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|I had completely forgotten about New York’s state fossil, until the Staten Island Museum reminded me. It’s a sea scorpion or eurypterid, which I would absolutely not want to meet on a Jurassic beach.
The Staten Island Museum started as a private pooling of personal natural history collections in 1881, opening to the public in 1908. Currently it claims to be New York’s only truly encyclopedic museum, embracing science, history, and art. And so it does, albeit in small doses of each.
The museum formerly resided in a classical building in St. George, near the Staten Island Ferry, until last year, when it moved to Snug Harbor. It’s a bus or car ride from the ferry terminal, but at least the architecture is still appropriately museum-y.
The Snug Harbor Cultural Center is Staten Island’s Mall of Enlightenment. A Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a Children’s Museum, the fantastic Noble Maritime Collection, the hit-or-miss Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Staten Island Museum all reside within its more-or-less renovated, beautiful, Greek revival grounds and buildings.
Curiosities Include a Partial Mastodon
The Museum opens with natural history, succinctly presenting an array of fossils and an assortment of its quite broad collections of fossils, bones, taxidermy, and things-in-formaldehyde. It’s a nice cabinet of curiosities-style display, culminating in the next room with the museum’s model mastodon. Mastodons apparently lived in these parts, back in the last Ice Age. It’s just a shame that the museum couldn’t afford the back 2/3s of a model; its forequarters just kind of stick out of a background painting.
Richard, the SI Museum docent who gave us a great guided tour of the whole collection, said he joked with kids that the butt end was in the next building over, and they were lucky they got to see the good end.
The Bodhisattva of Compassion
The Staten Island Museum is currently (maybe permanently?) showing a small but well curated exhibit called “Infinite Compassion: Avalokiteshvara in Asian Art.” It looks at the eponymous bodhisattva and how he (or sometimes she) has been depicted in various Asian cultures over time, from 1,000 years ago to several contemporary interpretations.
It’s quite a good exhibition, drawing on loans from (among others) the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, bringing pieces from that collection to a far more convenient and user-friendly, if less quirkily designed, space.
This was the one exhibit in the museum where they prohibited photography. Like all the spaces, it was full of light, a great space for a small, focused show like this. It struck me as odd for a museum that’s not an Asian art specialist (like the Asia Society) to zoom in on this abstruse topic, but why not? The SI Museum doesn’t have space to pull of a big-picture survey of Buddhism, and it’s curatorially smart to do small, focused things like this instead.
And I do appreciate museums that, like the 9/11 Tribute Museum, focus on compassion, as opposed to say wrath.
A Collection in a Nutshell
On its second floor, the Staten Island Museum offers a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of its collection, drawing on art and artifacts from across time and space. It’s a bit too jam-packed to really tell any single story well, except perhaps the story of the museum itself. I liked that some objects were grouped not by culture or era, but by collector; you get a feel for the dead white men who found these things, be they American Indian pottery, Japanese prints, Italian religious paintings, a suit of armor, or whatever else, beautiful and worth acquiring, preserving, and later sharing with the public.
Looking at Staten Island
About the only place I found the museum lacking was in discussing Staten Island itself. The basement auditorium space featured a series of text panels encapsulating the island’s history. But Historic Richmond Town’s museum tells that story far more engagingly. And a case of quirky Staten Island artifacts ranging from arrowheads to keychains reminded me of Brooklyn’s City Reliquary, minus that institution’s density and humor.
Much better was a room full of Staten Island landscape paintings, from the 1830s until the present, capturing landscapes (and painting styles) that have changed massively over the years. As with the other exhibits, this was a small but well thought out presentation. It encouraged conversations about both art and urbanization.
Should You Visit the Staten Island Museum?
The Staten Island Museum is small but solid. Half-assed (or “non-assed” if I’m being accurate) mastodon notwithstanding, this institution mostly executes its exhibitions thoroughly, interestingly, and well.
Its biggest challenge is lack of space, which it is in the process of addressing. The museum has raised money to renovate its vacant neighbor Building B, which will about double its exhibition space. Given the work required with Building A (our guide Richard pointed out that essentially the museum constructed a new, LEED-certified building within the historic shell of the original), it probably won’t be expanding soon.
If you live on Staten Island, you must visit the Staten Island Museum. Otherwise, I wouldn’t urge you to drop everything and go for the SI Museum alone. However, the museum’s location in the Snug Harbor “Mall of Enlightenment” very much justifies a trek. On a nice spring day, catch an early ferry and visit several of the Snug Harbor cultural institutions. Top it off with dinner cooked for you by a grandma at Enoteca Maria in St. George, and you’ve got a fine day trip.
|Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Building A. 1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island
|General Admission: $8 Suggested
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