The Museum of Illusions,
opened September 2018 in New York City’s West Village. You might assume by its
name that it is a children’s museum or about magic, which depends greatly on
illusion — it is neither of these. Nor can it be considered an
“attraction, ” although many of the exhibits are interactive, as you get to
help create the illusions. The purpose of this museum is really about educating
visitors on the physical and psychological science behind illusion. With two-
and three-dimensional illusions on the walls and floors that will
mesmerize visitors of all ages, placards posted near each exhibit provide the
explanations to help you understand what you are viewing and how the illusion
is created. While the museum does not explicitly delve into magic, when
you leave, you will have a better understanding of how some magic tricks work.
We thoroughly enjoyed
this museum with its many surprises. One of our favorite exhibits was a room
with a sloped floor — a monitor shows that you appear to be growing smaller and
smaller as you walk across the floor. Another fun, interactive exhibit is where
a visitor pokes her head out of the middle of the table, but all you see is a
head on top of the table with no body.
Friendly staff are
available to give you clues about the illusions, help you figure out where to
stand to get the most effective view, explain the science behind a particular
illusion, and take your picture. In fact, the museum welcomes photography
because the digital photograph makes it easier to visualize many of the
illusions. At the front of the museum, a staff member is ready to have two of
your party pose as part of an illusion relating to perspective (check out the
photo where Marty is patting Laurie’s head — we are literally a few feet from
each other! And no — Laurie is not that small).
The museum is housed in
a bank building dating back to pre-Depression 1920s. Before you leave, be sure
to ask to see the old bank vault.
(Be advised: the only
downside of the Museum of Illusions is that it has mobility limitations – there
is no handrail on the outside steps leading up to the main door and no
alternate ramp. The second floor is only accessible by a narrow staircase with
a banister — there is no elevator. On the other hand, visitors with mobility
issues are admitted free.)
The Museum of Illusions
(77th 8th Ave, New York, NY; https://newyork.museumofillusions.us/) is open Monday – Thursday, 9am to 10pm; Friday
– Sunday 8am to 11pm. To explore with smaller crowds, try to arrive
before noon. Plan for 45 minutes to 1-½ hours to walk the entire museum, and
bring a camera to capture the illusions at their best! Tickets are $19/adult;
$17/senior, military, students with ID; and $15/kids 6-13 years of age (under 6
is free). Tickets may be purchased online with a small service fee.
So often, when reviving a theater icon like Fiddler on the Roof, there is the need to find a new, unique, creative way to make it their own, to reinterpret, re-envision to give new audiences a different entry way. And too often, that manipulation warps or distorts what made the theatrical experience so precious to begin with. But you don’t have to insert modern inventions into Fiddler for its moral, both universal and specific, to be relevant to today’s audiences. In fact, it is much more profound to be transported back to that time, 1904, for its truth to be fully realized.
Fiddler on the Roof has that most important aspect of a true classic, to touch every emotion, make you see things more insightfully, to have a real moral to the story, and leave you a better, more understanding person afterward – and be entertained.
Directed by Oscar and Tony Award-winner Joel Grey, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (in Yiddish, A Fidler Afn Dakh) adds new depth and dimension to this heart-wrenching story of a community struggling to balance traditions against the forces and threats of a changing world. The little town of Anatevka reverberates with the sounds of mame-loshn (ancestral language).
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, brings you closer, more engaged, immerses you. The experience seems even more authentic, more intimate.
Partly this is because the Yiddish language, is so expressive – some of the earliest musicals in New York were in Yiddish (Yiddish theater thrived in New York between 1888 and the 1920s; there is even a Museum of Yiddish Theater, www.museumofyiddishtheater.org) – and in a surprising way even familiar. There are words we New Yorkers know very well (meshuganah comes up a lot), and it seems every so often the Yiddish word is similar to English. But you can follow along, opera-style, with titles (in English and Russian!).
But it is also because Yiddish is the mame-loshn, the ancestral
language. It gives the story more authenticity. You are there, in this
place so far away. Perhaps you even understand the challenge when the
inhabitants of this village, indeed all the Jews from all the villages, are driven
from their homes on three days notice to a strange place where they will
understand no one and no one will understand them.
One of the most
celebrated musicals of all time, Fiddler
on The Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the
Dairyman stories, features the sensational music
by Jerry Bock,
meaningful lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and smart book by Joseph Stein, with original New York stage production directed and choreographed by
the greatJerome Robbins. This production, brilliantly
directed by Joel Grey, has staging and new choreography by Stas Kimec.
We noticed just small deviations from the original
book, and a new song that emerges from Pertshik’s biblical lesson, that enhance
the experience (not too smart or gimmicky), but otherwise, it is gloriously
faithful to one of the best musical theater works ever created.
The direction by Joel Grey is exquisite – just the
right timing, emphasis, emotion. These characters seem more approachable,
especially without distractions of a complicated set. The Tevye character,
played by Steven Skybell (who won the 2019 Lucille Lortel Award for Best
Lead Actor) is more sensitive, loving, nuanced than the character is
The Jews of Anatevka are clad all in grey, white and
black – as if looking back in time at old photos or film, or perhaps as letters
out of a book – only the Russians have a touch of red and Fiadkah’s outfit is
sufficiently differentiated from his erstwhile comrades.
The set is sparse, but you don’t even realize it –
long strips of what looks like parchment of Torah scrolls with one with the
only world, in Hebrew lettering, Torah that binds the community throughout the
ages and is the underpinning to tradition. That hones the message but also
focuses attention on the people.
The staging and choreography is fabulous – there are
all our favorites: the bottle dance at the wedding; the Russian dance. I loved
the way the dream sequence is staged. The voices and acting of a brilliant
company are sensational.
And most importantly, a timeless tale more important
than ever that needs to be told in these times.
Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, which opened in 1964, was the first
musical theater production in history to surpass 3,000 performances, won
the 1965 Tony Award for Best Musical in addition to eight
other Tony Awards that year and has performed in
every metropolitan city in the world from Paris to Beijing.
translation, so artfully crafted by Israeli actor/director Shraga
Friedman, was originally performed in Israel in 1965 just one year after its Broadway debut.
Born in Warsaw, Friedman was a native Yiddish speaker who escaped war-torn Europe
with his family and made their way to Tel Aviv in 1941. “Well acquainted with
the works of Sholem Aleichem, Friedman used his translation to infuse Fiddler
with rich literary references to the original Yiddish stories.”
production, which was originally staged at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, marks
the first time the Yiddish version has been performed in the United States.
There is no
problem following what is going on – much like opera, there are supertitles in
English and Russian on both sides of the stage throughout the entire
performance that translate what is being said or sung on stage in real time.
The show is so familiar that it isn’t even necessary, but I enjoyed reading the
nuances of difference. And the great surprise is how familiar some of the words
are, either because Yiddish expressions have entered the vernacular (at least
in New York), or because of the connection to English.
The complete cast of Fiddler
on the Roof includes award-winning Steven Skybell (as
Tevye), Emmy Award nominee Jackie Hoffman (as
Yente), Jennifer Babiak (as Golde), Joanne Borts (as
Sheyndl), Lisa Fishman (as Bobe Tsatyl), Kirk Geritano (as
Avrom), Samantha Hahn (as Beylke), Cameron Johnson (as
Fyedka), Ben Liebert (as Motl Kamzoyl), Stephanie
Lynne Mason (as Hodl), Evan Mayer (as Sasha), Rosie
Jo Neddy (as Khave), Raquel Nobile (as
Shprintze), Nick Raynor (as Yosl), Bruce Sabath (as
Leyzer Volf), Drew Seigla (as Perchik), Adam B.
Shapiro (as Der Rov), Jodi Snyder (as
Frume-Sore), James Monroe Števko (as Mendl), Lauren
Jeanne Thomas (as Der Fiddler), Bobby Underwood (as
Der Gradavoy), Mikhl Yashinsky (as Nokhum / Mordkhe),
and Rachel Zatcoff (as Tsaytl).
