second day in Saigon, Vietnam. I am lucky enough to get on a Saigon Tours half-day
trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense
network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which
the Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the
is the second leg of nine during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger
Hunt, “A Blind Date with the World,” where we don’t know where we are going
until we are given 4-hour notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you
are not allowed to take a commercial tour, or hire a private guide, or even use
a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to force you to
interact with locals. I knew that even though the visit was one of the “Bonus”
scavenges, I wouldn’t get points, also my teammate Margo, was doing her own
thing in Saigon, visiting the Botanical Gardens.)
The visit is profound, and though the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple, especially not in the world of geopolitics). You have to appreciate the commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they did – creating a virtually self-sufficient community under ground, planting boobie traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give away the location of the tunnels). We get to climb into a tunnel, and go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47, M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what they were living through. There was a hospital, a wardrobe sewing area, we watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper. At the end is a film that uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression.
the way back, the guide offered to make a detour to take us to a factory,
created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of
coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the
chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory produced
cigarettes, but today, they produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered
and inlaid items.
trip provides an excellent opportunity to see other Vietnamese communities
outside of the urban center.
After returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards, buying stamps and writing the cards), then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), then on to the War Remnants Museum, where I visited until it closed at 6 pm, because there was so much to see and take in.
You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war. The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the American soldiers walking along and one who looks like he is casually lighting a cigarette as this young girl is coming down the road in terror. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame.
only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war
are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should
have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another
exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.
first floor, which should be visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the
place where American prisoners of war, including Senator John McCain, were
kept. Here,though, is where it can be said the propaganda offensive takes place
– there are photos showing a female nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds,
with the caption that noted she had put down her gun in order to care for him.
This exhibit brings things up to date, with the visits of President Clinton in
1994 (in another section in noted that Clinton’s visit brought the end of
economic sanctions, and with the country’s shift to market economy, produced
revitalization, as measured by the boom in mopeds.
But on the bottom floor, they show photos of
Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
floor also has an exhibit devoted to the peace movement in the US and around
the world, with some famous incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I looked around for an American who might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption was particularly telling: it showed an American hauling off an ethnic minority and noted that “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.” I left feeling that the experience was close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.
Imagine a structure 120 feet high that can fit 2000 people for a concert, but that can move, expand, shrink or be completely removed to expose an open-air plaza. An “anti-institution” cultural institution to provide a home and nurture the full spectrum of the arts, where emerging artists, local artists, and established artists have parity, and audiences represent the diversity and inclusivity of New York with low-priced ticket holders dispersed throughout the house.
This is The Shed, the
newest cultural center to open in a city which prides culture above all, sure
to be gain a place among the pantheon of iconic art institutions, along with
its leading-edge approach to harnessing the arts as a force for social action
and public good, its astonishing architecture, flexible, versatile and
adaptable enough to enable artists of today and tomorrow and fulfill their
vision to be a platform across multi-disciplines.
It’s “the Swiss army knife” of culture,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, chair of the board, during a press preview prior to the April 5 grand opening, when the principals involved with the genesis of the project spoke of what The Shed, and its mission, meant to the city and society.
Indeed, they noted, in a city of 1200 cultural attractions, The Shed had to be different, beginning with its commitment to commissioning new works, creating a platform – the space and place – for artists across disciplines, engaging audiences across a spectrum of backgrounds and interests, but most significantly, creating a building, that like a “living organism” would keep morphing to accommodate artists’ visions today and decades from now, accommodating the unimaginable ways art and culture might change over time.
Six and a half years ago, after seeing a 60-second animation of what The Shed could be, purpose-built to house various forms of culture and building would move, John Tisch, vice chair of the new institution, told his wife, “The Shed is about future of NYC and we need to be involved.”
“6 ½ years later, here
we are discovering the future of NYC and how we as citizens and creators of
this institution will discuss culture and humanity, how we all need to be
together in the 21st century in NYC.
“There are many cultural institutions – many are about the past. The Shed is about the future.”
“The dictionary defines ‘shed’ as an opened-ended structure with tools,” said Doctoroff. “We designed The Shed as a platform, uniquely adaptable, to liberate artists to fulfill their dreams.”
More than a dozen years
ago, Doctoroff said, The Shed “started as small square on map, a placeholder
for To Be Determined cultural institution.
“Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Make
it different from anything else in New York City.’ That’s not easy in a town of
1200 cultural institutions. It had to play a role in a new edge of New York
City, keeping New York City as leading edge of the cultural world.”
Liz Diller of Diller
Scofidio + Renfro, lead architect, and David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, collaborating
architect, responded to the mandate for flexibility, a one-of-a-kind structure.
“Just as it was to be designed
to be flexible, we wanted it to be of and for our time and inclusive of artists
across all disciplines,” Doctoroff said. “We proposed commissions of emerging
artists across all art forms – the mission drives our work.
“It is a remarkable
public/private investment of $500 million to design and construct building and
create original works of art.
“New York City continues
to be perfect partner under Mayor DiBlasio. The city provided $75 million and
“We are standing in The McCourt,
a spectacular space that can do anything an artist can imagine. It was named
for the Board member who gave $45 million.
“Griffin Theater was named
for one of most generous philanthropists, Ken Griffin, who gave $25 million.
“Altice USA is the
founding fiber network partner – so that The Shed is an accessible arts
organization with global reach, the first cultural institution with connectivity
“Above all, Mayor
Bloomberg, who had vision to transform West Side and create cultural
institution as beating heart. The Shed is housed the Bloomberg Building, named
for Mayor Bloomberg.
“It’s been a 14-year
journey – kind of crazy, new kind of cultural institution in a completely new
building in new part of town, new board, new team, performing miracles every
day, producing our own work.
demands great purpose,” Doctoroff said.
Alex Poots, the Artistic Director and CEO, said, “I started to imagine the possibilities: a flexible building, built on city land. That was the draw to lure me from England –a public purpose. It was a no brainer, building on what I had been doing for 15 years. [Poots is also involved with the Manchester Festival and with the Park Avenue Armory.]
“Parity among art forms;
the ability to commission art – visual and performing arts. And it would not
matter if the artist were emerging, established, or a community artist – we don’t
need a false hierarchy.
“The Shed is place for
invention, curiosity where all artists and audiences can meet.
Alongside all the
venerable institutions of city, we hope The Shed can add something.
“It’s rare for a place to be open in the day as a
museum, and in the evening a performance center.”
Poots introduced the 2019 inaugural season’s first commissions (and the press were able to watch some rehearsals):
a new live production celebrating the unrivaled impact of African American
music on art and popular culture over the past 100 years, conceived by
acclaimed filmmaker and artist Steve McQueenand developed with music visionaries and academic experts
including Quincy Jones, Maureen Mahon, Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson, Tunji Balogun and
Greg Philliganes, is a five-night concert series (April 5-14) celebrating the
unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture, with performances
by emerging musicians.
a live performance/exhibition pairing works by master painter Gerhard
Richter with a new composition by Steve Reich and an extant
composition by Arvo Pärt, performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
(April 6-June 2).
Jeane Baker of Troy, a reinvention of Euripides’ Helen by
poet Anne Carson, starring Ben Whishaw and the opera singer, Renée
Fleming (April 6-May 19).
Björk’s Cornucopia, the
multidisciplinary artist’s most elaborate staged concert to date, directed by
Lucrecia Martel (May 6-June 1).
Dragon Spring Phoenix
futuristic kung fu musical conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng and Kung Fu
Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with
songs by Sia, choreography by Akram Khan, and production design
and costumes by Tim Yip (June 22–July 27);
There are also, expansive exhibitions devoted to
extant and newly commissioned work by trailblazing artists Trisha Donnelly and
Agnes Denes; and an unprecedented opportunity for New York City-based
emerging artists of all disciplines to develop and showcase their work
throughout The Shed’s spaces via an Open Call commissioning program.
Beneath the stands and
stage in The McCourt is the only permanent art installation, “In Front of
Itself,” a large-scale, site-specific work by artist Lawrence Weiner embedded
into the plaza. It serves as a walkable outdoor area when the movable shell is
nested over the fixed building, or as the base of The McCourt when the shell is
extended to the east. The 20,000-sq. ft. work features the phrase, “In front of
itself” in 12-foot high letters fabricated with custom paving stones.
These first commissions,
Poots said, “shows the range of The Shed.” The flexibility of the building
makes it possible to transform from one show to the next in just two days.
Art as Social Action
Tamara McCaw, Chief Program Civic Officer, is responsible for fulfilling the mission of The Shed to use art as social action.
“It is my responsibility
to serve the community, particularly those under stress or have barriers [to
artistic expression]. ]
McCaw oversees the Open
Call program, an unprecedented opportunity for 52 New York City-based emerging
artists and collectives to develop and showcase their work throughout The
Shed’s primary spaces, free to the public (May 30-August 25) and continuing in
The 52 artists were
selected from 930 applications in its first open call. Alex Poots said that The
Shed will embark on its next round of emerging talent in 5-6 months.
The Shed has year round
social justice residencies, serving 700 students a year
“We are providing a platform for local and
emerging artists – selected by diverse panel and Shed staff (2 are on the panel
– to present in principal spaces, plaza, theater.” These performances and
exhibits will be free to public.
“It is our civic
responsibility to reflect, respond to the diverse communities of NYC – with
affordable tickets ($10; free for 18 year olds and under and CUNY students),
and reserve 10% of low-income seats that will be distributed throughout house
(not the back or nosebleed section)
Addressing how The Shed
intends to be responsive to diverse audiences, Doctoroff noted that the
building is open – the restaurant, café and lobby. Anyone can come through
without a ticket, and every gallery and theater can be separately ticketed. The
goal is to make access to exhibits and performers and accessible as possible.
McCaw added, “People
from public housing are already are coming because they are of process. We did
outreach for open call. There are artists who live in public housing here. When
you come with respect, people want to be involved.
“We are creating inventive
new work, supporting creative expression, cultural equity and belief in power
of art to effect social change.”
Ticket prices are
intentionally low. Every gallery show – except Richter – is $10 ticket and free
for those under 18. Open call programs are free (18 weeks of programming)
At the end of the first
year, he expects that half the entire
audience will be admitted for $10 or free.
The Shed, a
not-for-profit arts institution, expects to operate at a loss.
“That means we have to
raise money,” Doctoroff said. “But we regard it as investing in society, not as
a loss. The less box office, the more generous we are. There are high ticket
prices for those who can afford it and low for those who can’t – low cost
tickets are equally dispersed through theater, to promote equity.”
A good source of real
money, though, could be in renting out space in The Lizzie and
Jonathan Tisch Skylights and The Tisch Lab on the top floor, Level 8, where there is a
1,700-square-foot creative lab for local artists, a 3,300-square-foot rehearsal
space, and a 9,500-square-foot flexible, multipurpose space for events.
“The Top floor is engine
for that flexible space – dinners, small performances – will be rented year
round while operating as not-for-profit art center.”
Frank H. McCourt Jr., Shed board member and entrepreneur, reflected, “There is something else here – civic imagination, ideas put into action to serve people – address societal issues, change lives, make a better nation, a better humankind.
“It is artistic creation
but also social innovation. Human creativity for the greater good. My hope for The
Shed is that it is home for both art and other intellectual activities. This
place, including the institution created to animate it, is a bold, living
example of civic action. An idea put into action for greater good.
“It’s not finished, just
getting started. This week a milestone. In a world replete with cynicism, The
Shed is the opposite.”
An Architectural Marvel
“We started the project 11 years ago – when it was a dotted line on a satellite photo and a question mark. It was the 2008 recession,” reflected Liz Diller, lead architect, who described what it was like to design a building around a mission.
“Arts in New York are
siloed – dance, theater, music, visual. That’s not how artists think today, but
how will artists think in one or two decades? We can’t know. We started a project
without a client, an anti-institution institution, to serve artists of all
kinds in a future we could not predict.
“How could architecture
not get in the way of that? Art is in flux, so the building had to be able to change
on demand, be flexible without defaulting.”
What she and collaborating
architect David Rockwell devised is a fixed building with column-free exhibit
and performance space, the Bloomberg Building.
Shed’s Bloomberg Building—an innovative 200,000-square-foot structure designed
by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Lead Architect, and Rockwell Group, Collaborating
Architect—can physically transform to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.
Its eight-level base building includes two levels of gallery space; the
versatile Griffin Theater; and The Tisch Skylights, which comprise a
rehearsal space, a creative lab for local artists, and a skylit event space.
an iconic space for large-scale performances, installations, and events, is
formed when The Shed’s telescoping outer shell is deployed from over the base
building and glides along rails onto the adjoining plaza. The McCourt can have theater seating for 1400,
or open the glass wall to expose the balcony for 300 seated and have 2000 on
When the movable shell is nested over the base building, the 20,000-square-foot
Plaza will be open public space that also can be used for outdoor programming;
the eastern façade can serve as a backdrop for projection with lighting and
sound support. The Plaza is equipped with a distributed power supply for
outdoor functions. Oversize deliveries can be brought by truck up Hudson Yards
Boulevard and loaded directly onto The Plaza and into the base building or the
shell when deployed. Those doors can be opened while the audience is under
cover, for an open-air effect.
“It is the architecture
of infrastructure: all muscle, no fat,”
Diller said. “Alex, an inspirational alchemical force, challenged the building
to be smarter, more flexible, agile. This is a perpetual work in progress –
always getting smarter more agile.
