by George Taniwaki

I just returned from a short trip to New York. I have been to the city many times, but not recently. So I took time to go to places that are new since my last visit in 2009.

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

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Immersion room, courtesy Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

As a software program manager, the Cooper Hewitt is one of my favorite museums. It recently completed a major renovation (Press Release, Dec 2014). I was looking forward to seeing the redesigned design museum and was not disappointed.

Upon entering the museum, each visitor is given a stylus and a code number. The stylus is a bit bulky but is rugged. The pointed end can be used with large touchscreen monitors (probably Microsoft PixelSense devices since the newer Surface Hub wasn’t released until after the museum opened) scattered around some rooms. Visitors can select images, write text, and draw images on the touchscreens. Visitors can tap the other end of the stylus to the touchscreens to save their work. They can also tap on exhibit signs to save them and get more information for later.

On the second floor is a cubical Immersion Room that contains another large touchscreen monitor. On this one, visitors can select wallcovering patterns from the Cooper Hewitt collection or design their own using the pen. They can save their patterns and project them on the walls of the room. It is a very enjoyable experience to see your pattern fill the room (see photo above).

After your visit, you can go to the Cooper Hewitt website, create an account, enter your code, and review your visit and further explore exhibits that interested you. If you are a developer or tinkerer, check out the Toys section to use the API and to access anonymized visitor data.

Museum of Modern Art

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Crossroads (promotional still) 1976, Courtesy Connor Family Trust

The Museum of Modern Art is not new yet. However, since my last visit, MoMA has announced a major expansion. An increase of 4,600 sq. m (50,000 sq. ft) will add about 17%  of new space the the already large museum. Construction has started, though it hasn’t caused any closure of the current space for now.

The addition is expected to be well integrated with the existing museum. Construction will take over four years to complete (Curbed New York, Jan 2016).

I saw a special exhibit on Bruce Conner (1933-2008) an avant garde painter, sculptor, photographer, and film maker (see photo). The show was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In an ironic twist, I was unable to visit the newly remodeled SFMoMA while I was in SF in April since it was still closed for renovation (see SF Gate, May 2016).

The expansion of MoMA required the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, which was a lovely bronze-clad building next door to it. (I saw a wonderful special exhibit on quilts during my last visit to New York.) The building is already gone and is now just a hole in the ground. The museum has moved to Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets.  I didn’t have time to visit it.

9/11 Memorial & Museum

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The north fountain with white rose. Photo by George Taniwaki

The National September 11 Memorial opened in 2014. It honors the victims killed in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania during of the awful attacks in September, 2001 as well as the people killed in the earlier attack on the World Trade Center in February, 1993.

The memorial consists of two square fountains, each encompassing the footprint of one of the towers. The fountains are surrounded by bronze panels with the names of each victim cut into them. A white rose is placed by each name on that person’s birthday (see photo). Water falls about 10 m (30 ft) into a reflecting pool. From there, it falls into a square hole so deep you cannot see the bottom. The sound of rushing water is emitted from the hole. The scale of the fountains is moving. Even on a busy summer weekend when thousands of tourists are viewing the memorial, there is plenty of space to stand and contemplate.

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View from the balcony entering the museum. Photo by George Taniwaki

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View of quote from stairs entering the museum. Photo by George Taniwaki

The 9/11 museum is also enormous and also within the footprint of the towers. The main floor is under the fountain about 18m (60ft) below ground. From the balcony you can see the slurry wall that holds back the Hudson River and a giant remnant of a column from the World Trade Center marked with spray paint (see photo).

An escalator takes you past a quote translated from Virgil’s Aeneid, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” (see photo). The quote is surrounded by 2,983 watercolor paintings, one for each victim, by Spencer Finch recalling the shade of blue of the sky on the morning of 9/11.

Overall, the museum does a good job of explaining the events leading to the attack and the recovery effort afterwards. One can imagine the difficult task of presenting an evenhanded account in the face of enormous pressure from victim families, first responders, government agencies, donors, and politicians. Nearly every artifact and photo is heavily researched and annotated, which is somewhat chilling. One gets a sense of how invested the survivors are in preserving the memories of the loved ones lost in the attacks.

As a side note, when viewed in context, the use of the Virgil quote above is rather controversial. The “you” refers to the attackers, not the victims, giving it a very different meaning than what was intended (NY Times, Apr 2011). Yet the alternate interpretation is also true. Because of the horror they caused, we will not forget the attackers either.

The Cloisters

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A garden in the Cloisters. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Panoramic view of the Hudson River and New Jersey. Photo by George Taniwaki

The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It houses artwork and architectural fragments from twelfth to fifteenth century Europe. The building is shaped like a medieval cloister and is located at the top of a hill in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan (see photos).

I’m not a big fan of art from this era, so have never bothered to go all the way up to the Cloisters. But after visiting Florence a few years ago I decided I should make the journey. It was well worth it. I took the subway and walked up the hill. The building is imposing.  The gardens are tranquil and beautiful. And seeing the historical transition in painting from flat to perspective is fascinating.

Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

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Irises in bloom. Courtesy of Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

On my way to the Cloisters, I accidentally missed my stop. Rather than wait for a train the other direction, I decided to walk back. On a busy street filled with businesses I suddenly passed by a small garden and walked in. It turns out it was part of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum. Opened in 1916, the museum is not very large, but is well maintained and reveals some of the history of Manhattan beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Final Notes

When visiting a city, I rarely buy City Pass tickets or their equivalents. The list of venues is fixed and limited. Instead, I just buy tickets in advance directly from each museum I visit. In fact, I just go to each museum first, checked out how long the line is, and if it is too long, then use my phone to buy tickets online. Museums with long lines and that lack online ticket sales don’t get my business.

