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
Other Relevant Links


FDNY Fire Zone


Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  *
Time spent 77 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
FDNY Fire Zone
Keep Back 200 Feet

These toddler-sized fire-engine-red longjohns, with “keep back 200 ft.” on the rear.  Sound advice!

FDNY Fire ZoneTucked into Rockefeller Center, the Fire Department maintains a small kid-oriented presence called the FDNY Fire Zone.  The Fire Zone consists of a modest-sized space with all sorts of fire equipment lining one wall, an old fire truck (at least, the cab of it and a slice of the back part), huge numbers of patches, given or traded from fire departments the world over, and a gift shop about the same size as the exhibit space.

The Fire Zone offers occasional fire safety demos (for a fee), and it is staffed by a guy running the shop and a fire fighter who is happy to answer questions about the items on display.  I got to talking with him about the communications gear in the truck (very outdated according to him) and the pros and cons of GPS, which the Fire Department does not use.

FDNY Fire Zone

Where’s the Fire?

My grown-up reaction to the Fire Zone was disappointment.  I wrote it off, and was ready to move on to other things in five minutes.  But the group of three kids I borrowed for the visit loved it.  Gear to look at.  Heavy fire jackets to try on. A fire truck they can get inside and pretend to drive?  Best. Thing. Ever.  They would’ve stayed there all day, maybe.  We grown-ups talked about museums and joined in the kids’ intense pretending periodically.

FDNY Fire Zone

Therefore I’ve asterisked my “Should You Go?” rating for this place. Any grown-up not in need of any Fire Department-branded gifts can skip this place.  At least one of the visitors while I was there worked as a fire fighter and seemed to enjoy talking shop with the FDNY officer on duty.  So amend that: fire fighters might derive value out of a visit.

FDNY Fire ZoneHowever, if you have kids roughly 4-8 years old, the story differs dramatically.  In that case the Fire Zone merits 4 Met buttons for visitability.  For anyone with young kids interested in firefighters or fire trucks (and what young kid isn’t?), this place will seem ultra-cool, with a whole truck to play in and around.  It’s a rare free, indoor play space. While it is somewhat commercial (there’s that gift shop after all), it’s not nearly as commercial as say the other kid-friendly indoor spots near Rockefeller Center, the Nintendo or Lego stores.

For any grown ups interested in fire departments and fire fighting, I strongly recommend the Fire Museum in SoHo, but you can safely stay out of the Zone.

FDNY Fire Zone

For Reference:

Address 34 West 51st Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  Free.  Fire Safety Demo $6


Museum of Modern Art

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 221 minutes (3 hours, 41 minutes)
Best thing I saw or learned It’s nigh impossible to pick a “best” at MoMA. But I feel a special love for Mark Rothko’s melancholy, soothing No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black) from 1958. 

Museum of Modern Art, New York

UPDATE APRIL 2021: This review is obsolete, as it was written before MoMA opened its most recent expansion (which I talk about a bit in the review below). I will hopefully publish an updated review…soon. A lot of my take from a few years ago is still pertinent.

The walls at the Museum of Modern Art don’t meet the floors. It’s a minuscule  detail. I feel certain many visitors don’t even consciously notice it. I’m not sure why the architect did that. But think about the words that describe the collection:  “groundbreaking,” “earth-shattering.”  I like to think they decided MoMA’s treasures are too wonderful to touch something as mundane as a floor. So the art, and the walls on which the art is hung, don’t.

More mundanely, I also wonder whether (and how) they dust all those wall-floor cracks. Continue reading “Museum of Modern Art”

Museum of Sex

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 73 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A wall text in the animals exhibit about a Dutch biologist who wrote a paper on gay necrophilia in mallard ducks.  Those Dutch biologists, man…

Museum of Sex, New York

Museum of Sex, New YorkWhat can I say about the Museum of Sex?  It’s fun.  The gift shop is hysterical — if you’re at all prone to blushing, it will make you blush.  It’s immensely positive, and in a weird sort of way, innocent, maybe even willfully naive about its topic.

The Museum of Sex (MoSex for short) opened in 2002 and is, according to its website, “one of the most dynamic and innovative institutions in the world.”  Ok then. Its collection includes some 20,000 pieces, including both art and artifacts, only a small fraction of which are on display at any given time across the four floors of exhibitionist galleries in its space a few blocks south of the Empire State Building. Continue reading “Museum of Sex”

Mossman Lock Collection

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 54 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned These two magnetic locks, made by James Sargent of Rochester, New York, in 1865 and 1866 respectively.

Mossman Lock Collection

Located in Case 7, they epitomize the combination of technical innovation (making combination locks much harder to crack) with aesthetics that characterizes Mr. Mossman’s collection.

For anyone who cares for such queer things, New York offers the gift of numerous institutions devoted to esoteric and hermetic topics. Coins, Tattoos, and Maritime Industry all get their due, as well as obscure people like Antonio Meucci, the would-be inventor of the telephone and Nicholas Roerich, a visionary Russian mystic painter. But I’d argue that New York’s most esoteric and hermetic museum is the Mossman Lock Collection, at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, New York Continue reading “Mossman Lock Collection”