Queens Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 144 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Queens Museum could install the Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre and the Panorama of the City of New York would still be the best thing at the Queens Museum.

Queens MuseumEach of New York’s outer boroughs has a showpiece, namesake museum.  They range from the huge and ambitious Brooklyn Museum to the quirkier, but still ambitious, Bronx Museum of the Arts.  The Queens Museum, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, has something unique in all of New York City’s museums making a visit mandatory for anyone who loves New York City.

I’ll get to that in a moment; first some history.

The New York City Building

The Queens Museum is the last surviving building from the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, a defining moment in the city’s history.  It served as the New York City Pavilion then.

Following the fair, it became a recreation center, boasting ice and roller rinks.

In perhaps the least likely story of adaptive re-use in the city (and we’ve got some doozies), it went from roller rink to UN Headquarters. From 1946-1950, the UN General Assembly met there.  I love the mental image of diplomats debating while executing double axels.  The General Assembly created UNICEF and partitioned Palestine in this place, before the UN moved to its eventual Manhattan home.

If it was odd that a roller rink became the UN’s headquarters, it’s almost odder that following the move, the building went back to being a skating rink again.

Then, as if time were reversing, when the City launched the 1964 World’s Fair, it renovated the building to serve once again as the New York City Pavilion.  That’s when Robert Moses commissioned the Panorama.

Following the World’s Fair, it reverted to skating rink yet again.

Then in 1972, part of the building became the home of the Queens Museum of Art and Culture.  Finally, in 1994 the architect Rafael Viñoly renovated the building creating the current museum space.

Atrium, Queens Museum, Flushing

Today’s Queens Museum is mainly a single story, with a small mezzanine leading to a theater.  It consists of an airy, light-filled atrium, with what feel like pavilions within the pavilion sectioning off galleries inside the space.  Huge windows look out at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, centered on the famous Unisphere. It’s a very friendly building, bright and inviting, and includes a small cafe and gift shop.

Unisphere, Flushing Meadows Corona Park

The Panorama of the City of New York

The Panorama of the City of New York is one of the great treasures of the metropolis.  The entirety of the five boroughs spreads below and before you, on a scale of one inch equals 100 feet.  Every building and park, street and bridge and square is lovingly replicated in balsa wood and plastic and paint and paper and tiny lights. At least, the metropolis as it existed in 1992, the last time the museum undertook a comprehensive update.

Panorama of the City of New York, Queens MuseumIt’s immense, and really quite hard to photograph; none of my pictures do it any kind of justice.  A ramped walkway winds around and partly over the Panorama, letting visitors pretend to fly over the land and waters below.

Part of me thinks that in this era of Google Earth, the physicality of the Panorama is obsolete.  You’ll never be able to interact with this giant, stodgy model they way you can with a digital representation of the city.  But a much bigger part of me thinks that the Panorama is even more vital and valuable in our digitally besotted age.  It captures the immense, unique improbability of my home in a way no pixels on a screen ever will.  And yes, you can see my house from there.

Regardless of what else the Queens Museum may have on display, if you love New York, or even if you just like it a lot, you have to experience the Panorama.

Never Built New York

Never Built New York, Queens Museum, FlushingThe main show at the Queens Museum currently looks at “Never Built New York,” a collection of architectural projects proposed over the decades that never made it to fruition.  It’s a bit of a jumble, with apartments next to civic monuments next to parks, and somewhat overwhelming to the senses.  Unusually, the curators chose to install it with no wall texts.  Instead, a newsprinted pamphlet uses diagrams and numbers to indicate brief descriptions.

Aesthetically this worked really well, but I would have appreciated more spacing and better organization, for example by chronology or project type. Or maybe by reason for the project’s failure — because of civic opposition (which killed the still-nightmare-inducing Mid-Manhattan Expressway), lack of financing, or sheer insanity (like extending Manhattan four miles into the harbor via landfill or draining the East River).

Never Built New York, Queens Museum, Flushing
Let’s fill in the Harbor! (1911 proposal)

I really love the concept behind this exhibit, and the Queens Museum is uniquely able to carry it off in one regard:  the museum has added glowing, ghostly, lucite models of selected projects to the Panorama, letting visitors see some of the unrealized ambitions in the context of the fabric of the city.  The show also deploys a very small, very effective bit of VR as well–this is a rare topic where more of that might have proven even better.

Unbuilt Museums

Never Built New York, Queens Museum, Flushing
The Brooklyn Museum, original plan by McKim Mead and White

A fair number of the never-built plans are themselves museums, lending a relevance to my project I didn’t expect.  For example:

  • In the 1980s Michael Graves proposed a hideous, ludicrous addition to the (old) Whitney (now the Met:Breuer) that resembles putting clown makeup on the farmer couple in Grand Wood’s “American Gothic.”
  • An original 1893 McKim Mead and White drawing of the Brooklyn Museum. The plan called for it to be four times the size of what they actually built — larger than the Met or even the Louvre.
  • Frank Gehry had a 2000 plan for a curvaceous new Guggenheim on the East River in lower Manhattan.
Never Built New York, Queens Museum, Flushing
Michael Graves’s Plan for the Whitney

This show lends itself to alternate thinking and what-if scenarios. Perhaps in some parallel universe I just reviewed the wacky, dated, 80s-looking Whitney. Mostly it makes me glad to live in the version of New York I’ve got.

Other Things on View

The remaining exhibits consisted mainly of contemporary art installations.

  • Julie Weist and Nestor Siré looked at sharing of digital media via hard drives sent through the mail in Cuba.
  • An installation by Sable Elyse Smith, “Ordinary Violence,” contemplated the impact of mass incarceration
  • “The Wandering Lake,” by Patty Chang, offered a commentary on water. She visited various infrastructure sites in China and captured her urine in bottles at each of them.  With video and photos. Not my cup of tea.  Or maybe I should say, not my cup of pee.  
Queens Museum, Flushing Queens
Patty Chang at the Queens Museum

The Queens Museum also has a small but neat collection of Tiffany lamps. The installation isn’t quite as photogenic as the new and highly Instagrammable Tiffany room at the New-York Historical Society. But it’s nice just the same.

Tiffany at Queens Museum, Flushing New York
Tiffany Glass (Unlamped)

Concluding Thoughts on the Queens Museum

The Queens Museum has a fascinating history, a beautiful building, a location on a park, and the curatorial chops to pull off a show like Never Built New York.  And most of all, the Panorama, a unique treasure.

OK, it’s another art museum, and there are plenty of those to see closer to the center the city.  So what?  Anyone who loves art or New York really should make a special trip.

Never Built New York, Queens Museum, Flushing
Playground Model by Isamu Noguchi (Never Built)

For Reference:

Address New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens
Website queensmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $8 (Suggested)
Other Relevant Links


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