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.
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.
“Harry Potter: A History of Magic”, the newly opened exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library only on view until January 27, is a must-see on so many levels. It isn’t just for fans of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal series, where you get extraordinary insights into her creative process through glimpses at original hand-written drafts and drawings, but insights into the history of magic – the centuries of folklore, myth and legend – that provided the foundation for her stories. Here you see the original documents and artifacts which make you realize (for the first time), how Rowling drew on history and tradition, and how magic and witchcraft actually provided the foundation of science and discovery.
“Abracadabra,” we learn, is an incantation believed to have healing powers, first recorded by Quintus Serenus Sammanicus, physician to the Roman Emperor Caracalla. He prescribed that the word be repeatedly written out, each time leaving off one letter. The charm was then worn as an amulet around the neck to drive out fever. We see it described in “Liber Medicinalis,” a 13th century book from Canterbury.
The invisibility cloak that Harry Potter wore? There actually was an incantation for invisibility that we can see in a mid-17th century spell book owned by a contemporary of Shakespeare. A 4th century papyrus scroll turns out to be an ancient Greek handbook of magic that contains a love charm.
Mandrake roots really do look like men (or women) and the legend of them screaming when pulled out by the roots, causing insanity, was documented across cultures. We get to see a mandrake root, which looks like a shriveled old man in anguish.
The Philosopher’s Stone that plays such a key role for Harry Potter (it was renamed the Sorcerer’s Stone for American readers)? This was the quest of alchemists, who sought to create the elixir of immortal life and turn ordinary metal into gold – in essence, harnessing the energy of the universe and its power. The “recipe” for the Philosopher’s Stone was believed to be prescribed in The Ripley Scroll. We get to see an actual Ripley Scroll, from around 1570 England, exquisite in its color, unfurled over 20 feet, one of only 22 known to still exist. This one is on loan from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
The scroll takes its name from George Ripley, a canon at Bridlington Priory in northern England and author of “The Compound of Alchymy.” The scroll, full of mystical symbolism, supposedly gives clues to how to make the key red, white and black stones that together would form the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling wove these symbols into her characters: Rubeus Hagrid (rubeus is Latin for “red); Albus Dumbledore (albus is Latin for “white”) and Sirius Black, Harry’s three father figures.
We get to see a copy of Culpepper’s Herbal, describing the medicinal properties of herbs, the first medical text to be published in English (instead of Latin), so as to break the monopoly of wealthy, educated in having this knowledge. Culpepper was accused of witchcraft in 1642, but acquitted. The book is still in print and we learn from Rowling that she possesses two copies.
We get to see the actual tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, an actual person! who a landlord and bookseller in medieval Paris who married a rich woman and became a philanthropist. His interest in alchemy, according to Pottermore, was apparently sparked after he obtained a mystical book was written by a man called Abraham the Jew in Greek, Hebrew and other languages. Following his death in 1418, rumors began to circulate that Flamel was an alchemist who had discovered how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, and turn metal into gold. He was buried in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la Boucherie in Paris, his grave marked by this tombstone. But years later, when the body was exhumed, there was no body. Some believe he escaped to India, and with the elixir, still lives.
The exhibition, a cerebral celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the US publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, captures the traditions of folklore and magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. Based on Harry Potter: A History of Magic, a British Library exhibition, with some special New York twists, it combines century-old treasures—including rare books, manuscripts, and magical objects from the British Library, New-York Historical Society, and other collections—with original material from Harry Potter’s U.S. publisher Scholastic and J.K. Rowling’s own archives, never before collected in one place, and items that have never been shown before. And this exhibit is the only other place where it will be shown, before the items go back to their respective museums, which include the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, in Cornwall.
The entertaining aspect is in the exhibition’s presentation, as if you are wandering through Hogwarts, with the galleries organized around the Hogwarts’ curriculum for witches: Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures – each one showing the historical and cultural traditions that underlie Rowling’s fantastical world and her creative process.
