Children’s Museum of Manhattan

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 2/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 126 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This multilayered architectural image that, if you look closely, it turns out incorporate TIE fighters into it. I know nothing about it — there was no wall text and I neglected to ask any of the staff who did it. But I liked it! 

Children's Museum of Manhattan

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan was founded in 1973, and makes its home in the former Holy Trinity Parochial School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I mostly make fun of museum acronym-based nicknames, but I kind of like “CMOM.” I just wish I liked the museum as much as its motherly acronym.

Children's Museum of Manhattan Exterior

CMOM is an odd mishmash of different things. If there’s a curatorial or organizational idea behind it, they keep it well hidden. Moreover, it’s not really clear from my visit there who the ideal visitor is. Well, I suppose the ideal visitors are harried New York parents who will pay anything to give their kids something to keep them occupied for a couple of hours. 

What’s on at CMOM

The museum currently hosts 7 exhibits spread across its 5 floors. A couple of floors are meant for specific ages, but most of the exhibits seem simultaneously too simple for older kids and too dense for younger ones. Is this for budding science nerds? Artsy kids? CMOM tries to be something for everyone, which I think is a mistake.

For instance, take “It’s About Time.” Here’s a bit of this small installation.

Children's Museum of Manhattan
Watch This?

Who’s likely to find this interesting? Besides the Bulova Watch Company, which is lauded by name (“Bulova: A Timely New York Story”) and not incidentally provided financial support for the installation. Too much wall text for a little kid; there’s some interactivity in the installation, but, why? I love a good anachronism as much as the next guy, but clockwork clocks and watches are not the most interesting or relevant technologies for a kid-oriented museum to showcase.

Tough to Digest

Super SprowtzThen there’s the Super Sprowtz, a short-lived effort from 7 years ago to use puppet vegetables to teach kids about nutrition. Though, evidently, not spelling. It still exists on YouTube, and at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, but just about nowhere else. Gita Garlic is pretty cool, I’ll grant that (that’s Sammy Spinach to the left). But overall, it speaks to a place that has no clear sense of what kids like or how they think.

To be sure, there’s a lot to do here: a fake intestine kids can climb in (not as gross as it sounds), and the very well named “Royal Flush,” a giant toilet that teaches kids about poop (very much as gross as it sounds). 

Children's Museum of Manhattan - Royal Flush

Sleep and MoodBut then there’s this about sleep and sleep deprivation. I know I’ve asked before, but I’m compelled to ask again, who is likely to find this fun or interesting?

 

Brought to You By…

Another thing that disappointed me about CMOM was the degree to which exhibits are sponsored — like the Bulova Watch installation I mentioned previously. And not just in a subtle “brought to you by the letters J and L and by the number 3” way.

Here we have Nickelodeon bringing you the Dora and Diego explorer zone. It makes the Children’s Museum of Manhattan feel more like edutainment than education. Not that that’s bad, but I’m concerned about priorities, and it adds to the generally hodge-podge feel of the place.

Children's Museum of Manhattan - Diego

Oversized Playmobil characters in various professional guises lurk in the stairwell, giving the weird Lego knockoffs some product placement. CMOM is apparently very fine with that, but it bugged me. It doesn’t add anything — except possibly to make Playmobil less uncool in the eyes of visitors. And even that seems unlikely.

Bring Purell. Oceans of Purell

The other phrase I’d use to describe the feel of this institution is “slightly sticky.” Kids, man. They are gross creatures, and CMOM gets more little grubby munchkins visiting it than the place is equipped to clean up after. I am in no way a germophobe, and I visited well before the covid-19 outbreak (it’s taken me a while to sit down and write this post). However, I found myself wishing I’d brought a bottle of Purell with me when I visited, and I was thankful whenever I found a dispenser of the stuff.

The Art Center

By far my favorite bit of CMOM was the large space on the main floor devoted to art. It just hit me, this must have been the gym when this place was a school. Poetic justice to take the jock space and turn it over to the art kids. Anyway, CMOM has an artist-in-residence program, including some pieces on display and a bunch of hands-on art activities available. The day I visited, kids had a choice of collaging, textile art, and animation using the Play-Doh TOUCH app (but alas, no Play-Doh).

Art Center at CMOM

That said, New York boasts specialist institutions that do this better and more comprehensively than the Children’s Museum of Manhattan does. The Children’s Museum of the Arts in Tribeca and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling are both more creative, and less crowded, than this. 

Should You Take the Kids to CMOM?

The big thing CMOM has going for it is convenience. It’s smack on the Upper West Side. And its size makes it much easier to navigate than the nearby American Museum of Natural History. But I found it disappointing; it could and should be much better than it is. It’s confusing, it sells out readily to corporate sponsors, its exhibits seemed surprisingly out-of-date and (giant toilet notwithstanding) not terribly compelling to a young audience.