To get around a strange town, I need more than a map. I need info on the best ways to get around by walking, biking, using public transit, or hailing Uber. Also, I want to compare estimated travel times and costs for each option. I have found two excellent apps to help. They are CityMapper and Transit, both available for iPhone and Android.

Sue and I visited Paris recently and had a wonderful time (see a Mar 2011 blog post about my visit to the Musée Carnavalet.).

One thing that we found disconcerting was the prevalence of scam artists around the city. Unfortunately, although we took lots of pictures of the city, we failed to take any of these people.

The door blocking musicians

Our first experience with a scam artist was riding the train from the airport to the city center. At a stop after the airport, a young man, who from his complexion I assume to be North African, stepped on the train with a portable amplifier/synthesizer. He blocked the exit door of the train and began singing. When the train pulled to the next stop, he stopped singing and held a tip cup as people moved on or off the train. When the train started moving again, he started singing again. We saw musicians nearly every day while riding the Metro. Unlike the U.S. the musicians were always on the trains, never in the stations. Also, unlike the street musicians I see in the U.S., these people were uniformly untalented.

The school for the deaf

Our second experience occurred a few minutes later as we exited the airport train at Gare du Nord. It is a beautiful building. In front of the station are throngs of teenage girls, all of them deaf (or so they mime), and all of them with long dark hair and brown eyes. I presume they are also North African. They each have a clipboard with note, in English, asking for a donation for their school. They are very persistent, like flies at a picnic. We saw these deaf girls outside all the Metro stations nearest tourist sites and near the Eiffel Tower.

The found ring

Apparently, lots of men drop their gold wedding bands on the ground near museums in Paris. Luckily, there is always a nice gentleman who speaks broken English who will pick it up and ask you if it is yours. When you say “no”, he will ask if you want to buy it and then point to the 14K mark inside the band. Too bad the ring is made of brass. A version of this scam involving a woman is described here.

The woven bracelet

After walking past the hoard of deaf girls at the upper station for the Montmartre funicular , I started walking down the steps. On the way down, I encountered a group of young men who surround me. They are all black, possibly immigrants from West Africa. One of them places a string loop around my wrist and begins weaving it. I get bored with his spiel and move on. The weaver yells down the hill and a second group of young men surround me again and repeat the process. I’m intrigued, but am in a hurry and break away from them. Naturally, they are disappointed that I didn’t stick around to buy a souvenir of my visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Trinket dealers

As you walk toward the Eiffel Tower, there are many people selling souvenirs and toys. There are some selling identical Eiffel Tower key chains (always 12 for 5 Euros) and Eiffel Tower replicas (in several sizes up to a foot tall). Others sell identical wind-up fuzzy dogs. And a final group sells wooden trains with carved letters that you can use to spell your name, or “P-A-R-I-S” or “E-I-F-F-E-L T-O-W-E-R.” Nearly all of the vendors were young men and appeared to be either black or North African.

What’s going on?

I thought it was odd that so many scam artists would use identical techniques. Here are a few ideas that popped into my head.

  1. These people are all copying each other because these particular scams have proven to be the money makers. You wouldn’t want to copy a scam that is inefficient.
  2. The prevalence of North African and West African immigrants in these scams indicates how hard it is for these people to find regular employment in the French economy. Discrimination forces immigrants and their descendants to live in the margins of society.
  3. The tolerance of the French police to these scammers, who prey on tourists and ply their trade in busy public places in broad daylight, indicates a tacit admission by the government that there are no other jobs for these people and to restrict their activities could lead to violent social unrest. Recall the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois and other banlieues in 2005.
  4. Some scams, like the musicians are probably independently operated. But others, like the sales of identical toys, and the soliciting for the deaf girl school, indicate that someone may be controlling access to the goods, the forms, and maybe even the prime street locations. These may be pyramid schemes in which the vendors are paying a cut to someone above. These street scam artists may be victimizing tourists. But they may be victims themselves.
  5. The girls with the clipboards ask you to complete the “donation” form because this is an easy way for the scam operator to ensure each girl reaches her quota and ensure she isn’t stealing any of the funds.

There’s a museum on every street corner in Paris. I’m exaggerating, but it sure feels that way. On Sunday, I took a walking tour of the Marais district of Paris and made a stop at the Musée Carnavalet. Despite the crowded streets, there were only a few visitors in the museum; apparently most people in the Marais district were busy shopping or eating.

The Carnavalet Museum features artwork and furniture that covers the history of Paris. It is housed in two old mansions connected by a corridor on the second floor. Each mansion has a courtyard with a garden, although at this time of year the gardens weren’t on display. The museum is free and photography is allowed.

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A rare prerevolutionary statue of Louis XVI in entry courtyard. Photo by George Taniwaki

Each room covers a single time period, but the rooms are not in chronological order. The labels are in French only. It’s all quite confusing unless you bring a guidebook with you. I used Rick Steves’ Paris 2011.

Just for fun, I took a few panorama shots using my iPhone. They are stitched together using Autostitch, an app featured in a Feb 2010 blog post.

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90 degree panorama of first floor staircase. Photo by George Taniwaki

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180 degree panorama of mural above staircase. Photo by George Taniwaki

I’ll say one thing about France. There sure were a lot of wars there from 1789 to 1945.