Ensemble members include Michael
Einav, Jonathan Quigley, and Kayleen Seidl. Swings
include Abby Goldfarb and John Giesige, and Moshe
Lobel serves as understudy for the production.
The creative team for the production
features new choreography by Staś Kmieć (based on the original
choreography by Jerome Robbins), musical direction by Zalmen Mlotek, scenic
design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, sound
design by Dan Moses Schreier, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski,
wig & hair design by Tom Watson, and props design by Addison
Fiddler on the Roof is produced off-Broadway by Hal Luftig and Jana
Robbins, in association withSandy Block.
This production of Fiddler on the Roof is the winner of the 2019 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Revival, a 2019 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award Special Citation, and star Steven Skybell is the winner of the 2019 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical, as well as numerous nominations for Joe Grey as director, for orchestration, Lucille Lortel nominee for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical Jackie Hoffman.
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, a production of the remarkable National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), began its life with a celebrated run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where it had been extended multiple times and played its final performance on December 30, 2018. This production at the Stage 42 Theater has been extended multiple times as well, and now is extended again, through January 5, 2020.
NYTF has its own remarkable history: founded in 1915 the award-winning NYTF is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world and offers regular productions. The company is presenting a season of four mainstage productions, concerts and readings curated to accompany the exhibit Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away. now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Jan. 3, 2020 (https://mjhnyc.org/exhibitions/auschwitz/).
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is a theater
experience not to be missed.
on the Roof in Yiddish is at Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street (between 9th and
10th Avenues), New York, NY, 10036. For the most current performance schedule
and tickets, see http://fiddlernyc.com. Tickets
are on sale for performances through Jan. 5, 2020. https://nytf.org/fiddler-on-the-roof/
Michael Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra are hosting its
14th annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island this summer – as
Arenella notes, just one year shy of 100 years since the Roaring 20’s got
underway. His homage to the Jazz Age era brings out the best of New York, with
ladies donning their flappers dresses, feathers, sequins and pearls, and the
fellows their straw hats, suspenders, bow ties and white linen suits. And each
year, it seems, there are more and more kids.
Michael Arenella, an aficionado of the Jazz Age, has
compiled a song book. He transcribes by hand the music from period recordings,
and introduces them with quaint tidbits.
“For Michael, the Jazz Age never really ended, it just fell
He really gets into character, and everyone thoroughly
enjoys the trip back in time, even looking every bit Gatsby-esque when he
marches his orchestra out among the picnickers and into a vintage Rolls Royce
This year features a return of his popular entertainers:
Robert Ross as Emcee; Roddy Caravella and the incomparable Canarsie Wobblers
putting on different dance routines; the Gelber & Manning Band; Peter
Mintun on the piano; Queen Esther and her jazz trio; Gretchen Fenston; Julie
The event typically starts off with a dance lesson
instructed by Roddy Caravella – on the Saturday, it was the Charleston, and in
the afternoon a Charleston contest which was won by by 9 ½-year old Aidan
The romantic mood really takes over on the dance floor as
Max Singer surprised his sweetheart, Bryanna Doe, with a proposal of marriage.
If you missed out on this rollicking good time, you have
another chance: Michael Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra bring another Jazz
Age Lawn Party to Governors Island on August 24 & 25, noon to 6 pm.
Purchase tickets in advance www.jazzagelawnparty.com.
Summer is a magical time in New York City, with a burst of the finest cultural institutions opening their doors, coming outdoors and letting all the world in.
Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis;
Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) has begun performances of the 2019 Free
Shakespeare in the Park production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Delacorte
Theater, continuing a 57-year tradition of free theater in Central Park. Directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, the
all-black staging of this beloved comedy will run through Sunday, June 23.
Then, for the first
time since 1979, Free Shakespeare in the Park will present CORIOLANUS, the Bard’s blistering drama about a general voted into
power by a populace hungry for change, and the unraveling that follows. Tony
Award winner Daniel Sullivan (Proof, Shakespeare In
The Park’s Troilus and Cressida) directs a
modern-day version of this riveting epic of democracy and demagoguery, July
This year, there will be voucher or ticket distributions
over the course of the summer in all five boroughs for almost every public
performance of Free Shakespeare in the Park, continuing The Public’s mission of
making great theater accessible to all. This summer’s distributions at
libraries, recreation centers, and community partners throughout New York City,
will have more locations and dates than ever to provide New Yorkers even more
opportunities to obtain free tickets. To see a complete borough distribution
schedule, visit publictheater.org/borough.
Kenny Leon directs a bold new take on Shakespeare’s
cherished comedy of romantic retribution and miscommunication, MUCH ADO ABOUT
NOTHING. In this modern production, we find the community of Messina
celebrating a break from an ongoing war. But not all is peaceful amid the
revelry, as old rivals engage in a battle of wits, unexpected foes plot
revenge, and young lovers are caught in a tumultuous courtship – until love
proves the ultimate trickster, and undoes them all.
The all-black cast of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
includes Jamar Brathwaite (Ensemble), Danielle Brooks (Beatrice), Grantham
Coleman (Benedick), Chuck Cooper (Leonato), Javen K. Crosby (Ensemble), Denzel
DeAngelo Fields (Ensemble), Jeremie Harris (Claudio), Tayler Harris (Ensemble),
Erik Laray Harvey (Antonio/Verges), Kai Heath (Messenger), Daniel Croix
Henderson (Balthasar), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Friar Francis/Sexton),
Tiffany Denise Hobbs (Ursula), Lateefah Holder (Dogberry), LaWanda Hopkins
(Dancer), Billy Eugene Jones (Don Pedro), Margaret Odette (Hero), Hubert
Point-Du Jour (Don John), William Roberson (Ensemble), Jaime Lincoln Smith
(Borachio), Jazmine Stewart (Ensemble), Khiry Walker (Conrade/Ensemble), Olivia
Washington (Margaret), and Latra A. Wilson (Dancer).
To enable as many New Yorkers as possible the
opportunity to experience Free Shakespeare in the Park there will be an open
caption performance of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING on Friday, June 14; an ASL
performance on Saturday, June 15; and an ADA audio described performance on
Thursday, June 13.
Since 1962, over five million people have enjoyed
more than 150 free productions of Shakespeare and other classical works and
musicals at the Delacorte Theater. Conceived by founder Joseph Papp as a way to
make great theater accessible to all, The Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park
continues to be the bedrock of the Company’s mission to increase access and
engage the community.
This season, The Public proudly welcomes the return
of Jerome L. Greene Foundation and Bank of America as season sponsors.
The Public continues the work of its visionary
founder Joe Papp as a civic institution engaging, both on-stage and off, with
some of the most important ideas and social issues of today. Conceived over 60
years ago as one of the nation’s first nonprofit theaters, The Public has long
operated on the principles that theater is an essential cultural force and that
art and culture belong to everyone. Under the leadership of Artistic Director
Oskar Eustis and Executive Director Patrick Willingham, The Public’s wide
breadth of programming includes an annual season of new work at its landmark
home at Astor Place, Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in
Central Park, The Mobile Unit touring throughout New York City’s five boroughs,
Public Forum, Under the Radar, Public Studio, Public Works, Public Shakespeare
Initiative, and Joe’s Pub. Since premiering HAIR in 1967, The Public continues
to create the canon of American Theater and is currently represented on
Broadway by the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Their programs and productions can also be seen regionally across the country
and around the world. The Public has received 59 Tony Awards, 170 Obie Awards,
53 Drama Desk Awards, 56 Lortel Awards, 34 Outer Critic Circle Awards, 13 New
York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, and 6 Pulitzer Prizes.