It will respond to the challenge
of artists and challenge the artists back.”
“New York is so defined by art and its artists. Art creates community, at its best, and empathy with audiences,” said Architect David Rockwell.
“What we created
is a Swiss Army knife of culture,” said Doctoroff. “A beautiful design with
practicality to respond to the notion that we don’t know where art will go, or
where artists will be in 200 years.”
eight-level base building includes two expansive, column-free galleries
totaling 25,000 square feet of museum-quality space; a 500-seat theater that
can be subdivided into even more intimate spaces; event and rehearsal space;
and a creative lab.
outer shell can double the building’s footprint when deployed over the
adjoining plaza to create a 17,000-square-foot light-, sound-, and
temperature-controlled space, named The McCourt, for large-scale performances,
installations, and events for audiences ranging from 1,250 seated to 3,000
standing (when combined with space in the two adjoining galleries of the base
building). When space is not needed, the movable shell can nest over the base
building, opening up the plaza for outdoor use and programming.
explained how the movable shell travels on a double-wheel track based on gantry
crane technology commonly found in shipping ports and railway systems. A
rack-and-pinion drive moves the shell forward and back on four single-axle and
two double axle bogie wheels that measure six feet in diameter; the deployment
of the shell takes approximately five minutes.
exposed steel diagrid frame of the movable shell is clad in translucent pillows
of durable and lightweight Teflon-based polymer, called ethylene
tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). With the thermal properties of insulating glass
at 1/100th of the weight, the
translucent ETFE allows light to pass through and can withstand hurricane-force
winds. Measuring almost 70 feet in length in some areas, The Shed’s ETFE panels
are some of the largest ever produced.
“Systems were adapted from
other things but it is novel in the way we put together,” Diller said, adding
that the architecture is “based on industrial crane technology, brought to 21st century”
with an emphasis on functionality. But there were no real models among arts
“It was a constant process
of invention, reinvention,” said Doctoroff. “We have 14 blackout shades. We had
to rethink the system of shades – particularly when Alex came and knew he wanted
concerts. They needed to also provide sound protection. We went to the sailmakers
who designed sails for America’s Cup boats to design shade system. Extra
performance capability of holding back 108 decibels (loud). The thickness,
density had to be able to roll up.”
Asked why New York needed another cultural institution, Doctoroff retorted, “Why have we been so successful raising money? Because people sense New York does need this. The criteria was that this had to be different from anything else in New York. We went to talk to artists and leaders of cultural institutions around the world to ask what do they not have and need. There were similar themes –the internet era gives artists the capacity of collaborating across distances and disciplines, but also producing work that didn’t fit in traditional institutions. Out of that came idea of flexibility.
“This is different: our
mission of inclusivity embedded in value system,” said Doctoroff, said in a
small discussion group with journalists.
“We prove it every day.
This is personal for me: 36 years ago I imagined a new West Side – saving the
Highline [now one of the most popular attractions in NYC, with 8 million visits
a year], the subway. I always believed having a cultural heart to the new West
Side was critical and would need to change over time to keep New York leading
edge in culture. I believe cultural institutions are critical to New York,”
said Doctoroff, who is also chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet
company that looks at sustainable solutions to designing urban communities.
“The Shed will never be
finished,” said Doctoroff. “The word ‘unfinished’ ends with ‘shed’. It will
always be evolving because what we’ve done is created a platform for artists to
use as their own. The building enables their vision – they will push, stretch
us in ways we can’t imagine, they can’t imagine today. The Shed is an organism
that keeps morphing.”
And that’s how Liz
Diller expects not to go through post partum blues. “We will respond to the
challenge of artists and challenge artists back.”
One of the most popular attractions
in Venice and dominating the most popular square, San Marco, the Doge Palace is
unbelievably crowded with tourists during the day who can stand on line for a
long time and then struggle inside for views of the fantastic art. But on my
recent trip, I discovered that the Doge Palace and three other museums stay
open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm (last entrance at 10 pm) and the
ticket is valid at all four of the museums and valid for three months. The experience of visiting the Doge Palace at
night is incomparable.
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without
waiting at all and find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe
them – by myself or with at most a handful of other people. All of us are
breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by
titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One
room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at
this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Besides the extraordinary
magnificence of the artwork throughout the Doge Palace, I realize from the
notes I read afterward that the palace harbors a fascinating history of
government of this early republic, which for two centuries
dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Venice’s powerful influence
extended from the city at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the
eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
I go through the rooms taking in the visual
sights, overwhelmed, really by the art – the majestic paintings in gilded
frames that completely cover the walls and ceiling, the architectural details.
The rooms are fairly dark and I don’t take the time or struggle to read the
notes that are provided. Later, when I review the notes provided, I better
appreciate the historical significance, where the art and the architecture were
representations of the structure of government and the rulers, comparable to
the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House, combined, though hundreds
of years older.
For two centuries, the Venetian Republic dominated trade
between Europe and Asia, its influence extending from the
city at the western edge of the Byzantine Empire to the eastern Mediterranean
and the Black Sea.
The palace dates back to before the
10th century but, after a fire, was rebuilt by Doge Sebastiano Ziani
(1172-1178), a great reformer who also changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square.
The palace had to be expanded several times “to
accommodate political changes and the increase in number of people who had the
right to participate in the legislative assembly meetings” (an intriguing
phrase). The Chamber of the Great Council (just one room in this palace)
accommodated 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen. The thought is mind-boggling.
After another huge fire in 1577 destroyed many of the
masterpieces, reconstruction was undertaken
immediately to restore it to its original appearance, which was completed by
Until then, the Doge’s Palace housed not only the
Doge’s apartments, the seat of the government and the city’s courtrooms, but
also a jail. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that Antonio da
Ponte ordered the construction of new prisons, built by Antonio Contin around
1600, which were linked to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs, built in
1614. Relocating the prisons left the old space on the ground floor of the
palace free, which led to the creation of the courtyard.
The famous Bridge
of Sighs dates from the Romantic period, its name supposedly referring to
the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which
they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed
the lagoon and San Giorgio through the filigree openings.
Crossing over the Bridge of Sighs is one of the
most thrilling aspects of the visit, especially at night, with the golden
lights reflected on blue-black water. You peer through the openings, just as
these prisoners would have. It is
somewhat surreal to look down at the bridge from which you saw the Bridge of
Sighs hours before, and imagine what prisoners must have thought as they had
their last glimpse of that glorious scene. And then going into the prison
itself, surreal considering it was mere steps away from the grandeur of the
But there is still so much more to
see – it seems that the palace just goes on and on.
The Chamber of the Great Council, restructured in the 14th century, was decorated with a
fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the
period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini,
Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. At
53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most
majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in
The Great Council was the
most important political body in the Republic. An ancient institution, the Council
was made up of all the male members over 25 years old of patrician Venetian
families, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. “This was
why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over
the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican
equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other
authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were
getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat
in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the
basis of all the other authorities within the State.”
This room was also where the first steps in the
election of a new Doge would take place. These voting procedures were extremely
long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday,
when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall
with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors
occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room.
The walls are decorated with works by Paolo
Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese), Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. depicting Venetian history, particularly the city’s relations with the
papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; the ceiling is decorated with the Virtues and
examples of Venetian heroism, with an allegorical glorification of the Republic
in the center. Facing each other in groups of six, the 12 wall paintings depict
acts of valor or scenes of war that had occurred during the city’s history. A
frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are in
the Sala dello Scrutinio) runs just under the ceiling. Though commissioned from
Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are the work of his son, Domenico.
Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important
achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is
represented simply by a black cloth – a traitor to the Republic, he was not
only condemned to death but also to damnatio
memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.
Along the wall behind the Doge’s throne is one of
the longest canvas paintings in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo
Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento
fresco that had been damaged in the fire.
The Council Chamber was where two
separate and independent organs of power, the Savi and the Signoria, would meet.
The Savi was divided into three sections concerned with
foreign policy, mainland Italy and maritime issues. The
Signoria was made up of the three Heads of the Councils of Forty and members of
the Minor Council, composed of the Doge and six councilors, one for each
district of the city of Venice. The Council was organized and coordinated the
work of the Senate, reading dispatches from ambassadors and city governors,
receiving foreign delegations and promoting other political and legislative
dei Pregadi housed the Senate, one of the oldest public institutions in
Venice. Established in the 13th century,
it evolved over time until by the 16th century it was the body mainly
responsible for overseeing political and financial affairs in manufacturing,
trade and foreign policy. In effect, it served as a sub-committee of the Great
Council and its members were generally drawn from the wealthiest Venetian
The Chamber of the Council of Ten is named for the council that was set up after a conspiracy
in 1310, when Bajamonte Tiepolo and other noblemen tried to overthrow the
government. “Initially meant as a provisional body to try those conspirators,
the Council of Ten is one of many examples of Venetian institutions that were
intended to be temporary but which became permanent.” Its authority covered all
sectors of public life, a power that gave rise to its reputation as a ruthless,
all-seeing tribunal at the service of the ruling oligarchy, a court whose
sentences were handed down rapidly after secret hearings. The assembly was made
up of ten members chosen from the Senate and elected by the Great Council. These
ten sat with the Doge and his six counselors, which accounts for the 17
semicircular outlines that you can still see in the chamber.
The Compass Room was used
for the administration of justice. It was named for the large wooden compass with
a statue of Justice, that stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the
rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors. Those
summoned by these powerful magistrates waited here to be called; the
magnificent decor was intended to reinforce the solemnity of the Republic’s
So much of the exquisite decoration we see, which
dates from the 16th century, was commissioned from Veronese. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all
intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic; the central
panel, with St. Mark descending to crown the three Theological Virtues, is a
copy of the original, now in the Louvre.
The Chamber of Censors was an
office which was established in 1517 to address “the cultural and political
upheavals that are associated with Humanism.” The State Censors “were more like
moral consultants than judges, with their main task being the repression of
electoral fraud and the protection of the State’s public institutions.” The
walls display Domenico Tintoretto’s portraits of these magistrates.
The Chamber of the State Advocacies: This State Advocacy department dates from the 12th
century, when Venice was organized as a commune. The three members, the
Avogadori, safeguarded the principle of legality, making sure that laws were
applied correctly. Though they never enjoyed the status and power of the Doge
and the Council of Ten, the Avogadori remained one of the most prestigious
authorities in Venice right up to the fall of the Republic. They were also
responsible for preserving the integrity of the city’s patrician class,
verifying the legitimacy of marriages and births inscribed in the Golden Book.
The “Scrigno” Room. The
Venetian nobility as a caste came into existence because of the “closure” of
admissions to the Great Council in 1297; but it was only in the 16th century
that formal restrictions that protected the status of that aristocracy were
introduced: marriages between nobles and commoners were forbidden so greater
controls were set up to check the validity of aristocratic titles. Golden and
Silver books registered all those families that not only had the requisites of
“civilization” and “honor”, but could also show that they were of ancient
Venetian origin. The Golden and Silver Books were kept in a chest inside a
cupboard that also contained all the documents proving the legitimacy of
claims. The 18th century cupboard we see today extends around three
sides of a wall niche; lacquered in white with gilded decorations.
The Armoury houses an
important historical collection of weapons and armaments. The core of the
collection is 14th century, dating from the time when the Armoury was under the
control of the Council of Ten and stocked with weapons that would be readily
available for the Palace’s guards. The collection was partially dispersed after
the fall of the Republic, but still contains some 2000 exhibits, including 15th
and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers and crossbows. Many
are inscribed or painted monogram CX – for “Council of Ten” – which also
appears on the door jambs, evidence of the Council’s might. The Turkish
implements – weapons, standards and ships’ lanterns – that are displayed were
taken from the enemy during battle. The collection also displays 16th and 17th
century firearms; implements of torture; a chastity belt; and a series of small
but lethal weapons that were prohibited by law.
The Doge’s Palace was the heart of the political life and
public administration of the Venetian Republic, so after the fall of the
Republic in 1797, its role inevitably changed. Venice first fell under French
rule, then Austrian, and ultimately, in 1866, became part of a united Italy.
Up until the end of the 19th century, the
Palazzo Ducale was occupied by various administrative offices and housed
important cultural institutions such as the Biblioteca Marciana (from 1811
to 1904). But by then, the structure was showing signs of decay. The Italian
government set aside sizeable sums for an extensive restoration. Public offices
were relocated with the exception of the State Office for the Protection of Historical
Monuments, which is still housed in the building (now called Superintendence of
the Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Venice and its Lagoon). In
1923, the Italian state which owns the building, appointed the City Council to
manage it as a public museum. In 1996, the Doge’s Palace became part of the Civic
Museums of Venice network.
ST. MARK’S SQUARE MUSEUMS TICKET A single ticket
valid for the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary of Museo Correr,
Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale
Marciana. This ticket is valid for 3 months and grants one single
admission to the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary. (20E for regular
ticket; 13 E for children 6-14, students 15-25, seniors over 65 and holders of
International Student Identity Card) (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/doges-palace/the-palace/)
MUSEUM PASS The Museum Pass the cumulative
ticket for the permanent collection of the Musei Civici of Venice currently
open and for those connected (Palazzo Fortuny and Clock Tower not
included). This ticket is valid for 6 months and grants one single
admission to each museum. The Museum Pass grants entrance to: The St Mark’s
Square museums : – Doge’s Palace – combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo
Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana,
plus other civic museums of Venice: Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of
18th-Century Venice; Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo; Carlo Goldoni’s
House; Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art + Oriental Art
Museum; Glass Museum – Murano; Lace Museum – Burano; Natural
History Museum. (24E or 18 E), www.visitmuve.it.
