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“Noisy, Roaring, Rumbling, Tumbling, Bustling, Stormy, Turbulent New York”
I have been living in New York City for about eight months now, and I have a much better understanding of what the city is like. I’ve learned how to use the subway lines, I’ve visited all five boroughs, and I’ve been to a number of the city’s best museums. But there is so much more to learn about this incredible city. The Museum of the City of New York has a diverse array of interesting exhibits, and all of them help to create a richer and deeper understanding of this amazing place.
One of the most interesting and informative exhibits about New York was a multimedia presentation called “Timescapes.” A humble curtained-off room is home to a twenty-two minute movie, presented on three screens and narrated by Stanley Tucci, that shows the dramatic transformations of New York City from the late 1600s to the present. It is hard to believe that this mammoth city was once sweeping farmland. And it is fascinating to discover how many parts of our city got their names from Native American Lenae Lenape terms, or from rich landowners of the past (The Bronx was first settled by Jonas Bronck and his family, “the Broncks”). The three screens display fascinating photos, videos and drawings throughout history, along with an ever-changing map of the city that shows the development of new towns, streets, and subway lines. There is a lot of fascinating information in this presentation, and I’m sure I would learn even more if I see it again.
Another powerful long-term exhibit explores the city’s diverse history of social activism on a wide variety of issues throughout time. Through artifacts, videos and photos, the exhibit explores many fascinating and defining moments from New York’s history – moments I had heard about, like the fight for women’s suffrage and the Stonewall riots; and issues I had never even considered, like activism geared towards biker safety laws. One of the most fascinating was the Stettheimer Doll House, an incredibly ornate and large doll house previously owned by Carrie Stettheimer, who spent almost two decades furnishing it and did not complete the work before her death. The lavish details of this beautiful work include miniature copies of famous works of art, created by the original artists themselves (in the ballroom is a miniature version of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” created by Duchamp himself with ink, wash and graphite on paper).
The museum is also host to several rotating exhibitions. Both of the exhibitions currently on display center around art that is often not noticed or not viewed as art, but that make up a large part of the city. “City as Canvas” explores graffiti art, donated to the museum by the artist Martin Wong. Graffiti is not always something that is considered as art, and this exhibit focuses not on the more controversial and rare works by artists like Banksy, but on more common graffiti that is seen on trains and walls throughout the city. Even something as simple as the creator's name in big block letters is presented as art. One wall of the exhibit is covered with quotes from both sides of the debate, ranging from those arguing that “graffiti writing is a school for crime” to other who believe that it is “a new iconography… much realer than art”. This exhibit doesn’t just expose you to some incredible art: it puts you in the middle of the discussion.
The other rotating exhibit focuses on major figures in New York City’s history of whom I had hitherto been unaware: Rafael Guastavino and his son. Their company is responsible for hundreds of the gorgeous tile vaults found throughout the city: the famous Grand Central Terminal oyster bar, the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, and Columbia University’s very own St. Paul’s Chapel. A large map at the entrance of the exhibit displays the location of each structure, all of which are known for their durability and beauty. In the center of the exhibit is a model of the structure, created by MIT students in Guastavino’s unique style which is not widely understood or utilized today. This exhibit left me with a strong desire to visit and study these structures myself – I went to St. Paul’s chapel that very night, and saw it in a way I had never seen it before.
Each exhibit focuses on a different aspect of New York’s history, large or small, personal or global. Even the stairwells are full of inspiring quotes about New York, capturing its unique, evolving and imperfect character. I particularly enjoyed this quote by Walt Whitman: “Silence? What can New York – noisy, roaring, rumbling, tumbling, bustling, stormy, turbulent New York – have to do with silence?” Even in my short time living in this city, it clear that it is anything but silent – New York is a city of transformation, a city of motion, and a city of people who want to make their voices heard.
By Jared Field, TC '15
April 22, 2014