Tickets to The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in
the Park are distributed in a number of ways. On the day of each public
performance, free tickets may be acquired in person at The Delacorte Theater,
through a digital lottery via the TodayTix website or mobile app, in person at
a borough distribution site, and via an in person lottery in the lobby of The
Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. All tickets are subject to
availability. A performance calendar and complete ticket distribution details
can be found at PublicTheater.org. A limited number of tickets are also
available via advance reservation by making a contribution in support of Free
Shakespeare in the Park. To learn more, or to make a contribution, call
212.967.7555, or visit PublicTheater.org. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th
Street and Fifth Avenue (publictheater.org).
Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series
Features 6 Free Concerts
The Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 Summer
Recital Series once again brings free outdoor recitals, featuring established
artists and young talents of the opera world, to New Yorkers in all five
boroughs. The series, now in its 11th year, features six free concerts
embracing all five boroughs, and has become an operatic summer tradition.
Presented in collaboration with City
Parks Foundation’s SummerStage Festival, the first two concerts, on Monday,
June 10 at 8 p.m. at Central Park SummerStage (Manhattan) and Wednesday, June
12 at 7 p.m. at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Brooklyn), will feature soprano Ying
Fang,who sang a featured role in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito this
season,and tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Nathan Gunn,who sang
together this season in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. They will be joined by
Met pianist Dan Saunders.
Four additional recitals feature soprano Leah Hawkins and tenor Mario Bahg, current members of
the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and baritone Joseph Lim, a winner of the Met’s
National Council Auditions. They will be accompanied by Met pianist Dimitri Dover. Their concerts will
take place on Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. in Jackie Robinson Park (Manhattan);
Saturday, June 15 at 4 p.m. in Williamsbridge Oval (Bronx); Monday, June 17 at
7 p.m. in Socrates Sculpture Park (Queens); and Wednesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. in
Clove Lakes Park (Staten Island).
The Met’s Summer Recital Series will
feature arias and duets, as well as Broadway standards and other classical
Met’s Summer Recital Series is supported, in part, by public funds from the New
York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council,
and in collaboration with the Department of Parks and Recreation. Major funding
has also been provided by The Elizabeth B. McGraw Foundation, in honor of Mrs.
The New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks,
Presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer, have become an iconic New York summer
experience since they began in 1965, transforming parks throughout the city
into a patchwork of picnickers and providing music lovers with an opportunity
to hear the best classical music under the stars.
The concerts will take place Tuesday June 11 in Van
Cortlandt Park, Bronx; Wednesday, June
12 in Central Park, Manhattan, Thursday, June 13 in Cunningham Park in Queens,
Friday, June 14 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and Sunday, June 16 in Staten
All performances begin at 8 PM except the Free Indoor Concert in Staten Island,
which begins at 4 PM.
The scheduled program includes Rossini, Overture
to La Gazza Ladra; Works by Very Young Composers of New York City; and Copland’s
Hoe-Down, from Rodeo.
There will be fireworks by Volt Live following the
performances in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.
Now celebrating its
41st year, the annual Museum Mile Festival takes place rain or shine on
Tuesday, June 11, from 6 to 9 pm. Walk the Mile on Fifth Avenue between 82nd
Street and 110th Street while visiting some of New York City’s finest cultural
institutions, which are open free to the public throughout the evening. Special
exhibitions and works from permanent collections are on view inside the
museums’ galleries, with live music and art-making workshops on Fifth Avenue at
stretch of Fifth Avenue is home to seven participating institutions—El Museo
del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, Neue Galerie
and the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to all the art to see
inside, there are plenty of outdoor festivities: face painting, chalk drawing,
live music and other block-party-type events. (http://museummilefestival.org/)
Age Lawn Party, Governors Island
Nostalgia doesn’t begin to describe the feeling that
permeates Governors Island for the two weekends (June 15 & 16, August 24 & 25) each
summer that thousands of people, many decked out in 1920s regalia, elaborate
picnic baskets in hand, disembark from ferries from lower Manhattan and
This, the 14th year of the festival, is
especially poignant because it is also the 100th anniversary of
Prohibition and all that the counter-culture (women’s rights!) Jazz Age
It is also one of New York City’s
most glamorous and entertaining events of the summer.
Jazz Age Lawn Party started in 2005 as a small gathering on NYC’s Governors
Island, and has since grown into one of New York City’s most beloved events.
This historically sold out event attracts thousands of time travelers each
year, who come together to discover the music and zeitgeist of the 1920s.
Consistently selected by the New York Times as one of the year’s most memorable
events, Jazz Age Lawn Party offers a unique, interactive opportunity to relive
one of the most colorful and formative epochs in American history.
The event is held rain or shine; food is available
for sale but people love to bring their own picnics (outside alcohol is prohibited, but
there is alcohol, including Prohibition-era inspired cocktails, for sale).
Though enjoying Governor’s Island is free (and there
are fascinating historic sites as well as art and cultural and recreational
activities on the island, and you can hear the music, admission to the
festivities is by ticket (which cost up to $175). Purchase tickets in advance https://www.eventbrite.com/o/jazz-age-lawn-party-18523813336
(no charge for children 12 and under).
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt that has taken us to 10 countries in 23 days. Bill
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, in which the challenges and scavenges are designed to get us out
of our comfort zone and immerse us in a culture, fine-tune our skills as world
travelers, and most significantly, “trust in the kindness of strangers.” Back
in New York, he is delighted all 10 teams circumnavigated the world “in one
piece” without dramatic incident, in this, the 15th annual Global
Scavenger Hunt competition.
leading teams vying for the title of “World’s Greatest Travelers” as we enter
this final leg of the contest in 4th place, SLO Folks from
California with 96 points (where the low-score wins); in 3rd, Order
& Chaos, doctors from San Francisco with 81 points; in 2nd
place, Lazy Monday, computer networking consultant and think tank professional
from California with 46 points, and Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, with
33 points, five-time winners who are competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt for
the 12th time.
is one more challenge in New York (an easy urban Par 1), and even though, based
on points and placement, the winners of the 15th annual, 2019
edition of the Global Scavenger Hunt have been determined, still the teams go
out and give it their all. Those in contention must complete at least one of
the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4
of the scavenges: take in a
Yankees game or a Broadway show; have one of each of following: a New
York bagel, a New York hot dog, a New York deli sandwich, a slice of New York
pizza, New York cheesecake, a New York egg cream, or an old-fashion Manhattan; -locate
five pieces from five of the nations you just visited in the Met; visit
Strawberry Fields, pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of
the five boroughs of New York City.
native New Yorker, this is really my turf (though there is the oddest sensation
of feeling like I am in a foreign place, reminding myself of what is familiar
like language, money, streets, drink water, eat salad), and I delight in
walking up Madison Avenue to 82nd Street to the Metropolitan Museum
of Art on Fifth Avenue.
elect to take up the challenge of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to
seek out objects from five of the countries we visited (Canada, Vietnam,
Myanmar, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Portugal,
Spain). Greece will be easy, of course, but Morocco and Jordan (Petra), Vietnam
and Myanmar (Burma) are just a bit trickier. It is Chalmers’ way of making us
experience things on a different level, and for me, it brings together so much
of what we’ve seen, learned and experienced along the way.
first join a docent-led Highlights Tour, knowing from past experience that
these always lead me to parts of the museum I am unfamiliar with, and enlighten
about aspects of art and culture with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the
docents select to discuss.
docent, Alan, begins in the Greco-Roman exhibit with a stunning marble
sculpture of the Three Graces, showing how this theme – essentially copied from
the Greek bronzes (which no longer exist because the bronze was valuable and
melted down for military use) – was repeated over the eons, into the
Renaissance and even beyond.