I wander back through the narrow alleys of the old city,
stopping to listen to a musician fill a plaza with his music, to the tram that
takes me back to the Hotel Alexander in Mestre. Tomorrow, Eric and I will start
our eight-day self-guided bike tour that will take us about 300 miles to
Trieste, Slovenia and Croatia.
(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com,firstname.lastname@example.org).
One of the smartest
choices I make in preparation for a week-long self-guided bike tour from Venice
to Trieste to Istria (Slovenia to Croatia) is to arrive a day earlier. This
gives me the unsurpassed luxury of spending a day wandering around Venice
without a plan or an objective, just to follow whim and whimsy and take in the
incomparable essence of this enchanting city. I am transfixed by Venice – the
colors, the constant motion, the angles, the architecture, how you never know
what you will see around any corner, how getting lost leads to new discovery. I
have that cherished time to really focus on details.
Eric, my son who will be
biking with me, will be arriving the next day, and I have made my way from
Marco Polo International Airport to the Hotel Alexander, on the mainland, in
Mestre by public bus (following the directions provided by FunActive, the tour
company). I drop my bags and have most of the day to explore on my own.
The hotel that has been
selected on the FunActiv tour (self-guided means that they have booked the inns
and laid out the route, provide the rental bikes and support, a ferry the
luggage each day to the next inn) which I booked through Biketours.com, is well
located, just a short walk to a tram that comes frequently (they tell me where
to buy the ticket, at a convenience store) and whisks me in comfort to the
magnificent old city in 15 minutes.
Before I left the hotel,
I had spotted a flyer about a new Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and am delighted
when, serendipitously, I find myself right in front of it, next door to Chiesa
di San Rocco, a church where a concert is underway. I listen for awhile and
then go into the Museum.
What distinguishes the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum is that it is designed as a laboratory for experimentation and curiosity – actually giving you insights into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci by bringing his manuscripts, schematics and drawings to reality. Engineers have recreated large-scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions from his own plans “created through the skillful craftsmanship typical of the Renaissance workshops” which you can touch and maneuver. Essentially, you get to play with DaVinci’s inventions – delighting children of all ages. The museum also exhibits DaVinci’s anatomical studies. A special space is dedicated to his main pictorial works including the Mona Lisa and Annunciation, reproduced using high-resolution backlight technology.(Open daily, Scuola Grand di San Rocco, www.davincimuseum.it).
My motto, “Seize the day” (and waste
no time) serves me well, because my first day is sunny, bringing out the colors
of Venice – along with everyone else. Venice is unbelievably crowded with
tourists– like Times Square but on a much, much bigger scale– and quite warm
and humid. But I don’t mind and I find myself wandering down streets and alleys
in neighborhoods (and they are really neighborhoods, where Venetians live) that
are amazingly uncrowded and quiet.
I periodically take refuge in churches
to get out of the heat and take a bit of a rest and often am pleasantly
surprised to discover art and music.
One of the delights of
Venice is that it is set up like a labyrinth of warrens, alleys, bridges over
canals, so you are constantly surprised by the scenes that come into view as
you walk about.
The most popular is the
famous view from the Rialto Bridge at the center of the city where you
literally have to wait your turn to get a photo.
The narrow alleys all of a sudden
open up into the famous square of San Marco and I come upon the Basilica of San
Marco with its ornate decoration. There is so much to see and do here in the
piazza, which remarkably has retained the same look as depicted in Renaissance
At San Marco, I stand on a bridge
the gondoliers go under to get to the Bridge of Sighs – that famous place in
the Doge Palace where prisoners would be taken to their cramped, damp cells,
across this bridge with the last view of the open sky and their last breath of
fresh air. It’s like rush hour of the gondolas. I admire the skill with which
they deftly turn 90-degree corners and avoid hitting each other or smack into
the pilings. The choreography of their floating dance is amazing – I notice the
oar lock the gondoliers use, shaped in such a way that they get a different
angle to control their stroke.
What really strikes me is that
despite the crowds, how clean Venice’s streets are (though there is graffiti,
more a reflection of political climate) and how fresh. This wasn’t the case
when I last visited, 10 years ago.
I linger in the Piazza San Marco for
a time, and am sitting on marble benches under an archway
at the Doge Palace when I hear thunder. Last time I was here, the city was
flooded – platforms mysteriously would appear on the streets that you had to
walk over to avoid wading in six inches of water – a worrisome warning that
Venice may at some point become submerged altogether with rising sea level.
No one seems particularly bothered
by the thunder, not even the street vendors. I take the tram back to the hotel,
and just before I get there, the thunderstorm starts.
The next morning is raining, but no
matter. I hop the tram again, a five-minute walk from the Hotel Alexander
through the neighborhood for the ride into Venice, and this time, after
crossing over the bridge that provides entrance to the Old City (and apparently
closes at night to those who aren’t living or staying here) go left at the fork
instead of right. I walk over a bridge and see a sign pointing to the Jewish
Ghetto and follow it. I come upon a group of Israeli tourists huddled under a
passageway leading into the Jewish quarter as their guide gives her talk. I
walk ahead and find the synagogue, where Sabbath services are just finishing,
guarded by city soldiers who don’t let me in.
The last time I was in Venice, I
happened upon Chabad gathering for Shabbat dinner and was invited in. The
Chabad are actively repopulating European cities that emptied their Jewish
communities during the Holocaust.
I have a few hours before Eric
arrives and we have our orientation with a FunActive guide for our bike tour. I
make my way to San Marco again, before walking back to the depot to get the
tram back to the hotel, in time for Eric and the guide to arrive.
We spend about an hour with Anthony,
the FunActive guide, actually hurrying him along because we are so anxious to
get back to Venice so Eric can have some time there. Anthony persists: going
over the day-by-day maps, pointing out sights we might look out for, and
alternative routes we can take, and then fits us to the bikes we will be
By the time we get to Venice in the
afternoon, the rain has cleared. We return together to the Jewish Ghetto and
wander from there. I let Eric take the lead so he can have that same delight in
discovering Venice for himself.
It is important to realize that
Venice is a place where people live (signs ask visitors to respect the
residents), and coming in this way, through the Jewish Ghetto, we find many
streets – very quiet streets – that are simply neighborhoods off the beaten
tourist track. Laundry stretched across the canal.
Eric uses his tech prowess (and the
AFAR app) to find a restaurant, which gives a purpose and focus to our
wandering through the streets. We arrive at Al
Portego just in time before all the tables would be reserved for dinner.
After dinner, we walk to San Marco,
which is especially magical at night. I have saved visiting the Doge Palace for
the evening (the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and
Saturdays until 11 pm, last entrance at 10 pm) so that Eric could see it as
well. But Eric is too exhausted after having traveled all day and heads back to
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without
waiting at all – such a contrast to the daytime when the lines are long and
hundreds of people, including massive tour groups, funnel in at once. The
ticket, I learn, is valid at all four museums and good for three months.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take advantage, but the ticket is well worth
Priceless, in fact.
I find myself in these rooms – grand
doesn’t begin to describe it – by myself or with at most five other people. All
of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by
titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One
room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at
this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Next: A Night Visit to the Doge Palace
(We booked our 8-day self-guided
“Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker
which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and
bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors.
Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com,
If you really want to be freaked out by the KGB Spy Museum that opened just a few months ago in Manhattan, do what I did: come directly from Spyscape, where you learn about the whole business of being a spy, and be in the middle of reading a book like “The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West,” by Malcolm Vance.
The KGB Museum would be scarier if it were not laid out somewhat like an antique shop (but aren’t all spy centers sequestered behind something innocuous like a tailor shop?). Row by row, there are some 3500 artifacts, all of them real, many on view publicly for the first time. They date from 1910 until 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union when the KGB was replaced by the FSB. But these mundane objects – a lipstick, an umbrella, a pen – were lethal weapons; a tie pin and belt buckle were cameras; a heart reader could seek out a live person hiding even in a refrigerator. Another important tool? A thermometer to determine if a person were truly dead. And if a master key couldn’t unlock an apartment to install a bug? No matter, a transmitter could be aimed at the window from a huge distance to decipher the sound vibrations and eavesdrop anyway. There is even a letter remover which could take out a letter from its envelope, read its contents and replace it back in the envelope, without leaving a mark.
And then there is the “patient chair,”
used in a psychiatric hospital, with scary restraints, that were used for
interrogations under truth serum or other means.
It turns out that those fantastical
gadgets from the James Bond movies, and even the Get Smart spy spoof, were
actually based on the real thing. It seems that there is nothing too absurd in
the spy world.
The KGB story is really scary
though. KGB (КГБ in Cyrillic) stands for “Komitet
Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti,” which can be translated as the Committee for
State Security. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union, and
during the Cold War the KGB was in direct competition with the CIA and other
state security agencies around the world for cultural, economic, and military
The KGB was born in the Russian Revolution – one of the artifacts is the carpet
memorializing Lenin (not his real last name, it turns out) and the beginning of
the Revolution in 1917 – and was initially designed to ferret out
counter-revolutionaries, or enemies of the Communist state.
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
You realize how pervasive and
ruthless the KGB was (is), and sense the constant terror that the people must
have lived under, as that term “enemies of the state” was broadened to mean any
one who criticized or opposed the ruling party, the leadership or policies.
There are real doors from jail cells,
and you look through at real video of real prisoners. Those who were placed in solitary
were allowed nothing to wear but their underwear; they could sleep only four
hours, when the bed would be closed up, and fed only bread and water for 5 to
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
Some of the best engineering and
scientific minds were employed to devise gadgets and gizmos – miniaturizing cameras,
maximizing surveillance and detection, inventing new ways of transmitting.
undetectable, the agency used its state-of-the-art tools and ruthless methods
to seamlessly monitor the citizens’ lives and keep them in constant fear of
repercussions for any subversive behavior. The investment in the spy technology
had a devastating toll on the country’s economy yet it was deemed the most
effective and necessary way to keep the state isolated from the rest of the
world and keep the Western world out.”
operating in countries all over the world, the KGB had a vast influence on world
affairs, which reached its peak during the Cold War. KGB Spy Museum presents a
never-before-seen collection of items used in the missions of prominent KGB
agents, illuminating the strategies and methods that underlay many of history’s
top-secret espionage operations.
to perusing artifacts and learning about the history of the notorious agency, you
can read and listen to real stories from spies, witnesses and journalists as
well as explore and interact with authentic objects, such as telephone
switchboards (most of the operators who connected the calls and then listened
in on conversations were KGB), encryption machines, an interrogation chair,
designed to extract information from suspects and enemies.
One of the most interesting stories surrounds a wooden Great Seal in one of the cabinets, that was also one of the KGB’s greatest triumphs, that arose out of the famous summit in the Crimea of Stalin, Churchill and FDR. The head of the KGB, Lavrenty Beria, had a replica of the Great Seal made as a gift for Ambassador Averell Harriman, presented most charmingly by cherubic Young Pioneers (like boy scouts) as a “gesture of friendship.” But inside was an ingenious bug that used electromagnetic energy instead of an external power supply. It hung above the Ambassador’s desk in Moscow for seven years before it was exposed in 1952. “The Americans couldn’t figure out how it worked for a year and a half,” my guide, Sergey, says. (The original is in the NSA’s Cryptology Museum in Washington.)
The inventor of the Zlatoust/Receiver
LOSS, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, was a physicist
and a musician, who began his career by developing previously unseen electronic
musical instruments. In 1947 he won the Stalin Prize for Inventions of Listening
One of the objects that is literally
one-of-a-kind, is a record player made expressly for
Stalin; there is also a safe, made by the Bernstein company in Berlin, that
came from KGB HQ, still containing the currency that would have been enough to buy
30 cars. Both indications of the privilege along with the power amassed by the
Communist leadership despite their calls for a equal society.
Among the rarest objects, which are
a point of pride, also seem mundane but were “mechanical masterpieces”:
Tool set КАРОЕД/KAROED (Bark beetle): This is a manual
set of special drills and instruments for drilling very narrow holes less than
0.04 inches without any sound in the tree or plastic. Holes were needed to
listen to secret conversations with a help of secret microphones. These sharp
and pointed drills are specially machined from the very hard metal. The set
includes drill extensions, which can be used to drill holes in 3.3 ft and even
thicker walls or wooden floors. A special hand-held drill holder had a stopper to
drill holes of a certain depth to protect the drill from coming out across the
wall by making only a small, hardly visible hole. A special container collects
shavings in order not to leave any suspicious marks.
very rare: KGB secret drill ИГЛА/IGLA (needle): “It is a unique mechanical
masterpiece – the drill IGLA. This very complicated drill reflects the name
‘needle’, because it drills a very thin hole through the concrete. It drills
with the help of air compressor with abrasive dust to avoid the sound and
vibration. Even the drilling sound was designed by the constructors to simulate
that era washing machine Малютка/Maliutka. The person at home thought that a
neighbor was probably doing the laundry. The Igla drill had a hole through
which the air pressure was inflated according to the manometer readings, and
when the drill approached the outside of concrete wall, the air pressure
dropped in the drill as the air went out and the drill automatically shut off.