There’s fun to be had here, but there are many better kid-oriented museums in this city — I’d encourage parents to have the intestinal fortitude to seek them out.

Children's Museum of Manhattan
Intestinal Fortitude

For Reference:

Address 212 West 83rd Street, Manhattan
Website cmom.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15 (kids are also $15)
Other Relevant Links

 

New-York Historical Society

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 94 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” 1919, a monumental oil painting on loan for the WWI show from the Imperial War Museum, London.  It’s a Sargent, so it’s as civilized and genteel as war gets. But at the same time, it’s a far cry from the fancy society folks I’m used to from him.

Sargent at New-York Historical Society

new-york historical society

The New-York Historical Society came into being in 1804, making it (according to itself) the oldest museum in the city. Its recent evolution presents a case study of a dusty old institution retooling itself for the social media age. Over the past decade or so a series of renovations turned it from the somewhat hermetic, academic attic of the city into a bright, airy, less-dense institution. Bronze statues of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass welcome you outside the front doors, and that unexpected, slightly eccentric vibe continues within.

Of the many things I like about the Historical Society, I sometimes think my favorite thing is the hyphen between “New” and “York.” Nowhere else bothers with that anymore. However, without it visitors might think that they are visiting the new historical society of York, England. I bet that happened a lot in the 19th century. It’s really thoughtful.  I shall feel quite cross if they ever drop it and rebrand as the Newyork Historical Society. Continue reading “New-York Historical Society”

Bard Graduate Center Gallery

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 63 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The museum business has always been a tough one.  The 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition lost a ton of money.  They tried bringing in P. T. Barnum to make it more popular. Even the great showman gave up, though, grumbling, “The dead could not be raised.”

Bard Graduate Center Gallery, ManhattanLocated in a pretty but unassuming townhouse on West 86th Street, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery offers a couple of floors converted into spaces for, it seems, whatever Bard Graduate Center folks happen to be working on.  Bard exhibits come in three flavors:  focus projects, traveling exhibits, and artists-in-residence.

The two shows on the day I went were both “focus projects.” Bard Graduate Center defines these as “small-scale academically rigorous exhibitions and publications that are developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows in collaboration with students in our MA and PhD programs.” (Bard website; longer description here.)

Design by the Book

“Design by the Book” discusses the Sanli tu, a Chinese text from 961 meant to help reconstruct important ritual objects from even longer ago. Confucian China was full of rites and rituals, requiring very specific objects to complete.  However, as dynasties waxed and waned, the nature of those objects was sometimes lost.  In the mid-900s, a scholar named Nie Chongyi studied ancient writings about these objects, and set out to formally describe and picture them.

It was a good idea, and for a while an influential book.  However, what we’d think of as archaeology eventually disproved many of Nie’s ideas when people  dug up ruins and found actual examples of the ritual items in question.

Bard Graduate Center Gallery, Manhattan

The show introduced these ideas via a quick run-down of Confucianism and a look at a copy of the Sanli tu itself. It then showed  examples of the kinds of objects it described, like bronze bells, cups, and ceremonial robes.  It also included an interactive element inviting visitors to sketch three objects based on their written descriptions.  It shows how your artwork compares with Nie’s conception and previous visitors’ attempts.  Anyone up for Confucian Pictionary?

New York Crystal Palace 1853

Crystal Palace Show, Bard Graduate Center, ManhattanThe Crystal Palace show tells the story of the first World’s Fair in the United States, and the tremendous glass and steel building constructed to house it — an epitome of high technology of the time.  It’s a bit of a jumble, trying to pack a lot of things into a space too small for it.  Somewhat like the Crystal Palace Exposition itself, I suppose. The show defines world’s fairs and outlines the 19th century vogue for them. It describes the Crystal Palace itself and the myriads of exhibits and displays of art, science, and technology that existed within.  Guns!  Hats!  Sculpture! Furniture! Vases!  Not much of it to my taste, but they ate it up in 19th century New York.

Crystal Palace, Bard Graduate CenterFor a small show, it surprisingly offered not one but three audio tour options: one featuring recorded quotations from Walt Whitman, the other two from imagined perspectives of fictional fairgoers. I’m not so sanguine about the fictional  accounts.  Plenty of actual people, famous and not famous, visited the Crystal Palace and wrote about their experiences.  For instance, the show includes a wall-text quote from a teenage Sam Clemens, who called it “a perfect fairy palace, beautiful beyond description.”  It feels like the group that put this exhibit together couldn’t find the contemporary perspectives they wanted, so decided to just make some up.

Better, the exhibit also featured a touchscreen panorama of the fair, enabling a visitor to pan around and zoom in on the cavalcade of wonders.