Obviously, finding an object from Greece is going to be easy, and I hope to find objects from Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand in the Asia wing where there is a massive collection of Buddhist art (it proves just a tad more difficult, but I succeed). Morocco and Jordan (Petra) proved trickier than I expected, but brought me to an astonishing exhibit, “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” with an extraordinary focus on the territories and trading networks of the Middle East that were contested between the Roman and Parthian Empires (ca. 100 BC and AD 250). “yet across the region life was not defined by these two superpowers alone. Local cultural and religious traditions flourished and sculptures, wall paintings, jewelry and other objects reveal how ancient identities were expressed through art.”
exhibit features 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the
United States in an exhibition that follows the great incense and silk routes
that connected cities in southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judea, Syria and
Mesopotamia, that made the region a center of global trade along with spreading
ideas, spurring innovations (such as in water control), and spawning art and
was the most incredible feeling to come upon the objects from Petra, having
visited the site (was it only 10 days ago?) and having a context for seeing these
isolated objects on display.
The World between Empires
The landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which is on view through June 23, 2019, focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious and commercial exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra and Hatra between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. “During this transformative period, the Middle East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for regional control.”
The exhibition focuses on the diverse and distinctive
cities and people that flourished in this environment by featuring 190 outstanding
examples of stone and bronze sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and other
objects from museums in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
Among the highlights is a Nabataean religious shrine,
reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in the United States
and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue
at Migdal (ancient Magdala) and whose imagery refers to the Temple in
Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that are the
earliest securely dated images of Jesus. Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate
religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle
East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with
ancient people. The exhibition also examines important contemporary
issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including
Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.
“The compelling works of art in this exhibition
offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to define
themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and political
activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that resonate some
two millennia later,” said Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Further,
in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent
conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also
engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”
The exhibition evokes a journey along ancient trade routes,
beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that grew rich from the caravan
trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and used throughout the ancient
world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the Nabataean kingdom, with its
spectacular capital city of Petra, which I had just visited, walking through
very much as the caravan travelers would have.
From here, goods traveled west to the Mediterranean and north and
east through regions including Judaea and the Phoenician coast and across the
Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra controlled trade routes that
connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia and Iran and ultimately China.
In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes down the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined maritime trade routes to India.
These connections transcended the borders of empires, forming networks that
linked cities and individuals over vast distances.
Across the entire region, diverse local political and religious
identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from Judaea give a powerful sense
of ancient Jewish identity during a critical period of struggle with Roman
rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal sanctuary at Baalbek and
statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined nature of Roman and ancient
Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary portraits from Palmyra represent
the elite of an important hub of global trade. Wall paintings and sculptures
from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates illustrate the striking religious
diversity of a settlement at the imperial frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts
from the last Babylonian cuneiform libraries show how ancient temple
institutions waned and finally disappeared during this transformative period.
In Athens and Petra, particularly, you appreciate this synergy
between trade, migration, environmental sustainability and technology (in
Petra, the ability to control water supply was key), economic prosperity and
political power, and the rise of art, culture, and community.
It is rare (if ever ) for the Metropolitan Museum to venture into
the political, but a key topic within the exhibition is the impact of recent
armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on archaeological sites, monuments,
and museums, including deliberate destruction and looting. Some of the most
iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and Dura-Europos—are featured in the
exhibition, which discusses this damage and raises questions regarding current
and future responses to the destruction of heritage. Should the sites be
restored or will they now only exist “on paper”? How much money and resources
should go to restoring or excavation when villages and homes for people to live
in also need to be rebuilt?
There is a fascinating, if frantic, presentation of three archaeologist/historians speaking about what the destruction by ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists of Palmyra, Eura-Europos and Hatra – what it means to destroy a people’s heritage, their cultural identity. “It may seem frivolous to focus on [archaeological sites] when people are enslaved, killed…but to wipe out, destroy culture is a way of destroying people.”
upon this exhibit made the travel experiences we had to these extraordinary
places all the more precious.
is a humbling experience, to be sure, to go to the origins of the great
civilizations, fast forward to today. How did they become great? How did they
fall? Greatness is not inevitable or forever. Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion,
art and monuments to establish their credibility and credentials to rule;
successors blot out the culture and re-write history.
out from the American Café windows to Central Park and see sun and the early
spring blossoms on the trees, and dash out to walk through my other favorite
New York City place. There is nothing more beautiful than New York City in the
spring – brides are out in force taking photos; there are musicians and
entertainers. There is a festive atmosphere as I walk through the park toward
the Palace Hotel in time for our 4:30 pm meeting.
And now, drumroll please, Chalmers announces the
winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins. The competition
3rd – Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes, doctors from San
2nd – Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn
Verwillow, computer networking and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California
(“I am in awe of how hard worked beginning to end – embraced the spirit,”
1st Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times, and won it for the 6th time. “You embody the spirit of the event, to go out of your comfort zone.” (You can follow Zoe’s blog of her experience to get a sense of how strenuous, outrageous, and determined the team was in accumulating their points: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019)
We celebrate at a final bon voyage dinner.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is the brainchild of Bill and
Pamela Chalmers, who in addition to forging understanding and bonds among
travelers and the people in the destinations visited, use the program to promote
voluntourism (one of the scavenges is to volunteer at an orphanage or school
during our stay in Yangon, Myanmar, and in the past travelers visited & helped out at: Tibetan
refugee camps in Nepal, orphanages in Laos, hospitals in Cambodia, homeless
schools in India, hospices in Manila, disabled facilities in Sri Lanka,
Ethiopian schools, the slums of Nairobi) and raised money for the
“The foundation is one of main reasons we do the event,”
Chalmers says. The foundation has raised money to build 12 schools (1 each in Niger, Haiti, Ecuador, India & Ethiopia; 2
each in Sri Lanka & Sierra Leone, and 3 in Kenya), helped build the Tamensa Medical Clinic in Niger for migrating
Tuareg nomads which serves as a midwives & nurse training center too. “We
know that we saved lives and bettered the lives of hundreds. We have helped
over 2400 families in more than 60 countries (mostly women entrepreneurs) with
our interest and fee free micro-loans (96% of which have gone to women with a
Through the event this and last year, the
foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia and Haiti.
TheGlobal Scavenger Hunt travel
adventure competition is aimed at returning the romance of travel while testing
IQ of the most travel savvy of globetrotters. The travelers
(who must apply and be accepted to compete) completed a series of highly
participatory, authentic and challenging cultural site-doing scavenges
in ten secret countries over a 23-day circumnavigation between April 12 and May
4, 2019 designed to bring people out of their comfort zone and trust strangers
in strange lands.
“The Global Scavenger Hunt covers a lot of
extraordinary travel bases,” says Chalmers, who dubs his mystery tour, “A blind
date with the world.”
Imagine a structure 120 feet high that can fit 2000 people for a concert, but that can move, expand, shrink or be completely removed to expose an open-air plaza. An “anti-institution” cultural institution to provide a home and nurture the full spectrum of the arts, where emerging artists, local artists, and established artists have parity, and audiences represent the diversity and inclusivity of New York with low-priced ticket holders dispersed throughout the house.
This is The Shed, the
newest cultural center to open in a city which prides culture above all, sure
to be gain a place among the pantheon of iconic art institutions, along with
its leading-edge approach to harnessing the arts as a force for social action
and public good, its astonishing architecture, flexible, versatile and
adaptable enough to enable artists of today and tomorrow and fulfill their
vision to be a platform across multi-disciplines.
It’s “the Swiss army knife” of culture,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, chair of the board, during a press preview prior to the April 5 grand opening, when the principals involved with the genesis of the project spoke of what The Shed, and its mission, meant to the city and society.
Indeed, they noted, in a city of 1200 cultural attractions, The Shed had to be different, beginning with its commitment to commissioning new works, creating a platform – the space and place – for artists across disciplines, engaging audiences across a spectrum of backgrounds and interests, but most significantly, creating a building, that like a “living organism” would keep morphing to accommodate artists’ visions today and decades from now, accommodating the unimaginable ways art and culture might change over time.