The hole was 0.04 inches in size. If the walls were painted or lined with
ceramic tiles, the eye did not even see the hole or dust outside. With this
drill, the abrasive powder and concrete dust were absorbed by air. Agents who
were very patient, slow and responsible were chosen to drill such a hole. In
order to drill a 4 inches concrete wall took about 4 hours, and with the
preparation – the whole day. Agents, through drilled miniature holes, installed
listening or photo devices. After the operation, they applied a hole with the
cement mixture and no suspicious marks were left.”
There’s an old fashioned
phone where you can “dial” a selection of officials. My guide, Sergey, dials
Putin and hands me the phone so I can hear Putin talking (it’s like listening
to the LBJ telephone tapes at the LBJ Presidential Museum in Austin). There are
also actual phones on display from KGB offices that would have features to
disguise the voice at the push of a button.
The two spy experiences – Spyscape and
the KGB Museum – have completely different approaches and perspectives, but they
complement each other so well, especially when visited one after the other.
Spyscape is modern, state of the art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience. KGB is old-school but so relevant today, with the Russian actively hacking elections and using social media to impact US and other elections, policy, and political discourse.
“The KGB Spy
Museum aims to present espionage and intelligence operations in an educational
and interesting way, emphasizing the importance of human intelligence and
setting out a frame of reference for the public to appreciate the great extent
to which spies have always influenced world events. The Museum has a policy of
presenting the history of espionage without political bias, thus offering
visitors a factual and balanced view of the subject. “
The Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 8
available online or in the museum. You need about 1 ½ hours to visit. Tickets
are adults (18-64)/$25; Children 7-17, seniors, students, $20; a guided visit,
minimum 3 people is $43.99.
Are you Bond or Bourne? Once
you leave Spyscape, you will learn there are many more roles to play in the
complex and ever more ubiquitous world of intelligence. After going through
eight “tests” and many stations which do their best to insert you into the
realm of espionage and profile you to figure out what job you are best suited
to, I would make a
sorry spy. I knew from the start I wasn’t either Bond or Bourne. But I
found a new calling.
I was expecting a museum, even as
museums have become more interactive and engaging and multimedia. But Spyscape,
one of the newest attractions in New York City, is not a museum. It is an
interactive experience more than anything else, designed to inform you, yes,
about the world of espionage and surveillance which, it turns out, is ubiquitous
today, but put you in the picture so that you see yourself in the complex
enterprise that is intelligence.
Spyscape is modern, state of the
art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience that lets you
peek into the world of espionage, spycraft, intelligence and
counterintelligence today from the inside.
don’t just get taken on a journey through the history of espionage from World
War II and on, but become immersed in up-to-the-minute, ripped from the
headlines events. Edward Snowdon. Wikileaks. Stuxnet. Black hat hackers. Anonymous. “You might be persuaded not to vote.”
has truly been let out of her box.
There is a feeling of intensity from the moment you arrive – intended to give you that sense of tension and excitement that must be omnipresent in espionage, and visitors will enjoy as much as the adrenaline rush of skiing down a double-black trail. But is there a place for me?
I am risk adverse. I’m not a gamer.
I don’t do puzzles. I’m frightened of going into small dark rooms when I don’t
know what is there. I frighten easily.
As you arrive, you are given a
bracelet that identifies you at scanning machines that basically track your
progress as you go about the exhibit – you complete a series of tasks and
quizzes and at the end, are assessed as to what role you might play in the spy
apparatus – it turns out there are many, many different functions.
entrée into the world of spycraft is the largest passenger elevator in New York
City, escorted by a very professional person with a
clipboard – it turns out that the ride up is also a multi-media orientation
(think “Mission Impossible”).
mission: What kind of spy will you be? Or put another way: Where do you fit in
the pantheon that is the world of espionage.
experience is constructed as if a job interview, to immerse you and personalize
what would otherwise be technical machines and bios. But it turns out that not
all spies work for governments – corporations engage in some of the same
techniques, so do journalists, and so do hackers and criminals. And it turns out that the profile you wind up with at the
end of all the tasks and quizzes is authentic and serious – not tongue-in-cheek
or hokey. I can see some young people seeing new career paths in intelligence
(most of the CIA are analysts, not cloak-and-dagger operatives) or even
outside, since, as is noted, the skills of a spy are broadly applicable.
The layout (Spyscape takes up a
massive amount of space) is purposefully cold, grey, institutional, with
constant pulsing sounds – sometimes electronic music, sometimes sound effects,
I am quite unprepared for the experience, expecting a more conventional exhibit, so am put off stride when all of a sudden confronted with quizzes and tasks. It would have been completely different if I were primed and in a game mode.
One of the tasks I find more engaging (once I got the hang of it), was in the room about coding/decoding, the German’s Enigma machine and the Bombe that British mathematician Alan Turing and colleagues at Benchley developed to break the Enigma code. Here the task is to organize a spy’s escape, but you only have 3 minutes before the Germans will cut off communication to her, and you have to convert a message to code and then decode the response. I do this for the “Limping Lady”, who turns out to be a real person (I later realize she is the spy Virginia Hall) and this was a real scenario.
get personal insights into Alan Turing, the mathematician who developed a
program to break the German “Enigma” machine code. (A fascinating artifact is a
copy of Turing’s notes, as a teenager, summarizing Einstein’s Theory of
Relativity as a gift for his mother). There is also a brief bio of Joan Clark, one
of the Enigma codebreakers who rose to become Deputy Head of the Hut eight. You
get to type code on a replica Enigma machine.
After one “test”, in which I fail to figure out patterns, I am given these words of encouragement: “You didn’t do too well today, but you are obviously better in other things.”
Another that is sure to delight is a
room of laser beams where the timed task is to shut off lights without piercing
the beams – very Oceans 11. (This task gauges your agility.)
All through, the exhibits personalize
the serious issue being raised – the history, technology, impact on society – with
real people, real events and real artifacts. This is serious business after all
with real life and death consequences. Double agents have been exposed and
executed; moles have exposed agents who were executed. Wars declared or
averted, extended or curtailed, won or lost.
you weave through, taking your own quizzes and tasks, the exhibits tell stories
about real spies, double agents, like Robert Hansen and how he was discovered.
Hansen’s treachery led to the unmasking of three soviets who spied for the US,
two of whom were executed. – how he was discovered and trapped. Would you have
detected Hansen’s deceit?
I have all sorts of trepidation about going into a small dark room which turned out to be the test of how well I could detect Deception (I think I do well at that one, probably by accident).
“Gadgets of defiance” describes the
devices that British and American operatives used to carry out perilous
missions in Nazi-occupied Europe – forged documents to support their cover
identifies; one-time encryption pads and miniature radios to communicate with
handlers. They supplied downed Allied pilots with escape maps and compasses and
targeted the enemy with weapons and explosives.
I learn about Virginia Hall, an
American special operations officer who, as a girl, had dreamed of joining the
US foreign service and became fluent in foreign languages, but after she lost
part of her left leg in an accident, her dream was cut off as well. When Hitler
invaded Paris in 1940, Hall was working for a French ambulance service. She
made her way to Britain and joined British special operations. She worked
as a journalist for the New York Post in occupied France, and the Germans
nicknamed Artemis;the Gestapo considered her “the most
dangerous of all Allied spies”. Virginia Hall was the “Limping Lady” of
the code scenario.
about Oleg Penkovsky, known as “HERO” who was a Soviet military intelligence
(GRU) colonel who was responsible for informing the United Kingdom about Soviet
installing missiles in Cuba. The information he provided helped Kennedy through
the Cuban Missile Crisis because he realized that a naval blockade could force
the Soviet Union to stand down. Penkovsky, the highest ranking Soviet official
to provide intelligence for the UK up until that time, is credited with
altering the course of the Cold War. He was executed six months after being
I learn about the British couple, Ruari and Janet
Chisholm, who were his handlers in Moscow. Ruari was Moscow Station Chief for
M16, the British secret intelligence service. Janet collected much of
Pankovsky’s intelligence. During one “brush contact” he walked casually over to
her in a park and offered her children a tin of Vitamin C pills. Janet quickly
swapped the tin which contained military secrets for another identical one
hidden in her baby stroller. The thought of exposing children like that was
chilling. (There’s a photo of Janet with her children on a park bench.)
We meet the real life “Q” gadget wizard,
Charles Fraser Smith, who was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for the character he
used in James Bond. The
new multi-sensory James Bond experience explores the creative process behind
the 007 movies while revealing the secrets of James Bond’s iconic Aston Martin
DB5. You get to peek at gadgets in Q’s lab, examine original concept art in
Oscar®-winning Production Designer Sir Ken Adam’s studio and look behind the
scenes of Skyfall’s explosive finale.
At another section, you go through a
dark curtain and find yourself in this dark round room, illuminated only by
giant screens,that give you some sense of the state of surveillance (it is all
area showcases whistleblower Edward Snowden who exposed the NSA’s surveillance
programs and the reporters who have unmasked government secrets – Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the
journalists who exposed modern day slavery(old
school pad and pen, videocamera and computer are the weapons of choice).
This is where you see the message
blazing out of a giant screen: “You might be persuaded not to vote.” This is
the brave new world of intelligence – not extracting secrets, but in distorting
and implanting messages to shape, disrupt or derail society.
One of the last stations is actually
the most chilling: Hacktivism discusses hacking, hackers – by anarchists,
profiteers as well as nation states. Stuxnet, which was used to disrupt Iran’s
nuclear program (a centrifuge is on view). After Iran realized
what had been done, it called for the hackers to join in an army.
We learn that Stuxnet is now open
source, sold on the blck market, and could be used by any number of actors to
shut down electric grids, water systems or air traffic control or remotely give
instructions to launch a nuclear attack. And no one knows who has it.
And now, I am really to go into my “debrief –
encryption, deception, surveillance, special ops, brainpower (7/18), which
comes up with my spy role: Agent Handler (I suspect they give that one to all
those who don’t measure up as real spies).
But it isn’t done flippantly or
tongue-in-cheek. The authentic personal spy profile is based on psychologists
and a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, and sounds pretty
authentic (as were the short tests for which I was totally unprepared):
“Your Spy Profile is your unique (and
ever evolving) combination of attributes. When compared to others, it allows us
to determine the Spy Role you are best suited to.”
My profile – “empathetic, inquisitive, composed” – turns out
to be fairly accurate and also serious, developed with real psychologists.
Later in the day, I am sent a comprehensive
profile to my email and a
Welcome letter. “Your Spy Skills can be valuable in everyday life. We’ve evaluated
your Core Attributes and Spy Skills to determine your Spy Profile. Top
psychologists and spymasters helped us build our Spy Profile system. We hope
the self-knowledge in your Spy Profile will empower you, and inspire you to
further develop your Spy Skills.”
The missive gives me more detail about my role as Agent
manager of agents who provide secret intelligence or operational support, and
an insider view from General David Petreus.
In the real life example, I am given the bio of
the agent handler for my new spy hero, Oleg Penkovsky (his code name was Hero)
and the background that I found so compelling in the exhibit, about his
handler, Ruari Chisholm, and an example of a typical operation, procuring cover
material for an agent in the Iranian government who wants to provide info on
Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons.
(This makes me think of important omissions in
Spyscape: Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover agent who was infiltrating the Iran
nuclear program until Plame’s
identity as covert officer of the CIA working in counter proliferation was leaked to the press by members of George W Bush administration and
subsequently made public as
retribution for her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s reveal about the false
information that led to the US invasion of Iraq; she also had knowledge to
disprove Bush’s contention that the aluminum tubes that Iraq had could be used
as centrifuges for nuclear material. Also, how Andrew McCabe, the foremost
counter-intelligence expert on Russia, was drummed out of the FBI by Trump to
short-circuit the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign
and the 2016 election).
Spyscape will excite and thrill as
it informs and intrigues. It helps to be prepared in advance for what you will
encounter – I think I would have done considerably better and had better
And like skiing, it is an experience
that adults and older children will relish doing together.
There is a continuing relationship – they send you the profile, and follow up with articles, stories, spy challenges, sharing news about factual and fictional worlds of spying and hacking “and helping you develop your own spy skills. We will be adding content from top hackers and spies to spyscape.com/academy so check in regularly to see what’s new.”
I think I’m being groomed. I’m
From Spyscape, I walk down to the KGB Museum in
Chelsea. It is an interesting Spy v Spy counterpoint that enhances the
experience of each one separately.
is optimized for adults and teens, but children are welcome. Bringing
pre-school-age kids is not recommended. You
need about two hours. There is a pleasant café and the gift shop is loaded with
spy-related merch. Open Monday-Friday,
10 am-9 pm and Saturday-Sunday, 9am-9 pm, last entry at 7:30 pm. (Adult, $39;
child 3-12 $32).
This spring, the New-York Historical
Society presents Hudson Rising, a unique exhibition that explores
200 years of ecological change and environmental activism along “the most
interesting river in America” through artifacts, media, and celebrated Hudson
River School paintings.
On view March 1 – August 4, Hudson
Rising reflects on how human activity has impacted the river and, in
turn, how the river environment has shaped industrial development, commerce,
tourism, and environmental awareness. The exhibition also explores how experts
in various fields are currently creating ways to restore and re-engineer areas
of the river in response to climate change.
