The tantalizing glimpse into the gold vault. I’m not awed by wealth, generally, but there’s wealth and there’s WEALTH.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York occupies a huge (full city block) beautiful Italian palazzo of a building constructed for it in 1924. Its classical grandeur meant to evoke the stability of many centuries of tradition. Solid and rich, like a Medici. Which was important, because the Fed was then still a fairly young institution created to stabilize the financial system and steer the economy in the right direction.
Security at the New York Fed exceeds even that of the United Nations. And frankly, in terms of relative institutional importance, that might be appropriate.
However, mere mortals can in fact visit. Limited free tours introduce visitors to the history and role of the Federal Reserve System, explain what the New York Fed does in particular, and, best of all, permit them to ogle one of the largest accumulations of gold in the world. Continue reading “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum”
A special exhibition of New Yorker covers that featured the Twin Towers both before and after Sept. 11. My favorite of all is probably this one from 2003, showing New York’s iconic buildings twinned.
Particularly timely exhibition now that Condé Nast’s headquarters are in One World Trade Center.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum bills itself as a single, unified whole. And indeed, the museum is integrally part of the plaza, a cavernous underground space that extends all around– and under– the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. However, for my purposes I’m thinking about them separately.
The September 11 Memorial, with its somber square fountains and all the names, is one thing: well worth a visit even as the Trade Center has gone from being a giant hole in the ground to being a thriving center for commerce and commuting once again.
The September 11 Museum I don’t recommend so heartily.
A tiny origami crane folded in 1955 by a girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was fighting leukemia due to the bombing of Hiroshima.
Sadako’s brother gave the crane to the families of 9/11 victims in 2007. And the museum points out that several 9/11 charitable foundations helped in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Ripples of compassion.
The 9/11 Tribute Museum occupies the second floor of a nondescript office building just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center complex. While its role is now overshadowed by the massive memorial and museum to the north, it manages to differentiate itself, offering a distinct voice in commemorating the worst day in New York’s history (so far).
A project of the families of victims of September 11, this museum opened in 2006 as the effort to create the official memorial dragged on. What could easily be a place of mourning and despair instead chose to focus on kindess, compassion, and resilience. Continue reading “9/11 Tribute Museum”
During World War II, Disney created character-driven U.S. war bonds to encourage the kiddies to contribute to the effort to “make life free and forever peaceful for all men.”
I give the curators of the Museum of American Finance credit for chutzpah, anyway. In this day and age, a museum that lionizes financiers and the financial system seems tantamount to, I don’t know, a museum of baby harp seal clubbers.
That said, if you’re going to have a museum (or, as they style it, a MU$EUM) of American finance, there can be no better place for it than Wall Street. And no better place on Wall Street than in the Bank of New York’s former Grand Mezzanine.
The 1927 Bank of New York Building, at Wall and William Streets, is the third on the site. The original Bank of New York in that spot dates to 1796, about a decade after Alexander Hamilton and a coterie of America’s other financial founding fathers started it.
The Museum of American Finance was founded by a banker named John Herzog in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash. Herzog started his “museum project” (touché!) to create an institution to explain how the financial system worked. He reckoned that although Wall Street is synonymous with finance, most folks don’t really know what goes on there outside of movies. Continue reading “Museum of American Finance”
Marc Andre Robinson creates graceful, biological forms out of pieces of cast-off furniture, adapting curves that once graced chair and table legs to more organic purpose. “Flight” looks like a giant jellyfish or cephalopod, drifting through the air on some errand of great importance.
Before I started this project, I never realized how many of New York’s city-run and community colleges have a space for art somewhere on their campuses. Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) adds another to that list. BMCC has had its campus in Lower Manhattan since 1983. Fiterman Hall, the college’s flagship building, was severely damaged on September 11, and needed to be entirely rebuilt.
I can only imagine the challenges of fundraising and working through layers of both academic and civic bureaucracy that entailed. However, the college finally prevailed and rebuilt Fiterman Hall, with the new building opening in 2012. Designed by Pei, Cobb, and Partners, the new Fiterman Hall includes the Shirley Fiterman Art Center, a smallish gallery space. Continue reading “Shirley Fiterman Art Center, Brooklyn Manhattan Community College”
The 1883 commemorative china for the Sons of the Revolution’s Turtle Soup Feast marking the 100th anniversary of Washington’s farewell to his officers. Cute turtle.