It is as if instead of J.K. Rowling inventing the Hogwarts curriculum, she graduated from it. It also means that all of us, children and adults, who were so enrapt in the Harry Potter saga of witchcraft and magic 20 years ago, have a whole new dimension for appreciating Rowling’s masterpiece from a mature perspective.
The exhibit is captivating on so many levels – Rowling’s personality and creative process, you get so many insights into her as a person, and the connection to history and tradition at the heart of mythology. Also, we get to see the evolution of science from magic and spiritualism.
Rowling faithfully represented these traditions – even the names she chose for her characters relate back to these traditions, symbolically or literally.
In Potions & Alchemy, we see a copy of Jacob Meydenbach’s 1491 edition of Hartus Sanitatis (Latin for “The Garden of Health”), the first printed cyclopedia of natural history, which actually includes a hand-colored woodcut illustration of a potions class.
One of the plants described, blue hellebore, was the plant Harry Potter forgot to add in his Draught of Peace.
We see an actual bezoar stone, which was believed to be an antidote to poison, first introduced into medieval Europe by Arab physicians. They were expensive to buy and owners often kept their stones in elaborate cases. Here we see a bezoar stone in a gold filigree case from the 17th century.
The Herbology section is particularly fascinating: Here we see an illustration from a 15th century illustrated herbal by Giovanni Cadamasto that describes mandrakes (mandragara) that could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. Just as Rowling depicted, the plant was said to be particularly hazardous to harvest because the shrieks from the roots cause madness. “The best way to obtain it safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a card. A horn would sound, drowning out the shrieking, startling the dog and causing it to drag out the mandrake.” We actually get to see a mandrake root and how much it resembles a prone shriveled man who appears anguished. The description of mandrake is also from a 14th century Arabic text, originally in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, a botanist.
We see implements of “magical gardening” of bone and antler, on loan from the Museum of Watchcraft & Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.
There is an original copy of a book by Elizabeth Blackwell (one of the first women physicians), “A Curious Herbal,” published in London in 1737-38. She was desperate to raise money to spring her husband Alexander from debtor prison, so made drawings that she took to Alexander to identify, which she then published weekly, eventually detailing 500 plants.
An 1807 edition of Robert John Thornton’s “The Temple of Flora,” an elaborate botany book that nearly bankrupted Thornton to produce (it was originally titled, “The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus”). There is an illustration of Dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), also known as stink lily, which reproduces the smell of putrefying meat to attract flies for pollination.
In Charms, we see a copy of Cotton Mather’s “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” published in London in 1693 (from the New-York Historical Society Library), in which he justified the Salem witchcraft trials.
This is the area which gives some attention to the way witches were depicted, when in essence, they were shaman, healers, who were extraordinarily connected to the natural world, and in fact, the first scientists and doctors.
We see the earliest printed illustration of a witch, from 1489, depicting witches as powerful and dangerous. “The Iconography went on to influence image of witches for centuries. The printing press was new – like video of the time.”
Here we see a colorful broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt, a 20th century witch of Manatan, Devon (from the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle). The broomstick is closely associated with the Western image of witches, but has roots in pagan fertility rites. The connection with witchcraft and broomsticks developed during the witch hysteria of 16th and 17th century Europe. Olga was supposed to have used it to leap around Dartmoor on a full moon.
We also see Rowling’s original, handwritten draft of the Sorting Hat Song, sung at Harry’s sorting ceremony in his first year, with some crossings out and additions, and her sketch of Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker (Argus is a name from Greek Mythology of a man-eyed giant who is “all seeing.”)
In Divination, there is a major archaeological find on view: oracle bones some 3,000 years old from China that proved the existence of the Shang Dynasty, which had only been known in legend. The bones offered not only the earliest examples of Chinese writing, but showed that the culture worshipped ancestors – the Oracle Bones were a means of communicating with ancestors, who could send back messages.
We see a black moon crystal ball used by “Smelly Nelly,” a 20th-century British witch who used strong perfume to attract the spirits she believed helped her to see the future (on loan from Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Cornwall). Nelly is reflected in Rowling’s character of Sybill Trelawney, Hogwarts Divination professor.
