Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New York Transit Museum

Empire Express by Raúl Colón 2001
8/7/2010, Saturday
TIME: 1 hr
COST: $5 each

At most museums, exhibits are behind velvet ropes or glass, out of reach, untouchable and completely off limits.  I remember visiting museums as a kid and being told, “put your hands in your pockets and keep them there.”  The hands-off attitude can make museums feel stifling, and sometimes even adults want to experience something with more than one of our five senses.  However, today we found a museum where visitors are welcome to touch everything, and exhibits are meant to be pushed, poked, sat on and messed with.  This is great for kids of course, but surprisingly today’s museum is not a kid’s museum.  It’s the New York Transit Museum.

The New York Transit Museum is run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the public corporation with the monumental task of coordinating most public transit in and around New York City, including tunnels, bridges, buses, commuter railways and subways.  Considered the largest transportation provider in the Western hemisphere, the MTA has a ridership of 12 million people per day.  It seems inevitable that an operation this enormous would sprout a museum.  As is fitting for a museum run by the same operation as the subway, the New York Transit Museum is a bit worn in spots and could use a good cleaning, but it delivers a good product for a low price, and does it with a certain gritty New York panache. 

Entrance to New York Transit Museum
Right from the beginning you can tell that this is not your average museum.  The Transit Museum is located within a decommissioned subway station in Brooklyn Heights, and is thus entirely below ground.  The museum kept the traditional no frills entrance of a NY subway station, and two long flights of stairs lead down below the sidewalk into a tiled room with turnstiles, metal bars and an old token booth.  (One word of warning: at the moment, the stairs are the only entrance and this museum is not wheelchair accessible.  It looks like a difficult climb for strollers as well.) 

There are several levels to the old station, packed to the gills with exhibits that examine public transportation from all angles: historical, mechanical, nostalgic, and even artistic.  Much of the top level is taken up by a mock tunnel containing the exhibit “Steel, Stone, and Backbone,” with stories and fun facts on the building of New York City's 100 year-old subway system.  The tunnel is framed with burlap and rough wood beams, with wheelbarrows full of rocks to lift, so you can heft what early tunnelers were carrying.  The exhibit is full of pictures, films and stories of the people who built the old tunnels during the early 1900’s, detailing the backbreaking, dangerous work, particularly in the tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers.   

This floor also has a fun section on turnstiles and fare collection with a large collection of historic turnstiles that you can actually push through.  This was one of our favorite sections of the museum and Paul and I jumped through the turnstiles with gusto, comparing the action of early turnstiles with modern ones.  The opposing wall has a display on the 50-year history of the NY subway token, displaying every token type ever used and why, with cool sidebars on “slugs” and other ways people beat the fare before the current electronic cards.

The next floor down focuses on surface transportation, with the exhibit “On the Streets: New York's Trolleys and Buses.”  This floor houses actual buses and a horse drawn trolley (sans horse), plus a recreation of an intersection with “Don’t Walk” signs, fire hydrants and parking meters.  Much of this floor was set up for children, and there were several having a good time driving and refueling the buses, but there were also exhibits for adults.  We marveled over the insanely detailed models of every trolley that ever ran in Brooklyn (over 50 models) built by Dr. George T.F. Rahilly, and enjoyed the story of Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1830 – 1901), an African-American schoolteacher who won a landmark legal decision determining that people of color could ride any public conveyance on New York City's streets, 100 years before Rosa Parks. 
Dr. George T.F. Rahilly Trolley and Bus Study Center

Catch a Ride, by Greg Ruth, 2010
One thing we veteran museum goers did not expect in a transit museum was art but, shockingly, this museum has an extensive art exhibit detailing the “Arts for Transit” program.  As part of a massive rehabilitation project launched in the 1980’s, the MTA installed over 215 pieces of art in subway and commuter rail stations, with another 70 in production.  The program sponsors many different kinds of art and artists, including a poster series, photography exhibits (called The Lightbox Project), Music Under New York, and tile mosaics worked into the subway walls themselves.  In celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary, the Transit Museum hosted several walls of posters and pictures of these colorful, often whimsical pieces of art, designed to amuse and inspire the NY commuter. (We wish the artists luck in this seemingly impossible endeavor.)  Paul loved this part of the museum, pointing out that not only did New York City build one of the worlds largest and most traveled subways, but it took the time and effort to make it beautiful, which says a lot about this city.
Urban Oasis, by Ann Schaumburger, 1997