Fraunces Tavern started out as a private home in 1719, then opened for business as a drinking establishment in the 1760s. It served as the venue for two important events:
The governor of New York, George Clinton, held a public dinner there to celebrate the withdrawal of the British from New York (and the rest of the colonies), an event known as Evacuation Day. Evacuation Day (25 November) used to be a major New York holiday, though it’s mostly forgotten now, except by the Sons of the Revolution (about whom more anon).
After the war, General Washington gathered some of his staff in one of the private dining rooms to retire and say farewell to them. This was before the U.S. was the U.S., before the Constitution and before the country decided it needed a president (and what a fine idea that has turned out to be), and so before Washington knew he’d have another major role to play for his country.
Seeing an original architectural scale model of the World Trade Center drives home just how huge and boxy those buildings were. I think it’s because today’s supertall skyscrapers are so super skinny, but also I guess I’m slowly forgetting what they looked like on the skyline.
The United States has contributed two distinctively native art forms to the world: jazz and skyscrapers. Both have become global, and both arguably reached their peak in the mid-twentieth century and have gently declined ever since. And both have museums in New York.
The small, scrappy Skyscraper Museum is located in ground floor space in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Its host building is only 38 stories tall, so not especially impressive by New York skyscraper standards. However, it does have a prominent location when viewing Manhattan from the harbor. Continue reading “Skyscraper Museum”
The Museum has a lovely, quiet, outdoor space called “Garden of Stones,” created by nature artist Andy Goldsworthy. 18 dwarf oak trees growing out of holes in hollowed out boulders, with New York Harbor as the backdrop. It was a deeply welcome spot to spend a few minutes reflecting.
“It can’t happen here.”
It’s the refrain of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
You see it in quotes on the walls and on screens, time and again, from both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. As the Nazis were coming to power, as rights were being stripped away, as things got worse and worse.
Of course, in retrospect no one really even knew what “it” was, until it was too late. They just clung to the certainty, then the belief, then the hope, that it wouldn’t happen. Because it couldn’t.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage, aka New York’s Holocaust Museum, occupies a lovely plot of land in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, right on the Hudson. Shaped like a ziggurat with a low, rectangular addition, the museum opened in 1997, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.
Its architecture is incredibly carefully thought out. The Core Exhibit spans three hexagonal floors. You move around the perimeter of each floor, then step on a surprisingly shiny escalator to go up to the next one, moving forward in time as you ascend.
The ground floor serves as the prologue, covering Jewish life in Europe in the early 20th century. It touches on topics like holidays, weddings, synagogues, education, and trades, with carefully chosen artifacts showing illustrating those themes. It wraps with four key political strands weaving through Judaism then: socialism, Zionism, liberalism, and orthodoxy.
Then its on to the escalator to Hitler. Worst. Escalator. Ever. The second floor proceeds chronologically, event by event, down a counter-clockwise path toward unspeakable suffering and horror. Small galleries look at (among other things):
The rise of Hitler and Nazi populism.
The story of the St. Louis, an ocean liner full of 900 Jewish refugees that got all the way to Cuba in 1939 only to be turned back to Europe.
Non-Jewish people, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who helped rescue Jews.
How the Nazis covered up the Holocaust as they were perpetrating it.
There’s actually less here than I was expecting. Maybe because there’s too much. You can get overwhelmed by scale, lose the trees for the forest. This place is exquisitely careful to make sure you are always aware of the individuals. Every thing, item, photograph is documented to a specific person if they can, with a picture of the individual if they possibly can. Even when it introduces the six main death camps the Nazis used, each comes with a photograph of one person, one actual human being, who was murdered there, who stands for all the rest.
The one part that pushes on scale is a small area with rough wooden walls and flat columns holding photographs of about 2,000 people. Each column has a small booklet, so you can read the names and stories of each of those 2,000 people. It’s not a very big space. The columns go up pretty high. All of them were from France, and all died at Auschwitz.