Six and a half years ago, after seeing a 60-second animation of what The Shed could be, purpose-built to house various forms of culture and building would move, John Tisch, vice chair of the new institution, told his wife, “The Shed is about future of NYC and we need to be involved.”
“6 ½ years later, here
we are discovering the future of NYC and how we as citizens and creators of
this institution will discuss culture and humanity, how we all need to be
together in the 21st century in NYC.
“There are many cultural institutions – many are about the past. The Shed is about the future.”
“The dictionary defines ‘shed’ as an opened-ended structure with tools,” said Doctoroff. “We designed The Shed as a platform, uniquely adaptable, to liberate artists to fulfill their dreams.”
More than a dozen years
ago, Doctoroff said, The Shed “started as small square on map, a placeholder
for To Be Determined cultural institution.
“Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Make
it different from anything else in New York City.’ That’s not easy in a town of
1200 cultural institutions. It had to play a role in a new edge of New York
City, keeping New York City as leading edge of the cultural world.”
Liz Diller of Diller
Scofidio + Renfro, lead architect, and David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, collaborating
architect, responded to the mandate for flexibility, a one-of-a-kind structure.
“Just as it was to be designed
to be flexible, we wanted it to be of and for our time and inclusive of artists
across all disciplines,” Doctoroff said. “We proposed commissions of emerging
artists across all art forms – the mission drives our work.
“It is a remarkable
public/private investment of $500 million to design and construct building and
create original works of art.
“New York City continues
to be perfect partner under Mayor DiBlasio. The city provided $75 million and
“We are standing in The McCourt,
a spectacular space that can do anything an artist can imagine. It was named
for the Board member who gave $45 million.
“Griffin Theater was named
for one of most generous philanthropists, Ken Griffin, who gave $25 million.
“Altice USA is the
founding fiber network partner – so that The Shed is an accessible arts
organization with global reach, the first cultural institution with connectivity
“Above all, Mayor
Bloomberg, who had vision to transform West Side and create cultural
institution as beating heart. The Shed is housed the Bloomberg Building, named
for Mayor Bloomberg.
“It’s been a 14-year
journey – kind of crazy, new kind of cultural institution in a completely new
building in new part of town, new board, new team, performing miracles every
day, producing our own work.
demands great purpose,” Doctoroff said.
Alex Poots, the Artistic Director and CEO, said, “I started to imagine the possibilities: a flexible building, built on city land. That was the draw to lure me from England –a public purpose. It was a no brainer, building on what I had been doing for 15 years. [Poots is also involved with the Manchester Festival and with the Park Avenue Armory.]
“Parity among art forms;
the ability to commission art – visual and performing arts. And it would not
matter if the artist were emerging, established, or a community artist – we don’t
need a false hierarchy.
“The Shed is place for
invention, curiosity where all artists and audiences can meet.
Alongside all the
venerable institutions of city, we hope The Shed can add something.
“It’s rare for a place to be open in the day as a
museum, and in the evening a performance center.”
Poots introduced the 2019 inaugural season’s first commissions (and the press were able to watch some rehearsals):
a new live production celebrating the unrivaled impact of African American
music on art and popular culture over the past 100 years, conceived by
acclaimed filmmaker and artist Steve McQueenand developed with music visionaries and academic experts
including Quincy Jones, Maureen Mahon, Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson, Tunji Balogun and
Greg Philliganes, is a five-night concert series (April 5-14) celebrating the
unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture, with performances
by emerging musicians.
a live performance/exhibition pairing works by master painter Gerhard
Richter with a new composition by Steve Reich and an extant
composition by Arvo Pärt, performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
(April 6-June 2).
Jeane Baker of Troy, a reinvention of Euripides’ Helen by
poet Anne Carson, starring Ben Whishaw and the opera singer, Renée
Fleming (April 6-May 19).
Björk’s Cornucopia, the
multidisciplinary artist’s most elaborate staged concert to date, directed by
Lucrecia Martel (May 6-June 1).
Dragon Spring Phoenix
futuristic kung fu musical conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng and Kung Fu
Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with
songs by Sia, choreography by Akram Khan, and production design
and costumes by Tim Yip (June 22–July 27);
There are also, expansive exhibitions devoted to
extant and newly commissioned work by trailblazing artists Trisha Donnelly and
Agnes Denes; and an unprecedented opportunity for New York City-based
emerging artists of all disciplines to develop and showcase their work
throughout The Shed’s spaces via an Open Call commissioning program.
Beneath the stands and
stage in The McCourt is the only permanent art installation, “In Front of
Itself,” a large-scale, site-specific work by artist Lawrence Weiner embedded
into the plaza. It serves as a walkable outdoor area when the movable shell is
nested over the fixed building, or as the base of The McCourt when the shell is
extended to the east. The 20,000-sq. ft. work features the phrase, “In front of
itself” in 12-foot high letters fabricated with custom paving stones.
These first commissions,
Poots said, “shows the range of The Shed.” The flexibility of the building
makes it possible to transform from one show to the next in just two days.
Art as Social Action
Tamara McCaw, Chief Program Civic Officer, is responsible for fulfilling the mission of The Shed to use art as social action.
“It is my responsibility
to serve the community, particularly those under stress or have barriers [to
artistic expression]. ]
McCaw oversees the Open
Call program, an unprecedented opportunity for 52 New York City-based emerging
artists and collectives to develop and showcase their work throughout The
Shed’s primary spaces, free to the public (May 30-August 25) and continuing in
The 52 artists were
selected from 930 applications in its first open call. Alex Poots said that The
Shed will embark on its next round of emerging talent in 5-6 months.
The Shed has year round
social justice residencies, serving 700 students a year
“We are providing a platform for local and
emerging artists – selected by diverse panel and Shed staff (2 are on the panel
– to present in principal spaces, plaza, theater.” These performances and
exhibits will be free to public.
“It is our civic
responsibility to reflect, respond to the diverse communities of NYC – with
affordable tickets ($10; free for 18 year olds and under and CUNY students),
and reserve 10% of low-income seats that will be distributed throughout house
(not the back or nosebleed section)
Addressing how The Shed
intends to be responsive to diverse audiences, Doctoroff noted that the
building is open – the restaurant, café and lobby. Anyone can come through
without a ticket, and every gallery and theater can be separately ticketed. The
goal is to make access to exhibits and performers and accessible as possible.
McCaw added, “People
from public housing are already are coming because they are of process. We did
outreach for open call. There are artists who live in public housing here. When
you come with respect, people want to be involved.
“We are creating inventive
new work, supporting creative expression, cultural equity and belief in power
of art to effect social change.”
Ticket prices are
intentionally low. Every gallery show – except Richter – is $10 ticket and free
for those under 18. Open call programs are free (18 weeks of programming)
At the end of the first
year, he expects that half the entire
audience will be admitted for $10 or free.
The Shed, a
not-for-profit arts institution, expects to operate at a loss.
“That means we have to
raise money,” Doctoroff said. “But we regard it as investing in society, not as
a loss. The less box office, the more generous we are. There are high ticket
prices for those who can afford it and low for those who can’t – low cost
tickets are equally dispersed through theater, to promote equity.”
A good source of real
money, though, could be in renting out space in The Lizzie and
Jonathan Tisch Skylights and The Tisch Lab on the top floor, Level 8, where there is a
1,700-square-foot creative lab for local artists, a 3,300-square-foot rehearsal
space, and a 9,500-square-foot flexible, multipurpose space for events.
“The Top floor is engine
for that flexible space – dinners, small performances – will be rented year
round while operating as not-for-profit art center.”
Frank H. McCourt Jr., Shed board member and entrepreneur, reflected, “There is something else here – civic imagination, ideas put into action to serve people – address societal issues, change lives, make a better nation, a better humankind.
