DareDevil Museum of Tattoo History

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 28 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The story of Millie Hull from the Bowery. Family Circle magazine profiled her in December 1936 as New York’s “only lady tattoo artist.”

She explained her choice of profession by saying she found tattooing “more interesting than embroidery.”

At this point, it is rare that a museum sneaks up on me. I believe (well, I hope) my database is complete, though of course museums are always opening–and sometimes closing–in this town. However the other day as I was wandering along the blurry borders between the Lower East Side and Chinatown on the way to the Museum at Eldridge Street, I stumbled on the DareDevil Tattoo Parlor — AND Tattoo Museum.

DareDevil Tattoo Museum

Continue reading “DareDevil Museum of Tattoo History”

Museum at Eldridge Street

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 50 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Kiki Smith’s contemporary stained glass replacement for the museum’s original enormous rose window is extraordinarily beautiful. More about it in the review below.

Museum at Eldridge Street

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the various Jewish communities of the Lower East Side were coming into their own. Immigrants were doing what they do in the Land of Opportunity, pulling themselves up from abject poverty, starting businesses, and finding degrees of prosperity. A group of successful Orthodox Jews decided to build a house of worship that reflected their heritage as well as their new lives in the United States. That was the genesis of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which opened in 1887.

Museum at Eldridge Street

Decline, and Rebirth

Fast forward to the early-mid 1900s.  As happens so often in New York, families moved to new neighborhoods, up and out of the Lower East Side. Eventually, the congregation dwindled and those who remained couldn’t maintain a huge, fancy house of prayer. So they shut it down, meeting in the basement. (A small congregation still meets here to this day). Sealed up, the space declined, and not genteelly. Glass broke, brass tarnished, and pigeons nested and pooped all over the place. Continue reading “Museum at Eldridge Street”

Museum of Chinese in America

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 99 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Mr. Spock was the first biracial person on American TV.  I’m not 100% sure that’s true but it was mentioned in a brief section on “hapa” (bi- or multi-racial) identity.  As Spock himself might say, “fascinating.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA for short).  I knew the space would be great — it was designed by Maya Lin.  But having recently been a bit disappointed by El Museo del Barrio, I had some concerns about how they’d program it.

MOCA is indeed a beautifully designed museum.  The space is consists of a series of rooms that surround a central open atrium, which extends from a skylight down to the classrooms, office, and restrooms on the basement level.  Scarred bare brick underscores the age of the building, and its more industrial heritage.  And windows carved into the rooms around the atrium ensure there’s always some natural light filtering in.  The windows aren’t just openings, though: videos projected onto them make them serve a very clever dual purpose — the videos are also visible, of course, from the atrium side of the glass as well.

The educational program succeeds as well as the building does.  MOCA does exactly what you’d expect:  tells the story of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States. The show is largely chronological, starting with Chinese immigration to build the railroads and the subsequent racist reactions to Chinese immigration in the 19th century, which led to laws that essentially prevented most Chinese immigration, as well as constraining the kinds of work Chinese immigrants could do.

America, the imperfect
Try-it-yourself 8-pound iron; laundry work was called the “8-pound livelihood.”

It explores work that was available, explaining the rise of the Chinese laundry, and the role of Chinese restaurants.

There’s a segment on Chinese portrayals in popular culture, some of which are hilarious and some of which are really painful.  And also a look at the communities Chinese Americans built for themselves, including New Years celebrations, Chinese opera in America, and a great, immersive, reconstructed traditional storefront.

“Better dead than wed” –even a racist poster can sometimes tell the truth.

Along the way there’s a timeline compiling key events in US, Chinese, and Chinese-American history.  And in several rooms, one wall features glowing rectangular boxes that create a hall of fame for Chinese Americans from Ah Bing (who created the Bing cherry in 1875…who knew?) through Michelle Kwan.

Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, 1871, with Liberty defending a Chinese immigrant. It’s reassuring that Americans weren’t ALL horrible.

The museumology here is terrific.  The amount of information packed in is a little overwhelming, but important and well chosen.  Audio clips as well as video helped balance out the wall texts.

In addition to the main space, there are two areas for temporary exhibitions.  They currently feature an awesome look at Chinese food in the US, featuring about 33 chefs.  Wall projections show video interviews where they speak about their lives and work and their take on “authenticity.”  The museum set up one room like a banquet, with place settings for each chef that includes a short bio.  This is a missed opportunity in our photogenic food-obsessed instagram age: there should be pictures of each chef’s signature dish at their setting.  Still it’s a fun show, including a collection of personally meaningful objects:  cleavers, cutting boards, menus, and such.  Martin Yan’s wok is there, and Danny Bowien’s favorite spoon.

Should you visit the Museum of Chinese in America?  This place succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do.  The building is beautiful. It features a tough, important slice of the American immigrant experience, and a story worth telling.  It is also a particularly timely story as the American government in early 2017 once again seems to be intent on closing the door to immigrants based on who they are and where they come from.  Definitely pay a visit.

For Reference:

Address 215 Centre Street, Manhattan
Website mocanyc.org
Cost General Admission:  $10.  Free membership for IDNYC holders
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