Indeed, we tend to think of the environmental movement as
originating with Yellowstone and the national parks, but it is fascinating to
realize that the beginning of environmental activism – and the techniques –
began here. Citizens rallied to oppose the construction of a Con Ed plant on
Storm King Mountain; one of the new organizations, Scenic Hudson, sued; the
case, in 1965 set a precedent beyond the Hudson, establishing that citizens
have standing to sue on behalf of conservation, even when they do not have a
direct economic interest, that beauty
and history also merit protection – the forerunner of the Environmental
Protection Act. Later, a “viewshed,” modeled on the concept of a watershed, in
connection with landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana, also warranted
The Hudson River raised consciousness of the importance of
environmental protection. the exhibit opens with paintings from Thomas Cole,
the founder of the Hudson River School art movement (America’s first
native-grown art movement), who worried even then about the encroachment of
development. His paintings depict an idyllic landscape, but also the
destruction of the forest to lumbering.
Much more than a body of water, the Hudson
and its surroundings have been the home for humans and hundreds of species of
fish, birds, and plants; offered an escape for city-dwellers; and witnessed
battles over the uses of the river valley and its resources. For over 200
years, writers and artists have captured the river in paintings, drawings,
literature, and photographs, and surveyors and scientists have mapped and
measured its every parcel.
has always encapsulated the tension between development and conservation. But
it was more than about aesthetics, and the need for urbanites to be able to
seek respite in the countryside: an early environmental scientist realized that
logging in the Adirondacks, which was discovered to be the source of the
Hudson, was jeopardizing the watershed supplying New York City.
Scientists at the same time discovered the critical link between
forests and the health of rivers. They realized the Adirondack forest supported
the Hudson River and aquatic animals. That begins the movement to save the
Adirondacks, including the forests. Ultimately, it leads to New York State’s
“Forever Wild” amendment to the state constitution, in 1894.
“This path-breaking exhibition explores
ideas about the environment that developed in the context of the Hudson,
examining how we became aware, as New Yorkers and as Americans, of the role
that humans played in the river’s ecological degradation,” said Dr. Louise
Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The exhibit also looks at
the strategies we devised to address it. Spanning the entire industrial
era, Hudson Rising presents a compelling account of how the
Hudson has been an incubator for our ideas about the environment and our
relationships to the natural world for two centuries-plus.”
Indeed, we learn that Theodore Roosevelt,
before creating the first national park as president, innovated environmental
protection as Governor of New York State, working with New Jersey, to protect
the Palisades as a “park for the people” (hugely popular with immigrants who
crammed into cities, the park had 2 million visitors in 1920, many who came by
a free ferry); similarly Franklin Roosevelt, when he was New York State
governor, created what would become the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps
when he was president.
Curated by Marci Reaven, New-York Historical’s vice president of history exhibitions, and Jeanne Haffner, associate curator, Hudson Rising begins with a prelude featuring artist Thomas Cole’s panoramic five-part Course of Empire series (1834-36), a treasure of New-York Historical’s collection that depicts the transformation of a pristine landscape into a thriving city, then its dramatic decline, and the fall of civilization.
Cole railed against “human hubris” and the exploitation of nature. “The ranges of the ax are daily and increasing,” Cole said. “Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it?” he wrote in his “Essay on American Scenery” (1836). Cole’s poetic questioning of the social costs of what was seen in his time as progress, serves as a prelude to the exhibition narrative, which begins with the industrial age and continues into the present day. The Hudson River, we learn, was the incubator for the environmental movement.
The exhibition is organized chronologically
and geographically into five sections that highlight significant places and
events in the environmental history of the river: Journeys Upriver:
The 1800s, The Adirondacks: 1870s-1890s, The Palisades: 1890s-1950s, The Hudson
Highlands: 1960s-1980s, and A Rising Tide: Today.
The exhibit is designed to meander, like the river itself, and uses actual artifacts – there is even the smell of freshly cut wood from the Adirondacks – that bring you, as much as possible to the Hudson: bricks from Haberstraw; rocks from the Palisades; iron from Cold Spring Foundry across from West Point; wood from Catskills; hemlock (used for tanning), even a fish tank with striped bath (blue eels will be added later). “The layout is a metaphor for the river,” said Ken Nintzel, the designer.
There are historical maps – one of the most impressive is a panorama map from 1847 that stretches the length of a wall, that tourists would use, “one of the great maps of American history”- photos, paintings, news clips that trace the battle to reclaim the Hudson from industrial pollution. A map from 1890s shows how the Hudson was “redesigned” to make it more navigable for shipping, changing the way the river ran, but in the process, did away with the shallows that hosted aquatic life and mitigated flooding. Another map documents how plentiful oysters used to be – New York city used to be the primary exporter of oysters and clams – until sewage in the Hudson killed off the oysters.
The painting by Thomas Cole of the Catskill Mountain House reminds
that American tourism began here in the Hudson – today, you can hike up to
where the hotel used to be and gaze out over the Hudson.
exhibits surround you, and there are various interactive elements.
Journeys Upriver: The 1800s starts with a steamboat journey up the Hudson River from
the New York City harbor to Albany, inspired by one of the great tourist guides
of Hudson River history, the Panorama of the Hudson (1847).
The detailed rendering of the river landscape led steamboat and armchair
travelers from New York City to the last navigable point of the river near
Troy, pointing out natural wonders, Hudson Valley industries, notable
individuals, and Revolutionary War sites along the way. Also on view are
paintings, industrial objects, and an important Army Corps of Engineers map
that shows how the Corps engineered the river to be a more navigable and
predictable shipping channel. Hudson River School art on display include Robert
Havell Jr.’s View of Hudson River from near Sing Sing, New York (ca.
1850) and George Henry Boughton’s Hudson River Valley from Fort
Putnam, West Point (1855), both depicting tourists enjoying the
The Adirondacks: 1870s-1890s examines the creation of Adirondack Park, established
to save the source of the river and combat deforestation in order to protect
the viability of the entire Hudson watershed. Advocates for the area included
surveyor Verplanck Colvin, who mapped the area’s peaks and lakes as
superintendent of the State Adirondack Survey and identified the source of the
river at Lake Tear of the Clouds, and Seneca Ray Stoddard, a photographer whose
images of deforestation made a case for forest conservation. On view in this
section is one of Asher B. Durand’s majestic depictions of the Adirondack wilderness, Adirondack
Mountains, New York (ca. 1870).
The Palisades: 1890s-1950s traces the protection of the forests and cliffs of
the Palisades to maintain the health of the river and preserve a place for
beauty and nature. In the late 1800s, the Palisades cliffs were being blasted
to bits by road builders who prized their rock. Citizen activists, such as the
New Jersey chapter of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the American
Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, fought back and helped create
Palisades Park in 1909. Residents of New York and New Jersey thronged to the
park, arriving by foot, ferry, train, and car, with over two million people
visiting in 1920 alone, most of them from Manhattan. The exhibition features a
selection of tourist brochures from that era, including one with a trio of
women posed on the cliff edge, above the river.
The Hudson Highlands: 1960s-1980s explores how activism along the river helped spark
the modern American environmental movement. By the early 1960s, untreated
sewage and industrial pollutants were poisoning the river. Increasing numbers
of power plants were also rising along the Hudson, whose operations were
killing millions of fish, and whose monumental structures were intruding upon
the most treasured vistas. When Con Edison announced plans to build a plant on
Storm King Mountain, citizen activists fought back and prevented its
construction. By the 1980s, citizens could legally intervene to stop
development that put treasured natural resources at risk. On view is an
aquarium featuring striped bass and other fish native to the Hudson River,
which now thrive due to activists’ efforts to save them. Displays of
artifacts, images, and media from the environmental campaigns of the era
include a 1983 photograph featuring John Cronin, river patroller for the Hudson
River Fisherman’s Association (now called Riverkeeper) on his first day on the
job, confronting an Exxon tanker discharging polluted water into the river.
The final section, A Rising
Tide: Today, discusses the process of reimagining and reclaiming the
Hudson River in the 21st century, as experts in many fields explore ways to
restore and re-engineer areas of the river in response to climate change. The
exhibition showcases innovative projects addressing these concerns, such as a
system of “living breakwaters,” reef-like structures designed to restore
diverse aquatic habitats, lessen wave impacts, and restore the shoreline,
implemented by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and landscape architecture
“We hope Hudson Rising will inspire visitors to
see the river differently, and how movements like environmental activism get
born,” Dr. Mirrer said.
“It’s not a new story, but this is the first exhibit that presents
such a comprehensive look at the Hudson River as an incubator of the
As part of New-York Historical’s What the
History programs, a suite of interactive talks, history classes, art-making
workshops, and social evenings for a young professional audience illuminates
the environmental history of New York, the lasting impact of the Hudson River
School painters on the American imagination, and how contemporary design and
ideas are engaging with the threats climate change pose to the city.
Visiting families can enjoy a special guide
featuring suggested exhibition highlights to view as a family, discussion
questions, and gallery-based activities. During the April School Vacation Week
(April 19-28), Museum’s family programs explore environmental activism,
including art making using recycled materials in Museum galleries. On the
weekends (April 20-21 and April 27-28) visiting families can interact with
Living Historians portraying famous and unsung activists of American history.
On April 16, architectural historian Barry
Lewis discusses how the Victorians “greened” their homes and cities, bringing
nature into city greenbelts and private home design. On May 22, Douglas
Brinkley, New-York Historical’s presidential historian, explores how presidents
like Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed the protection
of the nation’s natural treasures and established a sprawling network of state
parks and scenic roadways, respectively. On June 9, author Leslie Day leads a
tour along the Hudson River exploring its rich geological and human history and
its diverse ecosystems.
exhibit is particularly timely: years of exploitation and pollution have
resulted in the entire Hudson River, from the Battery to Hudson Falls, some 200
miles, designated a superfund site by EPA. Mandated clean-up by industrial
polluters including General Electric, have significantly improved conditions.
But the Trump Administration’s EPA is moving to issue a Certificate of
Completion which would end GE’s responsibility for cleaning up the Superfund
site, despite the state’s research that shows high levels of PCBs remaining in
Cuomo issued a statement ahead of Administrator Wheeler’s visit to New York:
“In New York, we
are leading the fight to protect our environment with the most ambitious
environmental agenda in the nation. Administrator Wheeler, while you are in New
York, I urge you to visit the Hudson River, one of this country’s natural
treasures that is also one of the most pressing Superfund sites in the country.
New York has fought to restore this vital resource but the ball is now in the
EPA’s court. The EPA can either do the right thing and continue to hold GE
accountable for continued clean up, or they can side with big polluters and let
GE off the hook for its responsibility to clean up PCBs in the river.
“We refused to allow PCB
contamination to continue to jeopardize the health and safety of our
communities for generations to come. We hope and expect that the EPA will join
us in ensuring the full completion of the cleanup.”
I suggested Wheeler visit “Hudson Rising”.
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical’s mission is to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation—and one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association—which contains more than three million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.
for Yourself: Hike the Hudson River School Art Trail
Walk in the footsteps of the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Jasper
Cropsey, Sanford Gifford and other pioneering American landscape artists,
literally walking into their paintings, and appreciating their work in an
entirely new way.
See what inspired Thomas Cole, his art and his passion to save the Hudson Valley environment, when you visit his home and art studio. Visit Frederic Edwin Church’s magnificent Olana, walk the gorgeous trails and see the very first protected “viewshed” (Olana State Historic Site, 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534, 518-828-0135, olana.org.) Hike the trails that take you up to where the Catskill Mountain House would have stood, to Sunset Rock, to Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, just as the Hudson River School painters did, often with markers that show the paintings that were created from that very same vantage point.
“The Hudson River School painters
believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation. In
large-scale canvases of dramatic vistas with atmospheric lighting, they sought
to capture a sense of the divine, envisioning the pristine American landscape
as a new Garden of Eden. Their work created not only an American art genre
but also a deeper appreciation for the nation’s natural wonders, laying the
groundwork for the environmental conservation movement and National Park
We have become well aware how terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex was, but who knew that T. rex hatchlings were fluffy and gangly, more like turkeys than the massive killing machines they grow to be? Or that the mega-predator had the rare ability to pulverize and digest bones and re-grow its teeth? Or that it grew at the rate of 140 lbs. a month, weighing 6 to 9 tons when fully grown and lived no more than 28 years? That it had excellent vision and sense of smell, but puny hands that probably were vestigial? T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, the first major exhibition of the American Museum of Natural History’s 150th anniversary celebration, brings us face to face with the most iconic dinosaur in the world through life-sized models—including the most scientifically accurate representation of T. rex to date–fossils and casts, engaging interactives, and the Museum’s first multiplayer virtual reality experience.
T. rex: The Ultimate
Predator opens Monday,
March 11, 2019 and will be on view through August 9, 2020, when the exhibit
will likely go on tour.