“It is artistic creation
but also social innovation. Human creativity for the greater good. My hope for The
Shed is that it is home for both art and other intellectual activities. This
place, including the institution created to animate it, is a bold, living
example of civic action. An idea put into action for greater good.
“It’s not finished, just
getting started. This week a milestone. In a world replete with cynicism, The
Shed is the opposite.”
An Architectural Marvel
“We started the project 11 years ago – when it was a dotted line on a satellite photo and a question mark. It was the 2008 recession,” reflected Liz Diller, lead architect, who described what it was like to design a building around a mission.
“Arts in New York are
siloed – dance, theater, music, visual. That’s not how artists think today, but
how will artists think in one or two decades? We can’t know. We started a project
without a client, an anti-institution institution, to serve artists of all
kinds in a future we could not predict.
“How could architecture
not get in the way of that? Art is in flux, so the building had to be able to change
on demand, be flexible without defaulting.”
What she and collaborating
architect David Rockwell devised is a fixed building with column-free exhibit
and performance space, the Bloomberg Building.
Shed’s Bloomberg Building—an innovative 200,000-square-foot structure designed
by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Lead Architect, and Rockwell Group, Collaborating
Architect—can physically transform to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.
Its eight-level base building includes two levels of gallery space; the
versatile Griffin Theater; and The Tisch Skylights, which comprise a
rehearsal space, a creative lab for local artists, and a skylit event space.
an iconic space for large-scale performances, installations, and events, is
formed when The Shed’s telescoping outer shell is deployed from over the base
building and glides along rails onto the adjoining plaza. The McCourt can have theater seating for 1400,
or open the glass wall to expose the balcony for 300 seated and have 2000 on
When the movable shell is nested over the base building, the 20,000-square-foot
Plaza will be open public space that also can be used for outdoor programming;
the eastern façade can serve as a backdrop for projection with lighting and
sound support. The Plaza is equipped with a distributed power supply for
outdoor functions. Oversize deliveries can be brought by truck up Hudson Yards
Boulevard and loaded directly onto The Plaza and into the base building or the
shell when deployed. Those doors can be opened while the audience is under
cover, for an open-air effect.
“It is the architecture
of infrastructure: all muscle, no fat,”
Diller said. “Alex, an inspirational alchemical force, challenged the building
to be smarter, more flexible, agile. This is a perpetual work in progress –
always getting smarter more agile.
It will respond to the challenge
of artists and challenge the artists back.”
“New York is so defined by art and its artists. Art creates community, at its best, and empathy with audiences,” said Architect David Rockwell.
“What we created
is a Swiss Army knife of culture,” said Doctoroff. “A beautiful design with
practicality to respond to the notion that we don’t know where art will go, or
where artists will be in 200 years.”
eight-level base building includes two expansive, column-free galleries
totaling 25,000 square feet of museum-quality space; a 500-seat theater that
can be subdivided into even more intimate spaces; event and rehearsal space;
and a creative lab.
outer shell can double the building’s footprint when deployed over the
adjoining plaza to create a 17,000-square-foot light-, sound-, and
temperature-controlled space, named The McCourt, for large-scale performances,
installations, and events for audiences ranging from 1,250 seated to 3,000
standing (when combined with space in the two adjoining galleries of the base
building). When space is not needed, the movable shell can nest over the base
building, opening up the plaza for outdoor use and programming.
explained how the movable shell travels on a double-wheel track based on gantry
crane technology commonly found in shipping ports and railway systems. A
rack-and-pinion drive moves the shell forward and back on four single-axle and
two double axle bogie wheels that measure six feet in diameter; the deployment
of the shell takes approximately five minutes.
exposed steel diagrid frame of the movable shell is clad in translucent pillows
of durable and lightweight Teflon-based polymer, called ethylene
tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). With the thermal properties of insulating glass
at 1/100th of the weight, the
translucent ETFE allows light to pass through and can withstand hurricane-force
winds. Measuring almost 70 feet in length in some areas, The Shed’s ETFE panels
are some of the largest ever produced.
“Systems were adapted from
other things but it is novel in the way we put together,” Diller said, adding
that the architecture is “based on industrial crane technology, brought to 21st century”
with an emphasis on functionality. But there were no real models among arts
“It was a constant process
of invention, reinvention,” said Doctoroff. “We have 14 blackout shades. We had
to rethink the system of shades – particularly when Alex came and knew he wanted
concerts. They needed to also provide sound protection. We went to the sailmakers
who designed sails for America’s Cup boats to design shade system. Extra
performance capability of holding back 108 decibels (loud). The thickness,
density had to be able to roll up.”
Asked why New York needed another cultural institution, Doctoroff retorted, “Why have we been so successful raising money? Because people sense New York does need this. The criteria was that this had to be different from anything else in New York. We went to talk to artists and leaders of cultural institutions around the world to ask what do they not have and need. There were similar themes –the internet era gives artists the capacity of collaborating across distances and disciplines, but also producing work that didn’t fit in traditional institutions. Out of that came idea of flexibility.
“This is different: our
mission of inclusivity embedded in value system,” said Doctoroff, said in a
small discussion group with journalists.
“We prove it every day.
This is personal for me: 36 years ago I imagined a new West Side – saving the
Highline [now one of the most popular attractions in NYC, with 8 million visits
a year], the subway. I always believed having a cultural heart to the new West
Side was critical and would need to change over time to keep New York leading
edge in culture. I believe cultural institutions are critical to New York,”
said Doctoroff, who is also chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet
company that looks at sustainable solutions to designing urban communities.
“The Shed will never be
finished,” said Doctoroff. “The word ‘unfinished’ ends with ‘shed’. It will
always be evolving because what we’ve done is created a platform for artists to
use as their own. The building enables their vision – they will push, stretch
us in ways we can’t imagine, they can’t imagine today. The Shed is an organism
that keeps morphing.”
And that’s how Liz
Diller expects not to go through post partum blues. “We will respond to the
challenge of artists and challenge artists back.”
If you really want to be freaked out by the KGB Spy Museum that opened just a few months ago in Manhattan, do what I did: come directly from Spyscape, where you learn about the whole business of being a spy, and be in the middle of reading a book like “The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West,” by Malcolm Vance.
The KGB Museum would be scarier if it were not laid out somewhat like an antique shop (but aren’t all spy centers sequestered behind something innocuous like a tailor shop?). Row by row, there are some 3500 artifacts, all of them real, many on view publicly for the first time. They date from 1910 until 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union when the KGB was replaced by the FSB. But these mundane objects – a lipstick, an umbrella, a pen – were lethal weapons; a tie pin and belt buckle were cameras; a heart reader could seek out a live person hiding even in a refrigerator. Another important tool? A thermometer to determine if a person were truly dead. And if a master key couldn’t unlock an apartment to install a bug? No matter, a transmitter could be aimed at the window from a huge distance to decipher the sound vibrations and eavesdrop anyway. There is even a letter remover which could take out a letter from its envelope, read its contents and replace it back in the envelope, without leaving a mark.
And then there is the “patient chair,”
used in a psychiatric hospital, with scary restraints, that were used for
interrogations under truth serum or other means.
It turns out that those fantastical
gadgets from the James Bond movies, and even the Get Smart spy spoof, were
actually based on the real thing. It seems that there is nothing too absurd in
the spy world.
The KGB story is really scary
though. KGB (КГБ in Cyrillic) stands for “Komitet
Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti,” which can be translated as the Committee for
State Security. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union, and
during the Cold War the KGB was in direct competition with the CIA and other
state security agencies around the world for cultural, economic, and military
The KGB was born in the Russian Revolution – one of the artifacts is the carpet
memorializing Lenin (not his real last name, it turns out) and the beginning of
the Revolution in 1917 – and was initially designed to ferret out
counter-revolutionaries, or enemies of the Communist state.
