Tag Archives: NYC museums

Spy v Spy in New York City: New KGB Spy Museum is Window into How Spies Impact World Affairs

 

Sergey, a KGB Spy Museum guide, describes the conditions that political prisoners would have suffered in a society where opposition was suppressed by fear © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.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.

The Patient Chair, used for interrogation, one of some 3500 artifacts on view at the KGB Spy Museum © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 dominance.

Some 3,500 artifacts from the KGB, from 1910 to 1991, many seen publicly for the first time, are on view at the newly opened KGB Spy Museum in Manhattan © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 15 days.

Sergey demonstrates robot hands used to handle dangerousmaterials in a lab © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

“Virtually 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.”

With spies 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.

In addition 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.

he KGB managed to hide a listening device in this wooden replica of the Great Seal, which hung over the US Ambassador’s desk in Moscow for 7 years before being detected. It took another 1 ½ years to figure out how it worked. The inventor won a Stalin Prize. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 Devices.

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.

The one-of-a-kind record player made especially for Stalin © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Also 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.”

Mundane objects like a belt buckle hid miniature cameras © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 p.m. Tickets are 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.

KGB Museum, 245 W 14th Street, NY 10011, kgbespionagemuseum.org.

See also: Spy v Spy Has New Addresses in NYC: At Spyscape Find Your Place in World of Espionage

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

‘Hudson Rising’ Exhibit at New-York Historical Society Shows River Was Incubator for America’s Environmental Movement

“Hudson Rising” at the New-York Historical Society: Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, with a model of the Clearwater, led a movement to reclaim the Hudson River from industrial destruction and overdevelopment © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 preservation.

Curated by Marci Reaven, New-York Historical’s vice president of history exhibitions, “Hudson Rising” begins where environmental consciousness of the Hudson River began, with the landscape artist Thomas Cole © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Hudson 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.

Thomas Cole’s painting, Catskill Mountain House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

A cherished tourist panorama of the Hudson River from 1847, that was so big, it was accordioned into a book © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The exhibits surround you, and there are various interactive elements. 

“Hudson Rising” features a combination of paintings, artifacts, maps, photos, videos to tell the story of the development of the river and its preservation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 landscape.

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 firm SCAPE.

“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 environmental movement.”

Programming

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.

Present Day Relevance

The 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 the river.

Governor 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.

New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street), www.nyhistory.org.

See 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.

New York State created the first “viewshed” – a protected view – at Frederic Church’s Olana, Hudson NY © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 view from Sunset Rock in the Catskill Preserve, one of the hikes on the Hudson River School Art Trail, the same view as Thomas Cole painted © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“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 System.”

Most of the stops on the trail are within 15 miles of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, in Catskill. (Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill, NY 12414, 518-943-7465, thomascole.org)

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

American Museum of Natural History Creates Immersive Experience for Understanding ‘Our Senses’

Looks like a flat 2-dimensional image but the image is made up of separate three-dimensional blocks, one of the illusions at ‘Our Senses: An Immersive Experience’ at American Museum of Natural History © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are in a room. There’s a mural on the wall with drawings of animals. There is red light and you see a set of animals; then the light turns blue and you see a different set of animals.

In another room, you try to build blocks looking through glasses that turn them upside down. It’s disorienting, and that’s the point.

In another room, you are tricked into thinking two squares on a checkerboard are different shades of grey, when in fact, they are the same.

In another room, you feel off balance by the swiggles of black lines on the walls that don’t equate with the flat floor you are standing on.

In another, you push a button to see the vivid, fluorescent colors of a flower as a bee would see them.

In the new, highly experiential exhibition  Our Senses: An Immersive Experience opening at the American Museum of Natural History, a series of 11 funhouse-like galleries dare visitors to rely on their senses—and then reveal how and why what we perceive is not all, or exactly, what’s actually occuring around us. Inspired by extraordinary diversity of sensory “super powers” in species, including humans, across the natural world, Our Senses takes experiential exhibition to a new level. Our Senses opens for a weekend of Member previews beginning on Friday, November 17, and will be on view to the public from Monday, November 20, 2017, through Sunday, January 6, 2019.

