complex, occupying 83 acres on the awesomely named Kill van Kull (the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey).  Several different types of gardens are scattered throughout the grounds.  Some are still being landscaped or are in the early planting stages, but several gardens are complete enough to make pleasant walks.  We enjoyed the Tuscan garden, the elaborate Chinese scholar's garden, with a quiet pond and shaped trees, and the recently planted “Garden of Healing” with fountains and a stream
Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor

Currently there are 3 museums in Snug Harbor: the Staten Island Children’s Museum, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art (closed today for an exhibit change), and the Noble Maritime Collection.  The Noble Collection is housed in a former hospital of Snug Harbor, and the museum preserves a few remnants of the building’s past, such as a small dormitory room and an old fashioned wheel chair.  The museum also has a small maritime section, taken up by an exhibit on tugboats, with lots of boat models and movies on how tugboats work.  However, the main focus of the museum is the work of artist John A. Noble (1913 - 1983)

Dying in the English Kills, by John A. Noble
Noble was born in Paris and grew up in a family of artists, but at a young age he became obsessed with the sea and started to work as a seaman in the New York harbor at the age of 15.  In 1928, while towing a schooner down the Kill van Kull, he caught sight of the old Port Johnston coal docks.  The sight changed his life.  At the time, the "Age of the Sail" was ending, and sailing vessels were being rapidly replaced by steam powered metal ships.  Port Johnston was the final resting place of the now obsolete wooden sailing vessels in the NY harbor, and was once one of the largest ship graveyards in the world

John A. Noble's houseboat studio
In 1941, Noble built a studio in the floating graveyard out of pieces salvaged from moldering ships and began to draw and paint the ships around him.  He eventually became successful enough to work full time as an artist, documenting the final chapter of the Age of the Sail.  The museum preserves his houseboat/studio and a replica of his parent’s studio in Paris, and exhibits a large number of his paintings in the long hallways of the former dormitory.  These are haunting, often romantic, remembrances of sailing, depicting not just the ships, but also the industries, people and viewpoints of the era

Ship's wheel at the Noble Maritime Collection
For Paul, the most impressive thing about the Noble Collection was an exhibit on the "Noble Crew," a small group of local volunteers who donated a million dollars worth of labor and materials to the restoration of the building, transforming it from an abandoned shell with collapsing walls and exposed wiring to an immaculate museum.  We have seen this huge outpouring of volunteer effort in other maritime museums around NYC, and it clearly demonstrates the connection and love New Yorkers have to their storied seafaring past.  Paul thinks that these labors of love are often more beautiful than the artwork in the museum.

Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens
In summary, the Staten Island Museum and the Noble Maritime Collection were our favorite museums on Staten Island.  The Staten Museum exclusively shows art and artifacts from Staten Island, doing what the borough museums were designed to do in the first place: celebrate their home borough.  It has the retro design of a general interest museum and manages to be both fun and educational.  The Noble Maritime Museum exhibits beautiful maritime paintings surrounded by the lovely Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens.

Ship lanterns at the Noble Maritime Collection
If you’re in Manhattan and want to see some great parts of Staten Island, these museums are easily accessible and make a fun day trip.  We recommend taking the free Staten Island Ferry from Battery Park.  The ferry leaves every half hour and is a well-known tourist favorite with an excellent view of the Statue of Liberty and the harbor.  Instead of getting back on the ferry with the rest of the crowds, walk a block to the Staten Island Museum.  After that, return to the ferry terminal and maybe pause for lunch at the excellent Gourmet Dog across the street from the terminal (try the Popeye Dog, with chicken sausage, spinach and mozzarella).  Then hop on the S40 bus from the ferry terminal to Snug Harbor.  It’s a short trip on the bus, and it drops you at the front gate of Snug Harbor.  Alternately, you can walk along the waterfront- its a scenic 40 minutes.  For dinner, return to the ferry terminal for a meal cooked by your favorite Italian grandmother at the fabulous Enoteca Maria, one block from the terminal.  On the return ferry trip, enjoy the site of the sun setting behind Manhattan, and the lights of the city sparkling in the harbor.

We were recently asked about our favorite restaurants on Staten Island, so we offer this list:

524 Port Richmond Ave
You won’t find goat cheese on Denino’s menu, and the décor consists largely of the residue of 50 years of cigarettes (now banned) and an old PacMan machine, but you will find fantastic old school New York pie, unchanged since Carlo Denino opened the place in 1951.  The place is a legend among the connoisseurs of New York pizza.  (Yes, there are such people.)

27 Hyatt St. (One block from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal)
This restaurant has no head chef and no set menu.  Instead, a rotating roster of Italian grandmothers make fabulous old world Italian comfort food in one of the more unique restaurants in NYC.  They also have an amazing wine list.

40 Richmond Ter. (Across the street from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal)
Excellent hot dogs adorned by any topping(s) you can picture on a hot dog, plus a few you can’t.  Also has great fries.

817 Castleton Ave
Extensive menu of delicious German fare and a great selection of German beers on tap.  Its not expensive, but go with a big appetite because portions are huge.  Full of friendly locals.

90-92 Taylor Street
It’s not technically a restaurant, but we had breakfast here. This is where we stayed on our visit to Staten Island and we found it to be an inexpensive bed and breakfast with immaculate, spacious rooms and a friendly proprietress, in a quiet but centrally located neighborhood.  We’d definitely recommend it for any stay in Staten Island.  This Bed and Breakfast is also popular with the budget conscious NYC tourist, as you can use the free ferry to visit Manhattan on a daily basis, but not pay Manhattan hotel and parking prices (which are highway robbery).

Moon and Venus, 5am, by Otto Charles Wigand
Images in this post, from the top: Soul of Sails, by John A. Noble 1968, oil on canvas; entrance to the Staten Island Museum; stone head found in Concord, Staten Island in 1884; Portrait of Otto Wigand, by Adeline Albright Wigand 1895, oil on board; Polly, by Adeline Albright Wigand, 1915-1920, oil on board; examples from the insect and fluorescent mineral collections at the Staten Island Museum; Neptune Fountain, a replica of an 1892 fountain made by John W. Fiske Iron Works, recast in 1994 by the Modern Art Foundry in Queens; Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor; Dying in the English Kills, by John A. Noble 1965, oil on canvas; John A. Noble's houseboat studio; ship's wheel at the Noble Maritime Collection; the Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens; Moon and Venus, 5am, by Otto Charles Wigand 1930, oil on canvas.