United Nations Headquarters

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 138 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Octavio Roth’s depiction of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as cheerful, colorful lithographs.  I particularly like the one about the right to leisure, which uses sailing as its visual.

United Nations
Octavio Roth, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN

As I was walking toward the East River on 42nd Street to meet a friend for my 11:30 tour of the United Nations, I realized that this institution breaks one of the rules of my museum project.  I set out to visit every museum in New York City.  Technically, in a legalistic, treaty sense of the world, the 17-ish acres of Manhattan occupied by the UN are not part of New York, or even of the United States.  The UN is its own extranational entity.  So from that perspective it isn’t  a “New York museum.”

Then again, I should be less pedantic.

United Nations

However, is the UN a museum?  Certainly it’s historic.  It’s got truly iconic architecture, with the design spearheaded by great modernists Oscar Niemeyer and Charles Le Corbusier.  It’s got interesting art, and a story to tell about the countries of the world trying to achieve worthy goals.

And you can take a tour of the place to see some of that.  I figure if I were doing this in DC, I’d include the Capitol and White House.  So, I’ll count (and review) the United Nations, too.  

Visitors can only get into the UN if they have booked a tour.  Actually, you can also book a lunch reservation at the Delegates Dining Room, that’ll get you in, too. Or if you know someone who works there.

Once you’re passed security, though, some parts of the grounds and the building are open to the public and you can wander a bit.  But a tour is the way to see the meeting rooms and hear the story of the place.

On to the Tour

My tour, in English, featured me and my friend as (I think) the only Americans in a group of about 12 people, with some Canadians, Brits, Scandinavians, and even a couple from Iran.  I wonder if that’s typical — how many of my countrypeople visit.  Our guide, Mr. Moon, was a funny and eloquent Korean guy, former military, now dealing with tourists at the UN.

Although a classic of modernist architecture, the impressive ceremonial spaces of the UN are relatively few and far between.  Largely, the space is all about getting harried bureaucrats (and the occasional head of state) from meeting to meeting efficiently.  It also features a generous dose of art that’s been gifted to it over the years, about which more in a moment.  

United Nations

For tourists (and maybe the dignitaries) the UN’s public spaces additionally feature periodic photo-and-text displays describing its history and initiatives. As a result, my notes describe my overall impression walking around as “a science fair in an outdated hotel lobby.”

Still, for anyone with an inkling of concern about the world, it’s undeniably super-cool to get to peek in the Security Council chamber and imagine the bickering that must go on there.

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Security Council

Even better the vast General Assembly space, where the 193 UN member countries, along with a host of nongovernmental organizations and whatnot all meet together in a vast conical room decorated with two immense abstract Fernand Leger murals.  I imagine Khrushchev banging his shoe on the lectern.

United Nations
I’m the World Bank!

The tour also hit on topics like:

  • peacekeeping,
  • Unicef’s educational efforts, including “school in a box,”
  • the UN’s current set of “Sustainable Development Goals,” set out in 2015,
  • nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction, including a small, moving set of artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, lest we forget nukes are bad.
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United Nations of Art

The art on display in the UN’s public spaces presents a mixed bag.  Everything carefully labeled with the work and which country (or occasionally foundation) donated it. Some things are just wonderful, like a Marc Chagall stained glass window.  Some seem a little like gifts a relative gives you that you don’t really like but family obligation prevents you from regifting or throwing out.  Like this tapestry from Belarus depicting a (hopefully) allegorical vision of Chernobyl.

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Alexander Kishchenko, “Chernobyl,” 1991

In 1985, Nancy Reagan on behalf of the U.S. gave the United Nations a mosaic based on a Norman Rockwell painting called “The Golden Rule.” (As in, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Very multicultural. I’m not sure if it’s better as a mosaic than it would be as a painting.

United Nations

But there’s more.  Like Nobel Peace Prizes.  The UN has won 11 of them, and just kind of scatters random ones here and there; one near the basement information office and the cafe, another in a hallway…I wonder who keeps track of them all.  If I were the United Nations I’d use one to recognize whoever’s Employee of the Month. Let them keep it on their desk during their tenure.  “Congrats, you’re employee of the month!  Here’s a Nobel Peace Prize.”

And I particularly liked the Sputnik (gift from the Soviet Union, 1959) suspended from the ceiling in the main lobby of the Secretariat building.  The ceiling itself, with its metal and exposed ductwork, seems surprisingly contemporary.

United Nations
Sputnik! And Ceiling

The downstairs in the public part of the UN is dispiriting (and dark), but it’s where they keep the bookstore, gift shops, cafe, Nobel Peace Prize, restrooms, and the post office. Philatelists take note (and apropos of my ‘we’re not in the US anymore’ observation), the UN issues its own stamps.

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It’s also worth venturing down there to check out the enormous lego version of the UN Headquarters, stashed out of the way in the bookstore.  Gift from Denmark?

Who Should Visit the UN?

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UNICEF School in a Box

Whether you want to visit the UN or not likely depends on whether you think it’s relevant or helpful, or just a waste of time, or worse a ginormous conspiracy.  I didn’t ask Mr. Moon if the tour would include the hangars under the East River where they keep the Black Helicopters; I know they really keep those in Geneva.

However, as a vital institution, everyone should visit the UN.  Especially Americans. As a museum, I rate it slightly below the best in the city.  The UN does not hold art-and-architecture tours.  I really wish it did!  The story of the place and its mission is mandatory, sure, but I suspect there’s a compelling (and sometimes pretty funny) story in the art, and I’d love to explore the institution through that lens.

“The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”  –Dag Hammarskjöld, Second UN Secretary-General

On many counts, the UN is a failure.  We still have poverty.  We are still messing up the environment.  People still exploit other people.  But it’s better to look at the bigger picture.  There’s really one, single, fundamental purpose to the United Nations:  “Let’s avoid World War III, shall we?”  On that ground, keep up the good work.

United Nations
Carl Fredrik Reutersward

For Reference:

Address First Avenue, from East 42nd to East 48th Street (visitor entrance at 45th and First), Manhattan
Website visit.un.org
Cost  General Admission:  $22 for tour
Other Relevant Links


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