Founded in 1869, the Museum has a long and celebrated history of international exploration and research in paleontology dating back to the 1890s, with an outsized influence in a field that sits at the intersection of cutting-edge science and the popular imagination. The Museum has a particularly special relationship to T. rex: its famous paleontologist, Barnum Brown, was the first to discover T. rex – in 1902 in Montana – and the first T. rex on display anywhere was here at the museum. This makes the new blockbuster exhibit, T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, inspired by a legacy of scientific exploration and bringing the latest science to the public, a natural launching point for the museum’s 150th anniversary programming.
more than 120 years of dinosaur research and discovery, the Museum continues to
be a leader in this field. Its paleontology collection is one of the largest
and most diverse in the world, with specimens that have led to amazing
discoveries, including the identification of the first dinosaur eggs and early
evidence of dinosaur feathers. A number of recent discoveries about the
tyrannosaur group are highlighted in this exhibition.
and Tyrannosaurus rex in particular,
are such an important and iconic part of the Museum and have been throughout
our history,” said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural
History. “So it seems fitting to launch the Museum’s 150th Anniversary
celebrations with a major new exhibition on the ever-intriguing King of
Dinosaurs. This exciting and fascinating exhibition will do what the
Museum has done throughout its history and continues to do today: share the
latest scientific breakthroughs with the public, introduce visitors to the
researchers on the cutting-edge of discovery, shed new light on the great story
of life on Earth, and inspire wonder and curiosity in visitors of all ages.”
Indeed, while Barnum assembled the most complete collection of dinosaur fossils in the world for the museum, the museum has some 34 million specimens and artifacts – one of the most important collections of natural history anywhere. Its library and archives of research documents – like Barnum’s own field notes and letters which show how painstaking and difficult the expeditions were – are the most complete and extensive in the world.
fossils, like other echoes of ancient life, are discoveries of the science of
paleontology. But dinosaurs have a special status that transcends their
importance to science—they fascinate and inspire the masses like few other
animals—living or extinct—can,” said Michael Novacek, the Museum’s senior vice
president and provost for science. “Chief among them is T. rex, perhaps the most famous and celebrated dinosaur that ever
rex: The Ultimate Predator encounter a massive life-sized model of a T.
rex with patches of feathers—the
definitive representation of this prehistoric predator. The exhibition includes
reconstructions of several T. rex hatchlings and a four-year-old
juvenile T. rex; a “roar mixer” where visitors can imagine
what T. rex may have sounded like by
blending sounds from other animals; a shadow theater featuring a floor projection
of an adult T. rex skeleton coming to
life; and a life-sized
animation of T. rex in a Cretaceous
environment that responds to visitors’ movements. At a tabletop “Investigation Station,” visitors can explore a variety of
fossil casts ranging from coprolite (fossilized feces) to a gigantic femur,
with virtual tools including a CT scanner, measuring tape, and a microscope to
learn more about what such specimens can reveal to scientists about the biology
and behavior of T. rex.
rex: The Ultimate Predator is curated by Mark Norell, who joined
the Museum in 1989. Norell, who is the Macaulay Curator in the Museum’s
Division of Paleontology and its chair, has led and participated in a number of
scientific investigations into the biology and evolutionary history of
tyrannosaurs and other theropods—the group of dinosaurs most closely related to
modern birds. His work includes the first discovery of a feathered tyrannosaur,
Dilong paradoxus, in China in 2004. In
addition to Dilong, many of the
species studied by Norell and his colleagues and former students, and recent
research findings, are featured in the new exhibition.
“In the last 30 years, we’ve seen a huge
increase in both the number of tyrannosaur fossil discoveries as well as the
availability of technology that lets us explore complex questions about these
charismatic animals,” Norell said. “I never would have imagined that one day
we’d be able to look at the shape of T.
rex’s brain, analyze the tiny daily growth lines on their massive teeth to
determine how quickly they put on weight, or use advanced biomechanical
modeling to figure out the force of its bite.”
T. rex may have been a mega-predator, but it evolved from humble origins. The full tyrannosaur family includes more than two dozen different species and spans more than 100 million years of evolution, with T. rex appearing only at the very end of that period, between 66 and 68 million years ago. Most dinosaurs in the superfamily Tyrannosauroidea were not giants like T. rex, which, fully grown, weighed between 6 and 9 tons. Early species were small and fast, likely avoiding confrontations with larger dinosaurs.
the exhibit, we come face to face with life-size
models of a number of tyrannosaurs, including: Proceratosaurus bradleyi, the earliest known tyrannosaur that
lived about 167 million years ago and was about the size of a wolf with a crest
on its snout; Dilong paradoxus, which like many early tyrannosaurs, had arms
that were relatively long and capable of seizing small prey, and was the first
tyrannosaur found with fossilized feathers (discovered by exhibition curator
Mark Norell and his colleagues in China); and Xiongguanlong baimoensis,
a mid-sized tyrannosaur that, when it was discovered in 2009, offered a rare
glimpse of a transitional species between the smaller early tyrannosaurs and
the later giants.
The exhibit features interactive elements: visitors are tasked with placing various tyrannosaur family members in the correct time period on a magnetic wall and can experiment with a praxinoscope that animates the difference between walking and running—T. rex could only truly run when it was young. A hands-on interactive lets visitors attach the right size tail to a T. rex torso to create a balanced posture.
How did T. rex get so big when its ancestors were so small? And how did a young T. rex, the size of a turkey grow to the size of a truck? The simple answer: by growing very quickly. T. rex reached full size by its early 20s—about as fast as a human does—but it put on much more weight in that time, gaining up to 140 pounds (65 kg) per month. The exhibition shows T. rex in early developmental stages, showing how the dinosaur transformed from a vulnerable hatchling with a more than 60 percent chance of succumbing to predators, accidents, disease, and failure to find food in its first year of life, to a gargantuan predator at the top of the food chain. No T. rex has been found that has been identified as being older than 28 years.
“T. rex was the ‘James Dean’ of dinosaurs; he would have been very beat up,” said Gregory Erickson, paleobiologist from Florida State University.
of what we see in the exhibit is the result of a new approach to studying
dinosaurs – integrating other scientific disciplines, such as molecular biology
and chemistry, and comparative techniques to contemporary animals such as
crocodiles and birds, as well as new technologies like 3D scanning.
latest understanding also presents T. rex’s “arms” as even tinier than before,
suggesting that they had no function and were vestigial in the course of
evolution. Also, the “hands” have two fingers instead of three.
So far, though, the scientists have been unable to determine a dinosaur’s sex from the skeleton. “It would be nice to know the sex ratio to understand population biology, how bodies changed over their lifespan,” Erickson said. “You have to appreciate just how rare these specimens are – just 1,000 dinosaurs have been named.”
Erickson explains that though scientists know what strata to search, it has to be relatively close to the surface for paleontologists to safely extract the bones without damaging them; also, many of the sites where dinosaurs might be found are in very remote, difficult places. And it may well be true that there were relatively few of the largest dinosaurs, because of the supply of resources available.
exhibits display T. rex at various stages of its development.
We see a life-size
model of a four-year-old T. rex,
which although not yet the “king” it would become in adulthood, would have
weighed about five times more than a four-year-old boy and was as large as any
other predatory dinosaur in its habitat. Fully covered in feathers for warmth
and camouflage, this juvenile T. rex
had relatively long arms (unlike its adult counterparts), a slim body, and
bladelike teeth that could cut through flesh but were not yet capable of
encounter a real fossil of a T. rex toe bone and a touchable cast of a T. rex thigh bone to gain a sense of scale for the fully grown
giant, which stood about 12 to 13 feet high at the hip and was about 40 to 43
feet long. Fossil casts from a close relative to T. rex, Tarbosaurus bataar, illustrate that T. rex wasn’t the only tyrannosaur that looked and behaved
dramatically differently throughout its life. A cast of the youngest and most complete juvenile tyrannosaur fossil
found to date, a two-year-old Tarbosaurus,
has a delicate skull with thin bladelike teeth it likely used to catch small
vertebrates and insects, while the cast
of the huge adult Tarbosaurus skull
indicates that when fully grown, it used its heavy, bone-crushing teeth and
jaws to eat large animals.
All tyrannosaurs were built to kill,
but the biggest and baddest of them all was T. rex. With its huge size,
sharp claws, and teeth that could bite through bone, it dominated the
competition. New research shows that a T.
rex could bite with about 7,800 pounds of force—equivalent to the weight of
three cars – compared to 3,700 pounds of force of a modern crocodile.
We see a fossil of one of these huge, banana-shaped teeth, which relied on
deep roots to withstand the immense forces during a bite, as well as a cast of a fossilized T. rex lower jaw demonstrating the constant replacement cycle
of its fearsome teeth. A full-scale
reproduction of the T. rex fossil
skeleton on display in the Museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs—in a
different pose—is the subject of the exhibition’s “shadow theater,” in which the skeleton’s 40-foot shadow (somewhat
jarringly) “comes to life” and demonstrate to visitors how the animal moved and
interacted with prey and its own kind.
Scientists long suspected T. rex could bite through bone, thanks to fossils of its powerful skull and teeth. But now there’s proof in fossilized feces, or coprolites, which contain many tiny chunks of bones eroded by stomach acid. High-tech imaging tools like CT scanners, X-ray fluorescence, and microprobe analysis reveal that T. rex was one of the rare species on Earth that could pulverize and digest solid bone. In fact, some T. rex coprolites are 30-50 percent crushed bone. The exhibition features a cast of one of these telltale coprolites as well as a cast of a tail bone from a duck-bill dinosaur with an embedded T. rex tooth surrounded by new bone growth, indicating that T. rex was not just a scavenger but also attacked live prey.
We learn about the fierceness of two
other top predators in the tyrannosaur subfamily, which lived side by side in
Asia about 70 million years ago: Alioramus
and Tarbosaurus. Bulky Tarbosaurus and nimble Alioramus likely specialized in
different prey, much like lions and leopards do today.
Keen Senses of Sight, Smell
We know T. rex from fossils—but what was it like in the flesh? The exhibition’s massive life-size adult T. rex model is based on the most
up-to-date findings and represents the most scientifically accurate
representation of this pop culture icon to date. New research on this powerful
hunter’s senses show that keen vision, smell, and hearing made it very hard for
this predator’s prey to avoid detection.
casts indicate that T. rex had
excellent vision. Its eyes, the size of oranges—some of the largest eyes of any
land animal—faced forward like a hawk and were set wider apart than most other
dinosaurs, giving it superior depth perception.
can you tell the shape of an extinct animal’s brain? Soft tissues such as
brains rarely fossilize. But fossilized skulls often contain a space where the
brain used to be, revealing its precise shape. Scientists use these fossilized
brain cases to make a model, or endocast, of the missing brain. They also use
CT scanning to make a 3D printout of the brain. The exhibition includes a fossilized partial brain case of a T. rex as well as the endocast
scientists created from it for study.
By comparing the areas of the
brain that are responsible for scent, vision, and hearing in tyrannosaurs’
closest living relatives, birds and crocodilians, researchers have determined
that the T. rex brain had similar
regions. For instance, T. rex had an
unusually large olfactory region for a dinosaur, indicating it had a very good
sense of smell. Also like their alligator and crocodile cousins, tyrannosaurs would
likely have had highly sensitive faces. Visitors
can inspect the series of tiny holes on a fossilized skull of Daspletosaurus torosus, a tyrannosaur
that lived between 77 and 74 million years ago. The holes are nearly
identical in number and location to those on an alligator, which have jaws so
sensitive to touch that they can gently pick up an egg or tiny hatchling
without harming it. Fossils of T. rex
show similar rough, pitted surfaces, suggesting it also had similar sense
Technology has allowed scientists
to uncover a great deal about the inner workings of these gigantic predators,
but a number of mysteries remain. For one, what did a T. rex sound like? No one knows. But a logical place to start is to
study their closest living relatives. In the exhibition, a“roar mixer” enables visitors
to combine the calls of birds and crocodilians with the sounds of contemporary
large animals such as elephants, whales, and bison to create a customized roar
that accompanies an animated T. rex.
And what about its outward appearance? Feathers are very delicate and are rarely preserved, and they haven’t been found yet on T. rex. But many other dinosaur fossils, including those from other tyrannosaurs and their relatives, preserved feathers, suggesting that T. rex had at least some feathers. Many scientists think that T. rex hatchlings were probably covered in fuzz like a duckling—but adults were mostly covered in scales, likely with patches of display feathers concentrated on attention-getting areas such as the head and tail. Nobody knows what color T. rex was, and it is often depicted as drab, like a crocodile. But reptiles come in every color of the rainbow, so T. rex could have been brightly colored. Exhibition visitors get to choose from a wide palette of colors, stripes, and spots to imagine what T. rex may have looked like in an engaging interactive experience.
the high level of scientific research that has gone into T. rex: The Ultimate
Predator, the notes that accompany the displays are designed to be accessible
especially for young people who will be enthralled.
At the end of the exhibition, there is a 32-foot long animated projection of a T. rex and its offspring in a Cretaceous-age setting. The huge dinosaur seems to react to visitors, leaving you wondering, “Did that T. rex see me?”
Engaging with T. rex in Virtual Reality
Museum’s science visualization group renders the latest scientific discoveries
in paleontology and other fields through the visualization of big
data. Using digital technologies, scientists today observe, measure, and reproduce
hidden dimensions of the natural world. From the edges of the observable
universe to the evolution of life on Earth, researchers are developing a
radically new understanding of nature that the Museum strives to communicate to
visitors in highly authentic, intuitive, and novel ways. One of these is
virtual reality: an experiential tool that uses objects, models, photos, video
footage, and other types of physical evidence of life history to engage and
part of T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, the Museum will present T.
rex: Skeleton Crew, its first
interactive, multi-player virtual reality experience, created in
collaboration with HTC VIVE. The five-minute
experience will be offered to visitors ages 12 and up within the exhibition.
reality is a magical realm in which our perceptions of time and space are
suspended,” said Vivian Trakinski, the Museum’s director of science
visualization. “In virtual reality, nothing is too small, too big, too fast,
too slow, too distant, or too long ago to be appreciated. We hope this
technology will let our visitors experience the most fantastic and inaccessible
realms of nature.”