New science: it was known that insects see in ultraviolet but only a few years ago, did scientists understand just how vividly they could see. At a push of a button, “Our Senses” let’s you see a flower the way a bee would © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Our senses are essential to how we live and make sense of the world around us. They provide pleasure, warn us of danger, and allow us to interact with one another,” said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. “But how exactly do they work, why did they evolve the way they did, and what things are we not able to sense or perceive accurately? In a kind of ‘sequel’ to our 2010 exhibition about the brain, Our Senses: An Immersive Experience will explore the intriguing power of our sensory perceptions, offering our visitors not only highly enjoyable learning experiences, but an enriched perspective on what makes us human.”

She adds, “Spoiler alert: we have way more than five senses.”

“In a way, this exhibit is a sequel and extension of the 2010 exhibit about The Brain and cognition [which also was curated by Rob Desalle who curated “Our Senses: Am Immersive Experience.”]. While senses gather information and are highly evolved capacities, we can’t make sense of our world without the brain.” That is the role of prior learning, prior experience, culture, which prime our senses, focus our attention, and trigger the brain to interpret and perceive and combine the different stimuli into a message, idea, concept, action.

Human senses, and human brains, adapted over millennia to help our ancestors survive by shaping and enhancing their perceptions of everyday encounters. Our Senses reveals how until recently in our evolutionary history, humans have been oblivious to some of nature’s ubiquitous signals, including UV and infrared light, very high- and very low-frequency sounds, and electric fields. With the advent of new technologies, scientists now know those signals are all around us—whether or  not perceptible to us through our senses alone. But detecting things is not enough, because our  ears and eyes alone cannot create a conscious perception—that  requires a human brain.  Human sensory perceptions may seem like windows into the outside world, but actual perceptions are created in the brain.

“How we sense the outside world has been on humans’ minds probably since our species could think about thinking,” said Our Senses curator Rob Desalle, who is a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “The evolutionary nature of how and why we sense our surroundings the way we do made this a perfect topic for our museum to explore. This exhibition will immerse visitors in galleries that test their senses, and give them some tools to approach the age-old human question of how we sense the world.”

Michael Novacek, Senior Vice President & Provost of Science and Curator of the Division of Paleontology at AMNH talks with Rob Desalle (right), Curator in AMNH’s division of Invertebrate Zoology and Curator of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience” about the interconnection between evolution and senses and senses and the brain © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

DeSalle has overseen several major exhibitions, including Brain: The Inside Story, which explored how the human brain uses molecular, chemical, and electrical signals to interpret information and learn at every stage of life, which carry into this exhibition.

Visitors walk through 11 interactive galleries designed to test perceptions and illuminate the complex relationships between sensing and perceiving. A musical soundtrack customized for each space enhances the immersive experience. In addition, a live presenter in the exhibition gallery will invite visitors to discover why humans have senses and what’s unique about human perception—including why human beings are the only species that creates imaginary sensory experiences and shares them with others through language.

Sixth graders from MS247 become immersed in puzzles, illusions and interactive experiences to better understand “Our Senses” at the American Museum of Natural History © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exhibit is laid out in a way that will particularly appeal to younger people – they will particularly love the puzzles and illusions – providing an understanding of how they perceive the world that will be foundational to learning. But adults, giving more intense look, will find some up-to-the-minute research: for example, that birds can regenerate the cilia in the ear that if humans lose it, lose their hearing, so scientists are studying if cilia can also be regenerated in humans; that male peacocks don’t just use their stunning plumage to visually attract a mate, they move it so it produces a sound, imperceptible to humans, but that is attractive to females.

There is a 20-minute live presentation that really brings home the message: we have more than five senses, the ones that we use to navigate the outer world and let us know where we are in space. We also have inner senses that monitor when we are hungry, thirsty, tired, oxygen-deprived and need to breathe. Every animal – even single-cell animals – have some senses and many animals have senses that are superior to humans, humans are the only animal (that we know of) that can imagine and communicate.

“No other animal can conjure up whole scene using complex signals. Only humans can create imaginary sensory perception and share through language. For example, only humans can make up a story and share it,” the presenter tells us.

“Humans don’t’ just take information into the brain, we can send information out. We can imagine a sensory experience and make it real: create food, fashion, art, architecture, machines, melody and manuscripts.

“Most sensory experiences we have are products of our imagination. We don’t just experience what is – we create what we imagine, then share it with others.”