The lowest floor of the museum is the “platform level” of the old station.  Nineteen antique subway cars line up on either side of the platform, including the first subway car ever built for NYC (called the R1), with wicker seats, hanging lamps and brass fixtures.  (Can you imagine how long that would last on a modern subway?)  All cars are open for exploration, and many have period advertising.  We particularly liked the very 50’s R11 train, with green interior, stainless steel trim and circular windows.  Stepping through the shiny doors and grabbing the white leather ceiling strap felt like a trip back in time. 
Historic subway cars, from the exhibit "Moving the Millions." The R1 car is on the far left.

For an even better time travel experience (pun intended), the museum runs “Nostalgia Tours” a few times a year, taking its antique fleet of subway cars out for spins to popular spots.  Occasionally, the museum also gives tours of decommissioned subway stations like the old Brooklyn City Hall Station.  This posh 1904 subway station has chandeliers, leaded skylights and a vaulted Guastavino ceiling, but has been closed since 1945.

Brooklyn City Hall Station, built in 1904
In summary, the NY Transit Museum was larger, more varied and more exciting than we ever imagined a transit museum could be, and we both strongly recommend it.  This museum is popular with kids, particularly the bus and trolley section, but even adults will have a good time pushing century old turnstiles and sitting in (sometimes riding in) subway cars from nearly every decade of the 19th century.  We loved being able to physically interact with pieces of our history and it was great to marvel over 100 year old engineering projects that still look impossible today.
Times Square Mural, by Roy Lichtenstein, 1994

Endurance, by Bascove 2007
Images in this post, from the top: Empire Express, by Raúl Colón, mixed-media on paper, 2001.  Poster text: "Raul Colon's mixed-media fantasy celebrates two New York City Icons: The Empire State Building's art deco pinnacle ringed by subways. MTA's network keeps New York City at the top of the world of commerce;"  New York City subway token, used from 1970-1980;  Entrance to the New York Transit Museum, in the old Court Street subway station;  Archival image of the building of subway tunnels, from the exhibit "Steel, Stone and Backbone;"  Historic turnstiles;  Street car in the exhibit "On the Streets: New York's Trolleys and Busses;" Dr. George T.F. Rahilly Trolley and Bus Study Center, featuring over 50 models of trolleys and work cars created by Dr. Rahilly, a trolley enthusiast;  Catch a Ride, by Greg Ruth, 2010.  Poster text: "In Greg Ruth's fantastical view of Midtown Manhattan, jumping rainbow fish have joined the MTA bus fleet, traveling upstream with the flow of traffic. But a commuting angler has snared the catch of the day -- the Fifth Avenue local bus;"  Part of Urban Oasis, by Ann Schaumburger, 1997.  A menagerie of animals and birds from the Central Park Zoo, rendered in glass mosaic, can be seen throughout the subway station;  Three antique subway cars from the exhibit "Moving the Millions; New York City's Subways from its Origins to the Present;"  The Brooklyn City Hall subway station, built in 1904, closed in 1945; Time Square Mural, by Roy Lichtenstein, 1994, porcelain enamel on steel.  This mural is 6 feet wide by 53 feet long and was given as a gift to the city by the well known artist Roy Lichtenstein, a native New Yorker.  The mural hangs at the main entrance of the Times Square subway station;  Endurance, by Bascove, oil pastel on D'Arches watercolor paper, 2007.  Poster text: "The Robert F. Kennedy Bridge links Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. Bascove's painting uses vibrant colors in sinuous curves to capture the dynamic power in the bridge's massive structure."