“Through VR, visitors can engage with the subject of the exhibition in an exciting, in-depth way that enriches their knowledge and leaves a lasting memory for years to come,” said Victoria Chang, director of HTC VIVE Arts. “This remarkably engaging VR project harnesses the power of premium VR, bringing visitors closer to the anatomy, scale, and majesty of T. rex like never before.”
The facilitated experience “transports” as many as three players at a time to a space similar to the Museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, where they team up to build a T. rex skeleton bone by bone. Once all of the bones are in place, the players watch as the T. rex comes to life in marshland that is now Montana, its home 66 million years ago.
A home version of T. rex: Skeleton Crew will launch on VIVEPORT, HTC VIVE’s global platform and app store, for VIVE owners in summer 2019.
American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world’s
preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum
encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including those in the Rose Center
for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for
temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York
State’s official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation’s 26th president,
and a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of conservation.
The Museum’s five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 34 million specimens and artifacts, as well as on specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data and on one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. The museum is the launchpad for some 100 expeditions a year. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree and also to grant the Master of Arts in Teaching degree.
Visits to the museum have grown to 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows are seen by millions more in venues on six continents. The Museum’s website, mobile apps, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) extend its scientific research and collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to additional audiences around the globe.
Open daily from 10 am – 5:45 pm except on
Thanksgiving and Christmas.
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024-5192, 212-769-5100, amnh.org.
abounds throughout Old Bethpage Village Restoration, the evening warmed by the orange-red
glow of candlelight, fireplace embers, a bonfire. The
annual Candlelight Evenings at Old Bethpage Restoration, a living history
museum on Long Island, is one of my favorite holiday events.
The most wonderful thing about the candlelight evenings
at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, is yes, the sense of
stepping back into time, into an idyllic peacefulness that makes you feel as if
you have just fallen into a Christmas card. But what I love best are the
serendipitous moments when you engage the reenactors in conversation- the
questions that arise just because you are immersed in that experience.
Each year, I add to the stories, my understanding of
history and our community’s heritage.
Just leaving the visitors center is an experience. Just
before you exit the center, inside, a group of Santas in modern dress are
singing but as you walk down the ramp into the darkness, leaving pavement and electric
lights behind, carolers are singing in a shadow. I meet up with them again in
The village is actually a created place, assembled from
historic homes from across Nassau County (it was Queens County when they were
built), except for the Powell Farm, which is the only original homestead here
and dates from 1855. Many of the homes were built by people whose names are
well known to Long Islanders: Hewlett, Searing, Schenck, Cooper (built in 1815
for the famous inventor, Peter Cooper, in Hempstead). Most were built in the
1800s, but the Schenck House, the oldest, was built around 1765 for a Dutch
landowner, Minne Schenck, who had 300 acres in Manhasset (manpower was provided
by African slaves and servants).
Walking along the pebbled path, lighted only with flames, I come upon a brass band outside the Conklin House, built in 1853 by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman, in the Village of the Branch.
The centerpiece of the Village is the Layton General Store and House, built by John M. Layton, a storekeeper, around 1866 in East Norwich. Though the house seems very fine – with large rooms and tall ceilings, I am told that he was middle class. Here, in the parlor, I meet Santa Claus who seems to be making out his list and checking it twice. In the next room is the Layton General Store – the Walmart of its day – where you can purchase candy and dolls that are made by one of the interpreters.
The next important house is the Noon Inn is appropriately just across from the general store, where when you climb the stairs, you find Max L. Rowland regaling an audience with his banjo, reconstructed to its period of the early 19th century (no frets, gut strings, deeper tone), and a concertina. If you ask, he will tell you about the instruments: in the mid-1800s, the concertina was the most popular instrument around – because it was relatively inexpensive (costing less than a violin), and compact, easy to carry and capable of such rich sound and complexity. It was extremely popular with sailors, who could tuck it away in their gear. Rowland can testify to it: this particular concertina has crossed the sea three times with Rowland, who lives on a boat.
Downstairs at the Noon Inn, which dates from 1850 and was owned John H. Noon, innkeeper, in East Meadow, you can get hot mulled cider and cookies, while outside, there are carolers singing beneath a lamplight. I catch up with them again later singing at the bonfire. It is magical.
Queens District No. 6 School House, which dates from c. 1845 in Manhasset, there
is traditional fiddle music, played on a period instrument, a 150-year old
violin that had been made in Prague, that has no chin rest or frets. We learn
about the Manhasset School house – children attended the one-room school house
six days a week – attendance wasn’t compulsory and kids came sporadically.
Music would have been widespread but there were no real professional musicians
in Long Island. The school house would have been the venue for music,
entertainment (like the Magic Lantern shows, the movies of their day), and
various gatherings in the evening. He tells me that all of Nassau County used
to be part of Queens County, until the residents wanted to separate from New
York City. One of the songs he plays is the Fireman’s Quick Step, written in
1822 by Francis Frank Johnson,
an African American composer, for the Philadelphia Fireman’s Cotillion fundraiser.
Music was so important to the people of the mid-19th century, the period which Old Bethpage reconstructs. When you think about it, people could only appreciate music live, in the moment.
the Hewlett House, a grand home high on the hill, built by the founder for
which the town of Hewlett is named, a fellow plays a series of flutes and a
violin, while popcorn is popping in the kitchen fireplace in the next room
At the beautiful Manetto Hill Church, 1857, a Methodist church that originally was located in Plainview, there is singing and storytelling – the origin of holly (representing male), ivy (representing female), so the two entwined are a symbol of marriage; mistletoe (which, rather than a romantic prompt for kissing, was used to make peace between quarreling individuals) and poinsettias. We sing carols and learn that “Jingle Bells” was written by a Sunday School teacher for a Thanksgiving pageant(New Englanders didn’t celebrate Christmas), and Silent Night was a poem written in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria by Father Joseph Mohr in 1818 (his organist Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music), desperate for Christmas music when the church organ broke.
At the Luyster Store, which dates from c. 1840 and was built by John B. Luyster, a storekeeper in East Norwich, you see the rare craft of broom making (and can purchase the brooms that are made here). Tim works on a machine from 1840 which was in the museum’s collection, and you can see how much physical effort goes into it. He says he and his brother, Chris, are two of only three broommakers left on Long Island (the third is their mentor). He explains that a home would have had 2 brooms per room, or 18-20 per household, so not to transfer dirt from one room to the next. Brooms were actually expensive: an ordinary broom might have cost 24 cents – but that was equivalent to half-day’s wages in the 1840s, when the Great Recession was worse than even the Great Depression and the average man took home 48 cents a day; that means a broom would cost about $50 today (so his price of $20 for a fancy broom decorated for the holidays with fancy ribbons, holly and weaving, is a bargain).
This was an enterprise that farmers would do in winter to make extra money, and they would allocate an acre of land to cultivate the special wheat sorghum (called “corn” but not corn) for that purpose. A father would teach his child the craft. An interesting artifact in the store is the massive safe. The building itself was once a hardware store that was the only one within 10 miles of Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, so it may well be that Roosevelt would have stopped by. There is also an interesting Harrison for Reform banner, referring to William Henry Harrison, the shortest-lived president (he died of pneumonia after one month in office).
The Benjamin House, dating from 1829, was built for William Benjamin, a minister and farmer in Northville, where there a husband and wife play holiday melodies that would have been popular at the time on a gigantic bass fiddle (it seems to fill the room) and a violin, like “Deck the Halls,” which was a Welsh melody dating back to the 1600s. We discuss Christmas traditions of the time (gift-giving wasn’t yet a tradition, but Queen Victoria had popularized table-top Christmas trees as a loving gesture to Prince Albert).
I stop into the Conklin House, a house that dates from 1853 and was built by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman in the village of Branch. Last year, there was a demonstration of spinning being done in front of the fireplace, but this year, two ladies relax over a cup of tea after demonstrating how they bake ginger snaps.
The tiny Searing House (this is the first time that I can remember it being open for Candlelight Evening), was Dr. James Searing’s office, a Hempstead physician, built in 1815 – where the doctor would have prepared his medicines before going out by buggy to visit patients – and here, we are treated to freshly roasted chestnuts.
usually save the Schenck House for last because each year, because it is here
that I come upon the most unexpected encounters and
find it the most illuminating. Instead of interpreting the holiday traditions
of the mid 1800s, the Huntington Militia re-create a Colonial Christmas in the
The Schenck House dates from 1765, owned by a Dutch farmer. Here, our
presenters speak in the style of the time, and celebrate Christmas of 1775,
just two months after Martin Schenck, who inherited the house from his
father, had been one of the leaders of
the committee of Patriots that decided to break from Loyalist Hempstead, and form
North Hempstead. I learn that the south shore of Long Island was a occupied by
the British from 1776-1783, the entire duration of the Revolutionary War, while
the north shore was a stronghold for Patriots, many of them the Dutch families
who had no great affinity for the British monarch. The Schencks came to the New
World when New Amsterdam was a Dutch colony; the British took it over in 1754.
I am swept into its history. I am transfixed talking with “Ambrose Everyman,” a fellow from 1775, an American of English descent really troubled by North Hempstead’s succession from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of rebellion against the King and Crown. His loyalties are clear. He raises the question over how the colonists are made so dissatisfied with the King – and questions the veracity of the crimes and accusations designed to foment rebellion. He notes that since the first Continental Congress, the Massachusetts faction of the Patriots have banned women from going to the tavern, banned theatrical entertainment – in effect, installed the Puritan societal structure on the colonies. And because of the “attack against one of the colonies is an attack against us all,” he questions whether the attacks in Lexington and Concord, portrayed as a British massacre, really happened that way. “How do we really know?” he tells me (the original “fake news”?). Mr. Everyman was upset with the upstarts in Massachusetts who caused so much trouble, who dared to pretend to be Indians and toss tea into the sea. He called them cowards for hiding behind their disguise. He said he knew war – had fought in the French and Indian War – but was too old to fight again. If there was a break with England, he says, his business of building and repairing houses, would be destroyed.
But, he says, he cannot express his feelings: the local Committee is strictly enforcing its ban on English tea and though it had no force of law, someone who broke faith would be shamed in the Gazetteer as “an Enemy of American Liberty,” would no longer get business, and ultimately be forced out of the community. So he keeps his views to himself. Taxes? What difference does it make to pay taxes to England or taxes to the Congress, he says. And doesn’t England deserve to get repayment for the expense of fighting for the colonies? How would those who would break from England confront the greatest army on earth? Would they get aid from foreign powers like France, when France would want to take over the colonies for itself?
gives me the sense of what a difficult dilemma this was – the prospect of confronting
the most powerful nation the world had never known, the superpower of its time
– and how while there had never been consensus (New York patriots fled to
Philadelphia), the forcefulness with which the revolutionaries pressed their
cause, the violence, a literal civil war within communities.
goes on to show the group of Candlelight visitors that has gathered how the
owner of the House, Martin Schenck, would have celebrated St. Nicholas Day
(Dec. 6), when the children put out wooden shoes, filled with a carrot to draw
the horse that St. Nicholas rides through the sky on, and leaves them treats –
an orange that would have been an expensive treat having been imported from
Jamaica, and skates for the young girl,
a pull-toy for the baby.
Then, at The Barn on the Long Island Fairgrounds- a reconstruction of the Queens county Agricultural Society Fairgrounds that was built in Mineola, 1866-1884, there is the model train show, crafts fair, contra dancing, a brass ensemble and a delightful performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” (a condensed version of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”).
year, the Old Bethpage Candlelight Evenings are only five nights, Dec. 22, 23,
27, 28 and 29, 5-9:30 pm. Old Bethpage Village
Restoration, 1303 Round Swamp Road (Exit 48 of the Long Island Expressway),
516-572-8401; Adults/$10, children 5-12/$7 (under 5 are free); and $7 for
seniors and volunteer firefighters.
I have so many fond memories of Christmases past, spent in charming, festive places that capture the magic and spirit of the season, and most importantly, bring our family together with experiences we share.
My criteria for great destination places to spend the winter holidays starts with charm, offers plenty to do indoors as well as outdoors that interests everyone in the family, is walkable to get around or at least offers great public transportation, perhaps even a cutesy trolley or something that is fun. Has great decorations, has a festive feel, and most important, doesn’t shut down and close up for the holidays.
Christmas in the Capital
Washington DC certainly fits this bill – you can spend all your time just on the National Mall, visiting iconic museums like the National Air & Space Museum (a major favorite for families, great café also)), the relatively new Museum of the American Indian, the even newer Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, the National Portrait Gallery, National Archives, and just across the avenue is the gorgeous National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden ice skating rink and charming café (also skating at The Wharf, Georgetown, and Capitol Riverfront). Go further afield to the Spy Museum and if the weather permits, the National Zoo (easy access by Metro).
Best way to take in the Capital city’s holiday lights is with these free offerings: Tour America’s historic train stations in miniature at Seasons Greenings: All Aboard! at the U.S. Botanic Gardens (thru Jan. 2); Smithsonian National Zoo dazzles with more than 500,000 LED lights, snowless tubing and more at ZooLights, 5-9 pm thru Jan.1, (closed Dec. 24, 25, 31); take in National Christmas tree in President’s Park on the Ellipse is attended by 56 decorated state and territory trees and Santa’s Workshop and enjoy nightly musical performances thru Dec. 31.
