Paley Center Museum

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 53 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Super Bowl ads - AppleThe Super Bowl exhibit’s walk down advertising memory lane was deeply nostalgic to me. Amid Cindy Crawford selling Pepsi and a baby selling a brokerage, Apple’s 1984 ad, introducing the Mac, stands out as possibly the most revered commercial of all time. Also, why did anyone think Spuds McKenzie was a good idea?

Once Upon a Paley

Once upon a time, New York City was home to a Museum of Broadcasting. In 1975, William S. Paley founded an institution to preserve TV and radio programming. (The other company he founded was CBS.) In 1976, his Museum of Broadcasting opened its doors. “Broadcasting” feels like a technological fossil these days, appropriate for a museum. But it was the heart and soul of society in the late 20th century. 

Paley Center for MediaIn 1991, the institution renamed itself the Museum of Television & Radio, since even then increasing amounts of TV was distributed in ways that had nothing to do with “broadcasting.” The same year the museum moved into a fun, Philip Johnson-designed post-modernist building, which is meant to resemble an old-timey radio. 

In the early 2000s the museum rebranded as the Paley Center for Media. For a decade or so it offered a library and an event space known for putting on interesting talks with the television creators and stars. Recently, however, the Paley Center re-opened its museum, so of course I visited.

The Paley Center today has a medium-sized gallery space on its ground floor, and a small space upstairs. It’s also home to a video game gallery (available for rental for kids’ parties) and a library containing video monitors where visitors can access any of 160,000 television and radio programs and ads in the collection. So, it’s kind of like Hulu.

TOld time televisionshe current iteration of the Paley Museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, although there are a few adorable antique TV sets on display in the library. Instead, it hosts temporary exhibitions on timely topics. To wit, when I visited in early February, the Super Bowl. And, in a nod to Black History Month, props and costumes from the Nat Geo “Genius” miniseries about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in a modest second floor gallery.

The Gridiron

They really got into football

The Super Bowl took over the Paley Center the day I visited, one week before the Chiefs and 49ers faced off. The entry space featured a huge video screen showing highlights of halftime musical performances, and the elevator lobby was fully wrapped, and included Katy Perry’s halftime show outfit (from XLIV), along a shark and a beach ball.Katy Perry's halftime show costume, plus shark and beach ball

As befits a museum of broadcasting, the exhibit was less about the game of football itself, and more about the unofficial secular holiday and cultural phenomenon the Super Bowl has evolved into, with growing mass audiences, iconic advertising, and the previously mentioned halftime show spectacular, all getting at least as much attention as the games themselves. 

The curators took a sensible chronological approach, with stats on each of the LVIII games along the top (who played, final score, TV audience size).  Wall texts offered details on how the Super Bowl evolved, with images and video. Artifacts livened things up: balls and jerseys, helmets, playbooks, and, climax of the exhibition, the actual Vince Lombardi Trophy. (A reproduction belonging to the New York Giants was on display the day I visited, as the actual Trophy had important duties off in Vegas.).

Game balls and winning moments
This exhibit had a lot of balls

Downstairs, another space featured a selection of game balls, as well as a chunk of the set from the Super Bowl LV Halftime Show, with a choice of sparkling red jackets, should visitors wish to cosplay as The Weeknd. I did not see anyone do that while I was there. And the Paley Center’s theater ran historic Super Bowl games and/or ads, in case visitors wanted to revisit past high points.

Madonna's Half Time Show, Super Bowl XLVI, 2012
Football is a mystery…

Curatorial Questions

The exhibition was co-presented by the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I suspect that is why all signs of Super Bowl controversy were scrubbed out of the narrative. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were absent from the big halftime show screen. Not a word about concussions, either. Or team names that seem leftovers from an earlier, cruder era.

The exhibit made much of the patriotism of Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. 9/11 casualties’ names streamed on a screen behind U2 at Halftime, which feels a little cringe-y now. However, it said nothing about players taking a knee during the National Anthem in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Ironic, given that Black History Month was the other thing the Paley Center was ostensibly honoring when I visited.

I would have hoped for some acknowledgement that the Super Bowl isn’t an unalloyed marvel. It’s possible to celebrate something even while acknowledging its flaws, and their exclusion is a notable miss.

Paley Center Super Bowl exhibit
Nothing but good times and soaring audiences and ad revenues here…

Should you visit the Paley Center Museum?

Unless you’re an old-school TV fan, or some sort of insane museum completist, it’s hard to recommend the Paley Center. Twenty bucks is a high price for the relatively small museum space, so it’s not worth just dropping in.

The institution knows its mass-media subject better than just about anyone else. But its “rah-rah, no problems here” approach to the Super Bowl exhibit, although fun, raises questions of objectivity and curation. Even if a future exhibition subject were to interest me, I’d wonder who was shaping the content, and what kind of slant it might have.

If you want a museum of popular culture, the Museum of Broadway in Times Square, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and the exhibit spaces at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center are all far more worth your time and money.

Bethpage Long Island rates the Paley Center "best of New York City"Then again, the town of Bethpage on Long Island, which for some reason feels qualified to weigh in on New York City museums, rated the Paley Center a “best museum and best children’s party place” in New York in 2023. So…you may want to take that into account as you evaluate whether you should visit.

The Paley Center’s library of 160,000 old television shows and commercials was revolutionary in the early 90s. In today’s world of infinite streaming, it’s much less impressive. Speaking of old commercials, it reminds me of this 1999 ad from a long-defunct phone company. I suspect there’s much old television programming on the Paley Center hard drives that’s not available anywhere else. Maybe there are lost treasures waiting for a reboot. Or maybe it’s just a lot of poorly acted, standard definition time wasters brimming with casual racism and outdated views of women. I think I’ll stick with Hulu.

For Reference:

Address 25 West 52nd Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $20
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