“Nothing makes sense in absence of evolution,” DeSalle says. He points to the fact that single-cell animals have a primordial sense of touch, they can determine where they are in space. “Our senses go back 3.5 billion years, to the origin of life.” 

“Our brain and senses have evolved so that the brain can process what the senses take in with rapid response,” he says. “Because of the way brain evolved, we have some wild ways of dealing with information… Sometimes there is conflict between the brain and signals the senses receive (there are examples in the exhibit) – where we are primed to see something else, but interpret based on what we already sense. That is Evolution: to deal with rapid response.”

What happens when visual cues conflict with other senses? Swiggly lines on the walls conflicting with a flat floor, put you off-balance © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For example, the exhibit shows how we are primed to focus – based on internal needs, experience or habit or prompts– in order to break through the clutter of sights and sounds.

Senses are our source of information about the world, without which, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Take the sense of smell, for example, which helps us determine which food is edible, and which is rotten and could cause disease.

There is an incredible spectrum of the capabilities of senses – many animals exceed our own; humans have a particular space on the spectrum. For example, humans see only a narrow range of light compared to other animals and do not have very sensitive touch. But humans build machines that allow us to sense beyond our range – think of microscopes, telescopes, night-vision glasses, hearing aids, cochlea implants.

What you see changes with the changing colors of light © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

You need at least 1 ½ hours to go through – even more if you want to do the immersive activities. And it is helpful to go through once, but then go back and spend more time reading the explanations.

Entrance is by a timed ticket (free with admission), which you can obtain online before you come, or when you arrive at the museum.

Our Senses is open from Monday, November 20, 2017, through Sunday, January 6, 2019. (Members will be able to preview the exhibition starting on Friday, November 17, through Sunday, November 19.) In conjunction with the exhibition, OLogy, the Museum’s science website for kids, has an exhibition-related feature about optical illusions and what they reveal about the human brain and our species’ evolutionary past.  Also, Our Senses Curator Rob Desalle explains the human brain for kids in a video: Why is the brain so wrinkly? What does the brain do while we sleep? DeSalle, curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, answers these questions and more about one of our most vital organs. (Click goo.gl/UMQw7B)

The exhibition is designed and produced by the American Museum of Natural History’s award-winning Exhibition Department under the direction of Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition.

Our Senses is supported by Dana and Virginia Randt.

The new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History is constructed so you learn about our senses through various immersive experiences © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A program, “The Neuroscience of Illusion,” with master illusionist Apollo Robbins and neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde will be offered Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 7 pm ($15, Seniors and Students $13.50, members $12); special access to the Senses exhibition available to ticket holders one hour prior, 6-7 pm; tickets at amnh.org.

There’s still time to take in the extraordinary “Mummies” exhibit, on view until Jan. 7, 2018 (admission by timed ticket; need the General Admission Plus 1).

Visiting the Museum 

The 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 research 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 specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree, and, beginning in 2015, the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree, the only such freestanding museum program. Annual visitation has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows are seen by millions more in venues on five continents.

The Museum’s website, mobile apps, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) extend its scientific research and collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to additional audiences around the globe. Visit amnh.org for more information. 

Museum admission is free to all New York City school and camp groups.

Pay-what-you-wish admission is available only at ticket counters, where the amount you pay is up to you.

General Admission, which includes admission to all 45 Museum halls and the Rose Center for Earth and Space but does not include special exhibitions, giant-screen 2D or 3D film, or Space Show, is $23 (adults), $18 (students/seniors), and $13 (children ages 2–12). All prices are subject to change.

General Admission Plus One includes general admission plus one special exhibition, giant-screen 2D or 3D film, or Space Show: $28 (adults), $22.50 (students/seniors), $16.50 (children ages 2–12).

General Admission Plus All includes general admission plus all special exhibitions, giant-screen 2D or 3D film, and Space Show: $33 (adults), $27 (students/seniors), $20 (children ages 2–12).

American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, is open daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), 10 am–5:45 pm. For additional information, call 212-769-5100 or visit the Museum’s website at amnh.org. Become a fan of the American Museum of Natural History on Facebook at facebook.com/naturalhistory, follow on Instagram at @AMNH, Tumblr at amnhnyc, or Twitter at twitter.com/AMNH.

See also:

New ‘Mummies’ Exhibit at American Museum of Natural History Lets You Peer Through Wrappings, Peel Away Layers of Time

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures