Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 64 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Wax classic movie monsters, most particularly Wax Béla Lugosi as Dracula. Now that’s what a wax museum should be all about!

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Béla Lugosi’s Dead…

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareMadame Tussaud’s Wax Museum offers visitors to its Times Square location a thoughtful meditation on the transience of celebrity — and its sometimes hefty toll — in the contemporary media maelstrom.

OK.  It doesn’t do that.  Not quite.  Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected, either.

Fake Everything

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Fake Everything!

Early in my visit to Madame Tussaud’s I decided to start counting the fake things surrounding me.  Fake brick walls.  Fake wooden floors.  I thought the elevator might be fake for a while, but it turned out it was just very slow.  Fake marble in the elevator, though.  Fake champagne at the several bars throughout the exhibits. Ersatz…I don’t even know what the first room I got to is supposed to be.  Roman piazza?  Maybe.  With fake lemon tree under fake candles in front of a fake window with fake cherubs.

It reminded me of Las Vegas.

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareThe first room, the Ersatz Piazza Room, contained fifteen waxwork figures.  Alphabetically:  Diddy, Anne Hathaway, Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian, Alicia Keyes, Adriana Lima, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Robert Pattinson, RuPaul, Susan Sarandon, Sir Patrick Stewart, Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood, and Sofia Vergara.

A bit random but pretty much what I expected.  Something for everyone in terms of famous people today. But from early in my visit things went in other directions.

The Attic of Fame

Less expected, to me at least, were the very first pair of figures, even before the elevator ride.  I’m puzzled as to why Wax Duke Ellington and Wax Billie Holiday should be called out as visitors’ introduction to the world of wax-based fame.  But I’ll take it.  Maybe the Jazz Museum in Harlem could commission copies to improve its exhibits.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Wax Ellington and Holiday

After the first figures, there’s a hall of classic movie characters (Wax Dracula, Dorothy, Indiana Jones…) and then oddly some cultural greats.  I can totally get behind Wax Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Wax-gerald, and Wax Picasso and Hemingway sitting at a table looking grumpy.  One scientist (Einstein), one adventurer (Earhart).

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Wax Jazz Age Literary Greats (Wax Einstein in the background)

Dead Presidents (and Living Ones Too)

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareThen there’s the hall of leaders, including members of the British Royal Family, pontiffs and presidents and princesses, Reagan and revolutionaries.  Wax Golda Meir, looking realer than the friendly fiberglass version of her at the Bernard Museum. Wax George Washington, who looked really weird to me, and Wax Lincoln, instantly recognizable, bookended the room.  Note to Madame Tussaud’s:  where is Al-wax-ander Hamilton?

And the fake current president, standing behind a fake of his desk, with a red phone and a big red button.  The president, uniquely in the room of leaders, was behind velvet ropes.  I wondered if that was to deter protesters, but in fact it was a photo op:  get your picture taken sitting behind the desk, pushing the button.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square

From there visitors descend through a couple of floors of special exhibits, tied to semi-recent movies and that feature optional rides and “experiences” that cost extra.  Then you come to the waxwork sports heroes.  For those keeping score, there are 4 Wax Yankees, and only 1 Met, Wax David Wright.  An odd Project Runway set, with Wax Heidi Klum and Wax Anna Wintour.  The Hall of Popular Music. And a couple of gift shops and additional places to buy a drink.

Oh, and you can get your own hand cast in wax, too.

Popular Culture Outpaces Wax Figures

The three special exhibits at Madame Tussauds when I visited tied in to “The Avengers,” “Kong:  Skull Island,” which came out almost a year ago, and last summer’s “Ghostbusters” movie.  The pace at which pop culture moves these days makes those seem absolutely ancient — and their long-term culture value is up for debate.

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareThat said, the Ghostbusters exhibit was amusing, and featured some rather cool projections and video displays in addition to the expected wax busters.  You pass through a sort of haunted house set-up that purports to be the “Historic Aldridge Mansion Museum:  New York [sic] Oldest Private Home and Museum.”

I do love a museum within a museum.  I could write a whole essay about the furniture (haunted rocking chairs), the books (real, surprisingly) and the Bill Viola-esque animated portraits of the old Aldridge Mansion.  But it sorely lacked the charms of the Wyckoff House Museum, the REAL oldest house in New York.

A Minor Bollywood Mystery

A small number of Indian movie stars in the midst of the Hollywood section puzzled me.  They were the only non-Western celebrities present. Even more puzzling, their wall texts were in Chinese first, then English (and they were the only texts with Chinese at all).  I speculate that Bollywood is big in China these days? Or else Madame Tussaud’s caption writers mixed up their Mandarin and Hindi character sets.  No complaints about Wax Aishwarya Rai, though.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Wax Bruce Willis, Wax The Rock, and um, Wax Hrithik Roshan?

A Meditation on the Transience of Fame

I can’t understand why this place even bothers with people like Lugosi and Karloff, or Dorothy Parker, John Wayne, Salvador Dali or Helen Keller.  How do you even choose out of the vast pantheon of famous people?  

In that it reminded me, of all unlikely things, of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx.  Though Madame Tussaud’s has a much easier time updating with the times, both places say something about People Who Matter.

How do we remember people, and whom do we remember?  As individuals, but also as a culture?  Do you merit a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s?  Does Madame Tussaud’s melt you down once people forget who you are or were?

My favorite figures weren’t the ones in their appointed areas, but the ones in more liminal spaces. You see odd progressions and juxtapositions.  The Spice Girls in one gift shop, and Wax Robin Williams in another.  And Jimi Hendix just literally one step removed from storage.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Hasta la vista, Jimi…

The Good and the Bad

Madame Tussaud’s knows its trade. It wouldn’t have a global empire (24 locations worldwide, even more than the Guggenheim!) if it wasn’t giving visitors something they liked.  I had far more fun than I thought I would.  In my first attempt to select photos to illustrate this post I ended up with something like 40, most of which were of Wax Tom Hiddleston, for some reason.  I dunno, guy looks good in wax.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square

In the good column:

  • This place makes great use of music and sound design. It helps set the scene.
  • I liked the wall texts.  They were definitive and unpretentious, if oversimplistic.
  • Good callouts to social media on all the wall texts as well.
  • Clever sponsored opportunities, for example B&H Photo sponsors “photo spots” throughout.  I like that far more than every single gallery at the Met having some rich donor’s name slapped on it.
  • Fun facts about the process of making a waxwork.
  • A brief, amusing video that offers just a taste of who Madame Tussaud was and the long history of this establishment.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square

On the negative side, Madame Tussaud’s is the perfect exemplar of what I fear museums become when they go off the deep end of Instagram.  It’s all surface and appearance; any text descriptions are superfluous. There’s little rhyme or reason, just photo ops.

I would’ve loved more narrative.  More about how they actually make wax figures — videos and figures-in-progress.  I’m curious about the “uncanny valley” aspect of these things.  Some look really convincing to me, and some just look weird.  Is that the same for everyone, or do different people find different ones weird-looking?  Who are the artists and artisans who make these things?  Can a Tussaud’s employee look at a figure and go “Oh yeah, that’s totally one of John’s.”

And, I really would like more of a meditation on celebrity and curation.  How do they choose?  What does fame, too much fame, even do to a person?  Why do some people seem to handle celebrity and others, well, don’t?

Madame Tussaud's Times Square

Bottom Line

I realize this place is an attraction not really a “museum,” and I’ve taken it far too seriously.  Still, it’s got the name. And the history — Marie Tussaud started exhibiting wax figures in London in 1802, so from a certain perspective, this is the oldest museum in New York City. Take that, New-York Historical Society!

As an attraction, absolutely go to Madame Tussaud’s.  If you like famous people, you’ll have fun.  As a museum, though, fun alone isn’t enough for me to recommend a place, and there are a plethora of far more inspirational, edifying, and cheaper institutions in New York City.

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Gratuitous Wax Katniss Everdeen

For Reference:

Address 234 West 42nd Street, Times Square, Manhattan
Cost General Admission:  $34 walkup ($29 purchased online in advance; $27.50 for Tri-State residents)
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