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
You realize how pervasive and
ruthless the KGB was (is), and sense the constant terror that the people must
have lived under, as that term “enemies of the state” was broadened to mean any
one who criticized or opposed the ruling party, the leadership or policies.
There are real doors from jail cells,
and you look through at real video of real prisoners. Those who were placed in solitary
were allowed nothing to wear but their underwear; they could sleep only four
hours, when the bed would be closed up, and fed only bread and water for 5 to
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
Some of the best engineering and
scientific minds were employed to devise gadgets and gizmos – miniaturizing cameras,
maximizing surveillance and detection, inventing new ways of transmitting.
undetectable, the agency used its state-of-the-art tools and ruthless methods
to seamlessly monitor the citizens’ lives and keep them in constant fear of
repercussions for any subversive behavior. The investment in the spy technology
had a devastating toll on the country’s economy yet it was deemed the most
effective and necessary way to keep the state isolated from the rest of the
world and keep the Western world out.”
operating in countries all over the world, the KGB had a vast influence on world
affairs, which reached its peak during the Cold War. KGB Spy Museum presents a
never-before-seen collection of items used in the missions of prominent KGB
agents, illuminating the strategies and methods that underlay many of history’s
top-secret espionage operations.
to perusing artifacts and learning about the history of the notorious agency, you
can read and listen to real stories from spies, witnesses and journalists as
well as explore and interact with authentic objects, such as telephone
switchboards (most of the operators who connected the calls and then listened
in on conversations were KGB), encryption machines, an interrogation chair,
designed to extract information from suspects and enemies.
One of the most interesting stories surrounds a wooden Great Seal in one of the cabinets, that was also one of the KGB’s greatest triumphs, that arose out of the famous summit in the Crimea of Stalin, Churchill and FDR. The head of the KGB, Lavrenty Beria, had a replica of the Great Seal made as a gift for Ambassador Averell Harriman, presented most charmingly by cherubic Young Pioneers (like boy scouts) as a “gesture of friendship.” But inside was an ingenious bug that used electromagnetic energy instead of an external power supply. It hung above the Ambassador’s desk in Moscow for seven years before it was exposed in 1952. “The Americans couldn’t figure out how it worked for a year and a half,” my guide, Sergey, says. (The original is in the NSA’s Cryptology Museum in Washington.)
The inventor of the Zlatoust/Receiver
LOSS, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, was a physicist
and a musician, who began his career by developing previously unseen electronic
musical instruments. In 1947 he won the Stalin Prize for Inventions of Listening
One of the objects that is literally
one-of-a-kind, is a record player made expressly for
Stalin; there is also a safe, made by the Bernstein company in Berlin, that
came from KGB HQ, still containing the currency that would have been enough to buy
30 cars. Both indications of the privilege along with the power amassed by the
Communist leadership despite their calls for a equal society.
Among the rarest objects, which are
a point of pride, also seem mundane but were “mechanical masterpieces”:
Tool set КАРОЕД/KAROED (Bark beetle): This is a manual
set of special drills and instruments for drilling very narrow holes less than
0.04 inches without any sound in the tree or plastic. Holes were needed to
listen to secret conversations with a help of secret microphones. These sharp
and pointed drills are specially machined from the very hard metal. The set
includes drill extensions, which can be used to drill holes in 3.3 ft and even
thicker walls or wooden floors. A special hand-held drill holder had a stopper to
drill holes of a certain depth to protect the drill from coming out across the
wall by making only a small, hardly visible hole. A special container collects
shavings in order not to leave any suspicious marks.
very rare: KGB secret drill ИГЛА/IGLA (needle): “It is a unique mechanical
masterpiece – the drill IGLA. This very complicated drill reflects the name
‘needle’, because it drills a very thin hole through the concrete. It drills
with the help of air compressor with abrasive dust to avoid the sound and
vibration. Even the drilling sound was designed by the constructors to simulate
that era washing machine Малютка/Maliutka. The person at home thought that a
neighbor was probably doing the laundry. The Igla drill had a hole through
which the air pressure was inflated according to the manometer readings, and
when the drill approached the outside of concrete wall, the air pressure
dropped in the drill as the air went out and the drill automatically shut off.
The hole was 0.04 inches in size. If the walls were painted or lined with
ceramic tiles, the eye did not even see the hole or dust outside. With this
drill, the abrasive powder and concrete dust were absorbed by air. Agents who
were very patient, slow and responsible were chosen to drill such a hole. In
order to drill a 4 inches concrete wall took about 4 hours, and with the
preparation – the whole day. Agents, through drilled miniature holes, installed
listening or photo devices. After the operation, they applied a hole with the
cement mixture and no suspicious marks were left.”
There’s an old fashioned
phone where you can “dial” a selection of officials. My guide, Sergey, dials
Putin and hands me the phone so I can hear Putin talking (it’s like listening
to the LBJ telephone tapes at the LBJ Presidential Museum in Austin). There are
also actual phones on display from KGB offices that would have features to
disguise the voice at the push of a button.
The two spy experiences – Spyscape and
the KGB Museum – have completely different approaches and perspectives, but they
complement each other so well, especially when visited one after the other.
Spyscape is modern, state of the art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience. KGB is old-school but so relevant today, with the Russian actively hacking elections and using social media to impact US and other elections, policy, and political discourse.
“The KGB Spy
Museum aims to present espionage and intelligence operations in an educational
and interesting way, emphasizing the importance of human intelligence and
setting out a frame of reference for the public to appreciate the great extent
to which spies have always influenced world events. The Museum has a policy of
presenting the history of espionage without political bias, thus offering
visitors a factual and balanced view of the subject. “
The Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 8
available online or in the museum. You need about 1 ½ hours to visit. Tickets
are adults (18-64)/$25; Children 7-17, seniors, students, $20; a guided visit,
minimum 3 people is $43.99.
Are you Bond or Bourne? Once
you leave Spyscape, you will learn there are many more roles to play in the
complex and ever more ubiquitous world of intelligence. After going through
eight “tests” and many stations which do their best to insert you into the
realm of espionage and profile you to figure out what job you are best suited
to, I would make a
sorry spy. I knew from the start I wasn’t either Bond or Bourne. But I
found a new calling.
I was expecting a museum, even as
museums have become more interactive and engaging and multimedia. But Spyscape,
one of the newest attractions in New York City, is not a museum. It is an
interactive experience more than anything else, designed to inform you, yes,
about the world of espionage and surveillance which, it turns out, is ubiquitous
today, but put you in the picture so that you see yourself in the complex
enterprise that is intelligence.
Spyscape is modern, state of the
art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience that lets you
peek into the world of espionage, spycraft, intelligence and
counterintelligence today from the inside.
don’t just get taken on a journey through the history of espionage from World
War II and on, but become immersed in up-to-the-minute, ripped from the
headlines events. Edward Snowdon. Wikileaks. Stuxnet. Black hat hackers. Anonymous. “You might be persuaded not to vote.”
has truly been let out of her box.
There is a feeling of intensity from the moment you arrive – intended to give you that sense of tension and excitement that must be omnipresent in espionage, and visitors will enjoy as much as the adrenaline rush of skiing down a double-black trail. But is there a place for me?
I am risk adverse. I’m not a gamer.
I don’t do puzzles. I’m frightened of going into small dark rooms when I don’t
know what is there. I frighten easily.