Crystal Palace Shard, Bard Graduate Center Gallery
Crystal Palace Shard

It even had a shard of the Crystal Palace itself. Following the fire that destroyed the amazing building in 1858, bits of glass served as souvenirs.

Overall, I liked this show.  Given my obsession with museums, museum shows about museums very much appeal to me (see my review of the Bernard Museum‘s meta-exhibit).  But they did have more story they wanted to tell than Bard Graduate Center had space to contain it.

Other Things to Know

Bard’s spaces are indeed pretty tiny.  Each show occupied the footprint of the front room and hallway of a floor of the townhouse.  It maximizes wall space by blocking windows (at the cost of creating gloomy rooms).

Small installations of contemporary art accompanied both shows in the “back room” space:  a video piece about a hunt for a mysterious book in New York for the Crystal Palace, and a performance+light installation for the Design by the Book show.  In theory I think having an art piece that riffs on the ideas in the adjoining exhibit can be illuminating.  However, given Bard’s lack of space, I would’ve preferred to see more depth from the exhibits themselves.

The Bottom Line

I like the eclectic programming of the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Lack of a topical mission or a focus can be a negative. But they seem focused on telling unexpected, interesting stories.  That stretch of the Upper West Side is an art museum desert, so I like knowing it is there.  If you’re going to Zabar’s, or happen to be across Central Park on Museum Mile, consider making a quick detour.

Bard Graduate Center Gallery, Lobby
Bard Graduate Center Gallery Lobby

For Reference:

Address 18 West 86th Street, Manhattan
Website bgc.bard.edu
Cost  General Admission:  $7 (suggested; free on Wednesday)
Other Relevant Links

 

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 54 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Given my weakness for fancy-dressed skeletons, I was tempted to pick the Red Death costume from “Phantom.” But I will instead say Julie Taymor’s  costume/puppet designs from the Lion King are the best thing currently at the library, and still the best thing (visually) on Broadway.

The New York Public Library’s branch at Lincoln Center is easy to overlook, tucked in between the Met and the Vivian Beaumont Theater.  It puts on a number of free exhibitions throughout the year, and has a fairly large space for doing so.  I saw a great show celebrating the 45th anniversary of Sesame Street there a few years back. Continue reading “New York Public Library for the Performing Arts”

American Folk Art Museum

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned

I’m impressed by the sheer blackness of the Folk Art Museum’s gallery space, as designed for the Gabritschevsky show.  It’s super different from anywhere else I’ve seen art yet.

I have a problem with the idea of “folk art.” In my mind, it always translates as “art that’s just not very good.” The naive stuff, the outsider stuff, the untrained stuff, the stuff made by people not right in the head…always it feels to me like there’s some qualifier that attaches to the creator or the work that sets your expectations lower. And for me art is all about high expectations.  I know there’s a Museum of Bad Art, and that’s cool.  Badness can, if it’s bad enough, be instructive and entertaining. But I wouldn’t want to go to a museum of mediocre art.  So I’d never been to the Folk Art Museum.

The Folk Art Museum also has one of the sadder recent histories among the city’s cultural institutions.  The museum built itself a large and beautiful home down the block from the Museum of Modern Art back in 2001.  However, demand to see folk art is apparently far smaller than they figured, and they couldn’t pay back what they borrowed to build it.  So the museum sold its building to MoMA in 2011 and moved uptown to a much, much smaller space in the white marble monolith that houses the Church of the Latter Day Saints diagonally across from Lincoln Center.  MoMA has since controversially demolished the old building, which really was striking, to further its own relentless expansion.

This is particularly sad because the museum has a substantial collection, but nowhere to display it.  When I visited, all of the small yet cavernous space was devoted to work by two artists, both in the “not right in the head” category. 

Eugen Gabritschevsky was Russian born and well on his way to a promising career in the biological sciences, including postdoctorate work at Columbia, when in 1931 he was institutionalized in Germany.  Carlo Zinelli was born in Italy in 1916 and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Verona in 1947, where he lived the rest of his life, until 1974.  Aside from both being in mental institutions, the two men and their art had little in common that I could see.

I’m going to be looking at more art by institutionalized people when I go to the Living Museum, at some point in this project.  It often feels uncomfortable, like it’s exploitative, or like there’s so little basis for understanding what the artist was thinking that any interpretation on my part is presumptuous.

Gabritschevsky, Untitled, no date
Zinelli, Untitled, no date

But should you go to the Folk Art Museum?  They know what they’re doing.  The two exhibits were beautifully installed, they used iPads cleverly, wall texts were generally great, and I really liked the way they suspend frames via cables, so that they float in the air.  But I’m not sure the museum in its current incarnation is going to win any hearts and minds.  If you already have a deep love of folk art, you should go.  Everyone else can feel just fine skipping it.

For Reference:

Address 2 Lincoln Square, Manhattan
Website folkartmuseum.org
Cost Free
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