There is also a 19th century fortune-telling doll from New-York Historical’s collection.
Astronomy features a 1699 celestial globe by famed cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli, pages from a notebook compiled by the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci that show the sun and moon revolving around the Earth, and a 13th century astrolabe thought to be one of the oldest geared instruments in existence, from the American Museum of Natural History Library.
Defense Against the Dark Arts features an actual wand, in the shape of a snake (snakes were magical because they were thought to have the ability to regenerate, and a wand in the shape of a snake would have been very powerful), and we learn that there are still wandmakers today who go to the woods where trees speak to them to be selected. There is also a magic staff (1998) carved from timber.
The basilisk in mythology didn’t look like the snake-like creature in Harry Potter but was depicted as a strange chicken, the size of palm, but its stare would kill you, and the way to defeat it was not by sword but by weasels.Care of Magical Creatures features a 13th-century bestiary manuscript depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes, a narwhal tusk, and John James Audubon’s original watercolor of snowy owls, just like the snowy owl that Hagrid gave to Harry Potter.
We see the oldest description of a Hippogriff: 16th century book on vellum paper given to George III –a magical creature that has the front legs, wings, and head of a giant eagle and the body, hind legs and tail of a horse. It is very similar to another mythical creature, the Griffin, with the horse rear replacing the lion rear.
We see examples of unicorn (loaned from the Explorer’s Club), as well as an actual merman – a Japanese creation made by combining two fish with wire and cloth (worthy of P.T. Barnum). This is the first time it has been displayed outside the United Kingdom.
This fascination with these strange new creatures reflects the era of exploration into strange new lands and discovery of new creatures.
This section features Rowling’s hand-written draft of “Deathly Hallows”, with her crossings out, notes to self and ”x” where she needed to add more providing this amazing insight into Rowling’s creative process. There is also her own illustration of Harry and Hagrid going to Gringots and Jim Kay’s drawing of Hagrid.
These items were collected for the exhibition, basically tracing and providing original artifacts that underlie Rowling’s Harry Potter narrative, but it seems as if Rowling had already undertaken the Hogwarts curriculum herself. The exhibit brings together the source material that informed her inspiration.
In the section, Past, Present and Future, one of the most fascinating items is Rowling’s own draft for the “Order of Phoenix” and her meticulous outline of plot and where the characters are, what they are doing. You see original cover art by Brian Selnick for the 2018 (20th anniversary) series, in which he unifies the seven covers as a single image that tells the story of the Boy Who Lived, which had never been displayed before, and models of set designs for the “Cursed Child” on Broadway, as well as an autographed screenplay of “Fantastic Beasts,” and an edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as “Sorcerer’s Stone” was titled in United Kingdom).
The New York presentation of the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition is special because it features Mary GrandPré’s pastel illustrations for the cover artwork of Scholastic’s original editions of the novels; Brian Selznick’s newly created artwork for the covers of the 20th anniversary edition of the Harry Potter series published by Scholastic; cover art by Kazu Kibuishi featured in Scholastic’s 15th anniversary box set; and the enormous steamer trunk used to transport a signed copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the Queen Mary to the U.S. The exhibition also includes costumes and set models from the award-winning play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Also on display for the first time in the U.S. are Rowling’s handwritten first drafts of The Philosopher’s Stone and Deathly Hallows, her hand-drawn sketch of the Hogwarts grounds, and portraits and sketches of some of the Hogwarts’s professors and magical creatures created by British illustrator Jim Kay. John James Audubon’s watercolor of Snowy Owls, a 1693 publication defending the Salem witch trials, a study of the Woolworth Building—the landmark New York location featured in the film Fantastic Beasts—and other artifacts from New-York Historical’s collection.
I love the origination story – worthy of fiction – how in 1990, J.K. Rowling was sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to London when an idea popped into her head fully formed: the character of Harry Pottery, a boy wizard with messy black hair, glasses and a lightning shaped scar on his forehead. Over the next five years, she planned out seven books, writing mostly in longhand and amassing a mountain of notes, many on scraps of paper (some we get to see).