The museum doesn’t bother to observe that to commemorate everyone, all the Jews who were murdered, you’d need 3,000 such spaces. But I thought about that. It does remind you, piercingly, that “They had homes and lives. They had families and friends. They had names.”
The chronology continues, inexorably, through the Nazis’ last-ditch efforts, the liberation of the death camps, and efforts to rescue people and send them home. And somehow live with what happened. And remember.
You ascend once more, another shiny escalator to the post-Holocaust world. Here the story is very much focused on the rise of Israel and the United States as the centers of postwar Jewish culture, and what that culture consists of today, in terms of religious life, the arts, society.
And then, the architects of this place accomplish one of the great feats of New York museum design. I’m not going to give it away. But I got through the core exhibit, walked through the exit doors, and literally had my breath taken away.
In addition to the Core Exhibit, the Museum of Jewish Heritage currently has a small show called “My Name Is…” of photos of rescued kids who got sent to a variety of centers, with capsule summaries of their stories. This I think was a slight misstep — where the core exhibit works very carefully to go deep and focused, this was a little too broad, with whole lives boiled down to a couple of paragraphs. I think fewer photos with longer stories, and even current pictures of any of the kids who are still alive today, would be better.
And then I saw “Operation Finale,” a newly opened special exhibition on how the Mossad tracked down and kidnapped Adolph Eichmann, spiriting him from Argentina back to Israel for trial and eventual execution in the 1960s.
This was shockingly entertaining in a place I don’t think of as endeavoring to entertain. A real-life spy story. I’m not 100% sanguine about a country abducting someone in another country, even if that someone was a horrible someone. But better that than simply assassinating him. The recreation of his trial, using several different video projections running in sync, combined with the bulletproof booth Eichmann sat in, worked particularly well.
In terms of amenities, the Museum of Jewish Heritage has a cafe, although, honestly, what it should have is a shot bar or something. I know I really wanted a drink coming out of the exhibit. It also has the requisite gift shop–if you find yourself needing a mezuzah, their selection is top notch. The museum also boasts a nice, modern auditorium. I’d attended conferences in that space long before I actually went to see the museum itself.
A Little Museum-ology
From a museological perspective, I have a few observations.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage just turned 20 years old, and parts of it need a refit. Some of their video screens have burn-in problems, and others are probably nearing the end of their life expectancy. Some of the photos on display, too, looked like they may not be aging well. I know they’re meant to be old, but still, I think they may require swapping out for fresher prints.
The section on non-Jews who helped — whom Yad Vashem in Isreal recognizes as the “Righteous Among The Nations” needs an update to reflect inductees since this museum opened. That’s a sign that probably other things could use an update, too, since the world has 20 years more Holocaust scholarship on which to draw.
There’s nothing interactive in the Core Exhibit at all. That is certainly for the best. Just brainstorming possibilities in my own mind borderline offends me. So I hope it stays that way.
Video, on the other hand, is critical. There are video screens throughout, and you are never far from someone talking, telling what they saw, what they experienced, relevant to the section or the theme. It’s vital to the museum’s mission of never letting visitors lose sight of real, individual, people.
Never Say Never
I rechecked my time-spent calculations for this visit several times. I still can’t understand how I spent three hours at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It didn’t feel like it. However, at the same time it was exhausting.
I was talking with a friend about this place just a few days ago and she said “I really, really don’t ever want to go there. Does that make me a bad Jew?” When New York is blessed with museums of so many other, happier things, like maritime industry and Louis Armstrong and lighthouses, mathematics and art and more art, I can’t blame anyone for preferring any other topic to the Holocaust.
But it’s important. It is museum as vaccination. Because it’s all too easy for all of us, everywhere, at all times, to fall into the trap of “It can’t happen here.” It’s good, no, vital, to be reminded that absent vigilance and speaking and acting our consciences, yes, it can.
If you haven’t been to a Holocaust memorial or museum in the past 3 years, you are due for a booster. Go.
McKim Mead and White’s Castle Garden Aquarium looks spectacular, all heavy romanesque arches and wrought iron barriers to keep the penguins and what-not in. In my dreams of alternative New Yorks where lost architecture survives, I wonder what that building would be today.