Also memorable: George Washington’s Mount Vernon celebrates the season with Colonial dancing, chocolate-making and caroling, Nov. 23-Dec. 31; candlelit tours run Nov. 23, 24, 30; Dec. 1, 7, 8, 16.There are Holiday in the Park thrills at Six Flags America with lights, rides and s’mores: Nov. 23-25, Dec. 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 21-23, 26-31. Among the holiday performances underway: National Symphony Orchestra’s Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 20-23); at Warner Theatre, the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker recasts the classic in the Lincoln White House (Nov. 29-Dec. 28); and Richly Dressed, A Christmas Carol (Nov. 15-Dec. 30) at Ford’s Theatre.
Find inspiration for memorable getaways on Destination DC’s holiday landing page on washington.org, and its Instagram and Facebook channels, including festive hotel packages, menus, holiday lights, ice skating rinks, gift markets, can’t-miss exhibitions and events across the city’s welcoming neighborhoods. Help with planning is available from a DC travel expert weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm, 800-422-8644.
To really get into the spirit, stay at the elegant and historic Willard InterContinental (it’s a stone’s throw from the White House and was where Abraham Lincoln stayed before his inauguration) which transforms into a holiday-inspired wonderland, a beloved tradition that both locals and visitors have come to anticipate each year, with its display of yuletide trimmings, musical fanfare and epicurean delights thru January 1. The centerpiece is the treasured Christmas tree, boasting decades of sentiment on each carefully curated branch. The Willard is the only hotel in Washington to feature the White House Ornament Collection, an initiative founded by the White House Historical Association in 1981: each ornament honors a different U.S. President or special White House event. This year honors Harry S. Truman, 33rd president, and the three significant changes made during his administration – one to the Presidential Seal and two to the White House itself. Another iconic facet of the hotel’s décor is their picturesque gingerbread displayin the lobby that pays tribute to an iconic landmark in and around D.C. This year’s display pays homage to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and with a magnificent replica that will include all terminals, lighted runways, a control tower and even parts of the Washington Metro.
Newport, Rhode Island is always enchanting, but never more so than at the winter holidays, when, it seems, the entire town is one big festival. There’s a palpable elation throughout the City-by-the Sea during Christmas in Newport, a month-long celebration toasting simple traditions of the holiday season. For nearly 50 years, this event has made for an extraordinary holiday respite in a quaint New England coastal town. White lights illuminate homes, shops, restaurants and the bustling wharves in a ritual meant to represent candlelight from days gone by, when families would wait for their loved ones to return home from their seafaring adventures. Holiday events are tailored to entertain every age, including tree lightings, Polar Express train rides, historical tours, shopping strolls, concerts and dances like the Newport Nutcracker, Island Moving Company’s rendition of the classic holiday ballet, Victorian-era Christmas festivities, culinary fêtes, arts and cultural celebrations and more. (Where else but Newport can you gaze at a 16-foot working gingerbread lighthouse?) (See discovernewport.org, 800-326-6030, for trip planning help.)
Christmas at the Newport Mansions returns to The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House with newly imagined holiday decor thru Jan. 1. The three houses offer a total of 25 large decorated Christmas trees, plus additional smaller potted trees and topiaries. Windows in each mansion are lit with individual white candles. New this year, professional event designers will create contemporary holiday tablescapes in the dining rooms at Marble House and The Elms, and in the Breakfast Room of The Breakers, to provide inspiration and ideas to visitors for ways they can decorate their own holiday tables.
Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions recreate the ambiance of an evening soirée during the Gilded Age: at The Breakers are Saturdays, December 1, 8, 22 and 29, 6-8 p.m; On December 15, guests can visit both The Elms and Marble House for the price of one, 6-9 p.m. ($35 in advance, $45 day-of the event. Children 6-17 are admitted for $10 in advance, $15 day-of. Children under the age of 6 free. More information and tickets are available online or call (401) 847-1000.
The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House open daily for tours, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, through Jan. 1. Rosecliff will also be open in December, with a new exhibition, Bill Cunningham: Facades, featuring photographs by the late New York Times photographer. A Winter Passport ticket providing daytime admission to up to 4 houses can be purchased for $30 for adults, $10 for children 6-17. Children under the age of 6 are admitted free. Individual house tickets are also available. Tickets can be purchased online or at each property. (Program information at newportmansions.org.)
There are any number of marvelous hotels and inns to accommodate. We loved our holiday stay at The Vanderbilt, a historic boutique hotel a short walk (and what a rooftop view) to Newport’s delightful waterfront, which makes you feel like a Vanderbilt. In fact, it was originally built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, who died heroically in the sinking of the Lusitania. The 1909 mansion has been restored to its former glory and is one of the few private homes of the era to operate for guests as a fully functioning luxury hotel in Rhode Island. The Vanderbilt offers 33 rooms and luxury suites, a lavish spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a signature restaurant, The Vanderbilt Grill. A Grace Hotel, it is now part of the Auberge Resort Collection (www.gracehotels.com/vanderbilt/).
More Favorite Places for the Winter Holidays
Manchester, Vermont, a delightful New England village, hosts six weeks of holiday merriment, across the Manchester and the Mountains Region (a whole village of outlet shops, too!). There are tours of decorated inns, pub crawls with local restaurants offering special pairings, a Lighted Tractor Parade, and the Elf Express Train ride. A highlight of any visit to Manchester is a tour Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s estate, festooned in Victorian finery, just as it might have been when they stayed for the holidays so many years ago. Take the self-guided tour; throughout December, talented musicians play Mary Lincoln’s Steinway and the vintage Aeolian organ (www.hildene.org). (Trip planning help at visitmanchestervt.com/merriment).
One of our favorite places to stay for the holidays in Manchester is the historic Equinox, where Mary Todd Lincoln would spend summers. The Equinox has since become a four-season luxury resort with every imaginable amenity including world-class spa, indoor pool, Orvis fly fishing school, a falconry school, Range Rover driving school. Besides outlet shopping and historic sites such as Hildene, the Equinox is also a short drive to superb downhill skiing at Stratton, Bromley and Magic Mountain (www.equinoxresort.com, 800-362-4747).
Woodstock, Vermontis the quintessential New England village, oozing charm and its centerpiece is the historic Woodstock Inn. An AAA Four Diamond resort, it is decked out in holiday finery and activities galore (Tubbs Snowshoe Adventure Center, cross-country skiing, luxurious spa and indoor recreation center with tennis, visits to the fascinating Billings Farm & Museum, downhill skiing at the resort’s own Suicide Six ski hill, with Killington just 25 minutes away and Okemo 40 minutes away. Founded by the Rockefellers, the Woodstock Inn & Resort is owned and operated by The Woodstock Foundation, Inc. Proceeds from Resort operations support The Woodstock Foundation and Billings Farm & Museum education and conservation programs. Find vacation packages and specials at www.woodstockinn.com.
One of my most memorable Christmases was spent in Wilmington, Delaware, the hub for nearby historic Newcastle and the whole Brandywine Valley Region. There are scores of holiday attractions and activities –Longworth Gardens, famous for its holiday decorations and enchanting Dancing Fountains (open even on Christmas Day), “Yuletide at Winterthur” Museum, Gardens and Library with its sensational holiday performances; the fascinating Hagley Museum and DuPont Mansion; the Brandywine River Museum of Art with its unparalleled collection of Wyeth family art and nearby historic towns of Old New Castle and Odessa (http://thebrandywine.com/attractions/index.html). See schedule at https://www.visitwilmingtonde.com/events/holiday/
Staying at the historic Hotel DuPont, makes it all the more special; that Christmas Eve we walked across the street to participate in the evening church services. (www.hoteldupont.com)
Victorian Cape May at Christmasoffers six weeks of festive tours and events sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) through Jan. 1.Take a guided, daytime, living history tour of the magnificent 1879 Physick Estate, Cape May’s only Victorian house museum, decorated in authentic Victorian style for Christmas, during Physick Family Christmas House Tours, presented from the viewpoint of a member of the Physick family in the early 1900s. The tour also includes a visit to the Carroll Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate where you can see “An Old-fashioned Christmas” exhibit. Offered daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) through Jan. 1,; hours vary. Adults $12; children (3-12) $8. There are historic district trolley tours (many themed, like Ghosts of Christmas Past), house tours, Lamplighter Christmas Tours which are self-guided evening tours of Cape May’s inns and private homes, specially decorated for the holidays. Here, the perfect place to stay is in one of the historic inns (www.capemay.com/stay). For more information. Contact Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC), 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278 or visit www.capemaymac.org.
Go back even further in time at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a living-history museum, fill out the visit with Busch Gardens Williamsburg and other attractions including the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, where you will experience Christmastide in Virginia. (Dec. 20-31), offering a glimpse of 17th and 18th century holiday traditions including daily appearances by the Lord of Misrule at Jamestown Settlement and period musical entertainment at both museums. At Busch Gardens, enjoy Christmas Town (select dates through January 5) offers one of the largest light displays in North America with more than 10 million lights. New this year, Busch Gardens Railway turns into the Christmas Town Express, with caroling, 2 million lights, holiday-themed vignets along the 1.5 mile route around the theme park; plus 25 rides are open including InvadR and Verbolten roller coasters. (Planning help at www.visitwilliamsburg.com). Complete the magical experience with a stay at the grand, historic Williamsburg Inn, a full-service luxury (five Diamond) resort (www.colonialwilliamsburghotels.com).
St Petersburg, Florida affords the unparalleled opportunity to combine arts, culture, heritage with a glamorous, historic and grand beach resort, the DonCesar Resort, known as “the Pink Lady” (www.doncesar.com). St. Petersburg/Clearwater offers scores of special activities – lighted boat parades that take place at various times in small villages; outdoor carolers at the holiday market. The very special Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home of the Dolphin’s Tale stories) transforms into Winter’s Wonderland through Jan. 6; watch special Santa dive presentations at Mavis’s Rescue Hideaway (CMA holiday fun). The annual Holiday Lights in the Gardens has a million LED lights shining throughout the Botanical Gardens (from 5:30 p.m.; $5 suggested donation) through Dec. 30.Head to Christmas Town at Busch Gardens for some great thrill rides and to see the park transform into a holiday wonderland of Christmastime entertainment, holiday shopping and a million twinkling lights! (through Dec. 31). (www.visitstpeteclearwater.com)
San Francisco has so many amazing attractions and charms (I can’t get enough of the trolley cars or the trolley museum), but really gets decked out for the holidays when the entire city becomes a Gallery of Light Art. Now in its sixth year, “Illuminate SF Festival of Light” celebrates 37 dramatic, eco-friendly light art installations located throughout San Francisco. Located in 17 different neighborhoods, the works, by 30 local and world-renowned light artists, are accessible by public transport and many are free for all to view, thru New Year’s Day. The works come to life at dusk throughout the city with a luminescence that will turn any evening into an illuminating adventure, especially when combined with exploring San Francisco’s world-class museums performing arts and restaurants. The light art can be found in neighborhoods in the Embarcadero along the waterfront, in North Beach, Civic Center, Central Market, the Inner Sunset, South of Market (SoMa), Potrero, Mission Bay, Bayview, Golden Gate Park, Hayes Valley, South Beach, the Castro, the Mission District and even flying in or out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). (The San Francisco Travel Association offers a guide to all of the installations and artists at www.illuminatesf.com; plan your visit at www.sftravel.com.)
Combine city and country with a stay at The Tenaya Lodge at the doorstep to Yosemite National Park. Families are delighted by the festive décor and special holiday activities, including gingerbread house and ornament decoraiting workshops, live lobby music, a Christmas Eve reading with Mrs. Claus, and Dinner with Santa. The resort has its own ice skating rink, sleds, horse-drawn sleigh rides, showshoes. And this holiday season, the resort is helping California wildfire victims by donating $25 toward CalFund’s Wildfire Relief Fund on stays booked with this offer where you also save 15% on holiday stays, Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, two-night minimum stay, promo: HOLIDAYS (www.tenayalodge.com).
Chattanooga, Tennessee offers a surprising array of extraordinary experiences: walk through a secret underground ice cave and see Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights, explore a nocturnal fantasyland with more than one million twinkling lights high atop Lookout Mountain; hop on board a train for a North Pole adventure; sing Christmas carols and dance with Santa on a river cruise; meet coral reef Santa divers; build creative gingerbread houses; watch animals open their own Christmas presents when you visit the Children’s Discovery Museum and the Tennessee Aquarium. Get the full scoop on planning a holiday getaway in Chattanooga at www.chattanoogafun.com/winter.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel offers an absolutely magical experience. The historic hotel (and member of Historic Hotels of America) is literally created out of the legendary railroad station, where you can stay in one of 48 Victorian train cars converted to the most delightful rooms, wonderfully furnished in period pieces (but with modern amenities like high-speed wireless Internet access), and the station serves as the hotel lobby (you can also tour some of the historic trains and meet the engineer). A free electric shuttle from the bus terminal next door takes you downtown. I don’t know when I have had a more enjoyable and interesting stay. (Chattanooga Choo Choo, 400 Market St., Chattanooga, TN 37402, 800-TRACK-29 (872-2529, www.choochoo.com.)