She presented a scroll of the draft of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as it was titled in the United Kingdom), to Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury, who handed it to his eight year old daughter, Alice, to read. His daughter’s review, “‘it’s probably one of the best books for 8 or 9 year old could read,” encouraged him to publish. The initial print run was just 500 copies, typical for a children’s book by a first-time author. The book turned into a worldwide phenomenon – over 500 million books sold, printed in 80 languages. We see various editions lining the corridor.
There’s so much to absorb – I went through the exhibit twice, and used the Audible guide they make available for free, and after three hours, could have spent considerably more time there.
There is a superb Family Guide for “A History of Magic” that turns the exhibit into an interactive activity.
New-York Historical is also presenting a wide variety of exhibition-related events for grown-up Harry Potter fans throughout the run of the exhibition, including trivia nights, art workshops, creative writing classes, social meet-ups, open mics, book clubs, and engaging courses that explore the Hogwarts curriculum. Programs include an onstage conversation with illustrators Mary GrandPré and Brian Selznick, and a special evening with actor Jim Dale, known for his narration of all seven Harry Potter U.S. audiobooks. Family activities feature History of Magic family days with hands-on activities and crafts, a Harry Potter family book club, historical Hallowe’en celebration, and trivia for families. Additional programming information is available at harrypotter.nyhistory.org.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is sponsored by Audible and a special audio tour to accompany the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at New-York Historical, featuring Natalie Dormer, will be available to ticketholders as a free Audible download, offering in-depth content on fascinating objects throughout the exhibition galleries.
This is the only other exhibition of this collection outside of the British Library. After finishing here on January 27, the artifacts will be returned to the museums and institutions to which they belong. Poof, it’s vanished.
Timed-entry tickets for the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic are $21 for adults, $16 for seniors (65+), $13 for students, $6 for kids ages 5–13, and free for children ages 0–4; tickets include admission to the rest of the Museum. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on view through January 27, 2019, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday 10 am–6 pm; Friday 10 am–9 pm; and Sunday 10 am–5 pm. The last entry is 45 minutes before closing.
“History Matters,” is the New-York Historical Society’s motto, and that is clearly on view.
There is so much to see at the New-York Historical Society – it never fails to offer fascinating and provocative exhibits – you need a couple of extra hours beyond the time visiting “Harry Potter.” I went through “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” exhibit which is hard-hitting and in your face discussion of how the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War, and most significantly, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, led to an institutionalized system of terror and subjugation of African Americans, including a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to Dred Scott, that perpetuated subjugation (on view through March 3).
Also, the relatively new “Gallery of Tiffany Lamps” is not to be missed – this permanent display of 100 illuminated lamps is breathtaking for its beauty and exquisite presentation (by architect Eva Jiricna), and you even get the opportunity to design your own Tiffany lamp shade. You also learn the “hidden history” behind the lamps: about Clara Driscoll, the woman who up until now was virtually unknown and unheralded but was the artistic genius behind many of his designs, who headed the “Women’s Glass Cutting Department.”
There are also two films that are shown in a fantastic theater, each shorter than 20 minutes: “We Rise” about women and social movements that were incubated, flourished and pollinated from New York City (narrated by Meryl Street) and “New York Story,” how and why it grew to be the commercial and cultural capital of the world and remains inextricably connected to the world.
There is a lovely café at the Society.
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street), 212-873-3400, nyhistory.org.
Even if you were unable to get to the once-a-year Museum Mile Festival along Fifth Avenue on June 13, when six museums (some of them with pricey admissions) throw their doors open to one and all for free, it provided a marvelous preview of some spectacular exhibits that are on through the summer or fall.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the southern “border” of Museum Mile, I visited the Irving Penn Centennial, a marvelous survey of this brilliant photographer’s career and an opportunity to see the museum quality prints that would have been seen in the pages of important magazines like Vogue; the exhibit is on through July 30, 2017.
I went from Irving Penn Centennial to the “Age of Empires” exhibit of breathtaking sculpture and artifacts from the Qin and Han dynasties, spanning 221 BC to 220 AD, including near life-size but extraordinarily realistic statues of terracotta warriors from Xian (so life-like they appear to breathe) that I had seen for the first time when I visited what was at the time newly uncovered site in 1978 in China. This important exhibit is on view through July 16, 2017.
Then, I couldn’t resist, I luxuriated in the galleries devoted to Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
Outside, the Met Museum hosted performance art – a troupe of dancers whose movements formed artistic poses. (My favorite time to visit is on a Friday or Saturday evening when the Met is open late, has music on the mezzanine; favorite place to eat is in the American Café in the sculpture garden; also, take a docent-led “Highlights” tour, which brings you all around the museum.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028, (212) 535-7710 http://www.metmuseum.org/.
(My clever strategy was to start at the Met at 5 pm, giving me an extra hour of the Museum Mile Festival in order to cover more territory.)
I next visit the Neue Galerie New York and get my annual “fix” of the breathtaking “Woman in Gold” and other Gustav Klint paintings (Klint has become one of my favorite artists). The Austrian Masterworks exhibit is a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the museum’s founding, highlighting Gustav Klint, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele.
The Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, which always gets an enormous crowd for the Museum Mile festival, is featuring “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” “Hugo Boss Prize 2016: Anicka Yi, Life is Cheap” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 88th Street) New York, NY 10128, (212) 423-3500, https://www.guggenheim.org/
Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institutions, a collection established by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration in 1897, housed in an exquisite mansion, is presenting a marvelous exhibit, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” – bringing together the design elements of the era through a range of furnishings, architecture, clothing, paintings and music, and what made the designs so distinctive and reflective of cultural trends of the time. For example, “Bending the Rules,” the cross-pollination of American and European artists (“A Smaller World”), the infatuation with technology and machines. One of the special delights of the Cooper Hewitt is their interactive opportunities to create designs.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street (off Fifth Avenue) New York, NY 10128, 212-849-8400, http://www.cooperhewitt.org/
The Jewish Museum’s special exhibit this season also focuses on the 1920s, featuring the painter and poet and exemplar of the avant-garde, Florine Stettheimer. This was all new to me – I had never heard of her, or her incredible sisters, before (their independence, feminism and stunning range of creativity reminded me of the Bronte sisters, except these ladies did not keep their creative output a secret).
The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, (between 92nd & 93rd Streets), New York, NY 10128, (212) 423-3200, www.thejewishmuseum.org.
The two exhibits – at the Cooper Hewitt and the Jewish Museum – are that much more inspiring to see contiguously, to have this extraordinary in-depth insight into the Jazz Age, a time of tumultuous change in culture, social mores and political currents on a scale that only recurred 40 years later, in the 1960s, and now. I became intrigued when I heard of the Jewish Museum’s exhibit at the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island in June (you have another opportunity to enjoy this fantastic festival August 26 & 27, jazzagelawnparty.com; see story)
From there I walked further north, to just about the top of the Museum Mile with only about an hour to go of the festival.
The Museum of the City of New York always has smart, clever exhibits. The not-to-be missed exhibit, “New York at its Core,” that is on now is in three parts, in three different galleries. It explores the essential question, “What makes New York New York?” (Answer: Money, Diversity, Density, Creativity) and takes the city from its very beginnings (room-sized images of neighborhoods morph from centuries ago into today), to its development as a melting pot for cultures, and then lets viewers imagine what the city of the future should look like (“Future City Lab”) and how it should solve the challenges of affordable housing, greenspace, environment, transit, and so forth. One of the most interesting parts is a computer-generated animation that puts you into the scene.
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street), New York, NY 10029 (212) 534-1672, http://www.mcny.org/
Then, at the end of the Museum Mile, El Museo Del Barrio is featuring “Belkis Ayon: Nkame” and “A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayon” El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street), New York, NY 10029, (212) 831-7272 (http://www.elmuseo.org/)