Named for New York mayor DeWitt Clinton, Castle Clinton dates to 1811. It was an important fortification built on an island just off of Manhattan. It wasn’t the first defensive installation built to protect Lower Manhattan, and has nothing to do with the older fort that guarded Niew Amsterdam back in the day, which is long gone.
However, the fort was part of the network of five state of the art harbor defenses built in the youth of the United States. Although never used in war, merely by existing Castle Clinton and its fellow fortifications around the city helped deter British attacks on New York during the War of 1812. So that’s good. They sacked D.C. instead. Continue reading “Castle Clinton National Monument”
Inexplicably, the jade burial suit included round bits just where the nipples should go. Mysterious, as there were no jade abs or jade belly button. Still, it created a link across times and cultures from Han Dynasty China to Ancient Greece and Rome to the awful Val Kilmer Batman movies.
The China Institute occupies second floor space in a fairly anonymous office building in the Financial District. It appears they will soon move to much more prominent ground-floor space, which should help drive awareness and attract visitors.
The Institute broadly recently turned 90 years old. Like the Japan Society and the Korean Cultural Center, it serves multiple purposes: hosting talks and language classes and, since 1966, a gallery as well. Unfortunately, the China Institute frowns on photography, so this will be a relatively un-visual review.
The gallery is reasonably sized, windowless, and neutral. The current exhibition divides into four themes or sub-topics, and to match that the curators divided the space into four rooms, using modular internal walls. It worked well.
Have a Good Afterlife
The space, then, is fine, and right now they’ve filled it with treasures. “Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou” displays examples of the funerary goods buried with a prominent Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) ruler. It includes terra cotta figures selected from the army-in-miniature they buried kings with. While not as impressive as the life sized ones from Xi’an, these were much more portable. It also featured various other terra cotta servants, including a beautiful dancer, all long sleeves and sinuous curves. And finally, various beautiful and luxurious objects made of jade, bronze, and gold, all complementing the showstopper at the exhibition’s heart.
That would be the jade suit. Literally, a head-to-toe burial costume comprised of 4,248 little jade tiles with tiny holes pierced in the corners allowing each piece to be tied to the next with gold thread. According to contemporary beliefs, burying the nobility with appropriate jade accoutrements–handgrips, plugs for the nine orifices, and the full suit–helped ensure the preservation of the body (and therefore the soul) forever.
I felt just a little bit suspicious about the state of preservation of the jade that makes up the suit. Other jade pieces in the show look…older. They definitely restored it significantly, but the exhibition doesn’t specify just how much. I’m no archaeologist and I’m not reviewing the suit, so I’ll not say more on that subject.
On the other hand, the well-written labels and wall texts explained things well and thoroughly. They even sneaked a pun into one of the section titles, “Rapt in Jade.” I doubt that works in Mandarin, but in English it made me smile.
Where else in New York can you take a tour through the tomb treasures of a 2,000 year old Han Dynasty ruler? Actually, by coincidence, one place: you can see very similar, but even more extravagant, artifacts at The Met’s “Age of Empires” show. But outside The Met, you’d have to go to China.
Under the Radar no More
The China Institute has flown under my radar in the past. I won’t let that happen going forward. Their ability to borrow the Han tomb artifacts from the Xuzhou Museum bespeaks strong connections with cultural institutions and government leaders. I’d compare it to the Onassis Center in terms of ambitions and capabilities.
Who should visit? The Met’s China galleries will always offer a better overview for those seeking the full sweep of Chinese art history. But sometimes you want something smaller and more focused, or you don’t have a whole day to spend on art overload. For sure anyone with an interest in Asian art should definitely go, and keep an eye on their calendar, too.
When it comes to prepping for the afterlife, I’m not convinced about having jade plugs stuffed in my nine orifices and being dressed in a jade suit. Judging from history, it seems like an invitation to grave robbers to mess you up. Three orifices plus some terra cotta dancers to keep me company would be plenty, thanks. I’ll share more on my preferred funerary practices when I get around to visiting Green-Wood and Woodlawn.
100 Washington Street, Manhattan (entrance at 40 Rector)