As you arrive, you are given a
bracelet that identifies you at scanning machines that basically track your
progress as you go about the exhibit – you complete a series of tasks and
quizzes and at the end, are assessed as to what role you might play in the spy
apparatus – it turns out there are many, many different functions.
entrée into the world of spycraft is the largest passenger elevator in New York
City, escorted by a very professional person with a
clipboard – it turns out that the ride up is also a multi-media orientation
(think “Mission Impossible”).
mission: What kind of spy will you be? Or put another way: Where do you fit in
the pantheon that is the world of espionage.
experience is constructed as if a job interview, to immerse you and personalize
what would otherwise be technical machines and bios. But it turns out that not
all spies work for governments – corporations engage in some of the same
techniques, so do journalists, and so do hackers and criminals. And it turns out that the profile you wind up with at the
end of all the tasks and quizzes is authentic and serious – not tongue-in-cheek
or hokey. I can see some young people seeing new career paths in intelligence
(most of the CIA are analysts, not cloak-and-dagger operatives) or even
outside, since, as is noted, the skills of a spy are broadly applicable.
The layout (Spyscape takes up a
massive amount of space) is purposefully cold, grey, institutional, with
constant pulsing sounds – sometimes electronic music, sometimes sound effects,
I am quite unprepared for the experience, expecting a more conventional exhibit, so am put off stride when all of a sudden confronted with quizzes and tasks. It would have been completely different if I were primed and in a game mode.
One of the tasks I find more engaging (once I got the hang of it), was in the room about coding/decoding, the German’s Enigma machine and the Bombe that British mathematician Alan Turing and colleagues at Benchley developed to break the Enigma code. Here the task is to organize a spy’s escape, but you only have 3 minutes before the Germans will cut off communication to her, and you have to convert a message to code and then decode the response. I do this for the “Limping Lady”, who turns out to be a real person (I later realize she is the spy Virginia Hall) and this was a real scenario.
get personal insights into Alan Turing, the mathematician who developed a
program to break the German “Enigma” machine code. (A fascinating artifact is a
copy of Turing’s notes, as a teenager, summarizing Einstein’s Theory of
Relativity as a gift for his mother). There is also a brief bio of Joan Clark, one
of the Enigma codebreakers who rose to become Deputy Head of the Hut eight. You
get to type code on a replica Enigma machine.
After one “test”, in which I fail to figure out patterns, I am given these words of encouragement: “You didn’t do too well today, but you are obviously better in other things.”
Another that is sure to delight is a
room of laser beams where the timed task is to shut off lights without piercing
the beams – very Oceans 11. (This task gauges your agility.)
All through, the exhibits personalize
the serious issue being raised – the history, technology, impact on society – with
real people, real events and real artifacts. This is serious business after all
with real life and death consequences. Double agents have been exposed and
executed; moles have exposed agents who were executed. Wars declared or
averted, extended or curtailed, won or lost.
you weave through, taking your own quizzes and tasks, the exhibits tell stories
about real spies, double agents, like Robert Hansen and how he was discovered.
Hansen’s treachery led to the unmasking of three soviets who spied for the US,
two of whom were executed. – how he was discovered and trapped. Would you have
detected Hansen’s deceit?
I have all sorts of trepidation about going into a small dark room which turned out to be the test of how well I could detect Deception (I think I do well at that one, probably by accident).
“Gadgets of defiance” describes the
devices that British and American operatives used to carry out perilous
missions in Nazi-occupied Europe – forged documents to support their cover
identifies; one-time encryption pads and miniature radios to communicate with
handlers. They supplied downed Allied pilots with escape maps and compasses and
targeted the enemy with weapons and explosives.
I learn about Virginia Hall, an
American special operations officer who, as a girl, had dreamed of joining the
US foreign service and became fluent in foreign languages, but after she lost
part of her left leg in an accident, her dream was cut off as well. When Hitler
invaded Paris in 1940, Hall was working for a French ambulance service. She
made her way to Britain and joined British special operations. She worked
as a journalist for the New York Post in occupied France, and the Germans
nicknamed Artemis;the Gestapo considered her “the most
dangerous of all Allied spies”. Virginia Hall was the “Limping Lady” of
the code scenario.
about Oleg Penkovsky, known as “HERO” who was a Soviet military intelligence
(GRU) colonel who was responsible for informing the United Kingdom about Soviet
installing missiles in Cuba. The information he provided helped Kennedy through
the Cuban Missile Crisis because he realized that a naval blockade could force
the Soviet Union to stand down. Penkovsky, the highest ranking Soviet official
to provide intelligence for the UK up until that time, is credited with
altering the course of the Cold War. He was executed six months after being
I learn about the British couple, Ruari and Janet
Chisholm, who were his handlers in Moscow. Ruari was Moscow Station Chief for
M16, the British secret intelligence service. Janet collected much of
Pankovsky’s intelligence. During one “brush contact” he walked casually over to
her in a park and offered her children a tin of Vitamin C pills. Janet quickly
swapped the tin which contained military secrets for another identical one
hidden in her baby stroller. The thought of exposing children like that was
chilling. (There’s a photo of Janet with her children on a park bench.)
We meet the real life “Q” gadget wizard,
Charles Fraser Smith, who was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for the character he
used in James Bond. The
new multi-sensory James Bond experience explores the creative process behind
the 007 movies while revealing the secrets of James Bond’s iconic Aston Martin
DB5. You get to peek at gadgets in Q’s lab, examine original concept art in
Oscar®-winning Production Designer Sir Ken Adam’s studio and look behind the
scenes of Skyfall’s explosive finale.
At another section, you go through a
dark curtain and find yourself in this dark round room, illuminated only by
giant screens,that give you some sense of the state of surveillance (it is all
area showcases whistleblower Edward Snowden who exposed the NSA’s surveillance
programs and the reporters who have unmasked government secrets – Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the
journalists who exposed modern day slavery(old
school pad and pen, videocamera and computer are the weapons of choice).
This is where you see the message
blazing out of a giant screen: “You might be persuaded not to vote.” This is
the brave new world of intelligence – not extracting secrets, but in distorting
and implanting messages to shape, disrupt or derail society.
One of the last stations is actually
the most chilling: Hacktivism discusses hacking, hackers – by anarchists,
profiteers as well as nation states. Stuxnet, which was used to disrupt Iran’s
nuclear program (a centrifuge is on view). After Iran realized
what had been done, it called for the hackers to join in an army.
We learn that Stuxnet is now open
source, sold on the blck market, and could be used by any number of actors to
shut down electric grids, water systems or air traffic control or remotely give
instructions to launch a nuclear attack. And no one knows who has it.
And now, I am really to go into my “debrief –
encryption, deception, surveillance, special ops, brainpower (7/18), which
comes up with my spy role: Agent Handler (I suspect they give that one to all
those who don’t measure up as real spies).
But it isn’t done flippantly or
tongue-in-cheek. The authentic personal spy profile is based on psychologists
and a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, and sounds pretty
authentic (as were the short tests for which I was totally unprepared):
“Your Spy Profile is your unique (and
ever evolving) combination of attributes. When compared to others, it allows us
to determine the Spy Role you are best suited to.”
My profile – “empathetic, inquisitive, composed” – turns out
to be fairly accurate and also serious, developed with real psychologists.
Later in the day, I am sent a comprehensive
profile to my email and a
Welcome letter. “Your Spy Skills can be valuable in everyday life. We’ve evaluated
your Core Attributes and Spy Skills to determine your Spy Profile. Top
psychologists and spymasters helped us build our Spy Profile system. We hope
the self-knowledge in your Spy Profile will empower you, and inspire you to
further develop your Spy Skills.”
The missive gives me more detail about my role as Agent
manager of agents who provide secret intelligence or operational support, and
an insider view from General David Petreus.
In the real life example, I am given the bio of
the agent handler for my new spy hero, Oleg Penkovsky (his code name was Hero)
and the background that I found so compelling in the exhibit, about his
handler, Ruari Chisholm, and an example of a typical operation, procuring cover
material for an agent in the Iranian government who wants to provide info on
Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons.
(This makes me think of important omissions in
Spyscape: Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover agent who was infiltrating the Iran
nuclear program until Plame’s
identity as covert officer of the CIA working in counter proliferation was leaked to the press by members of George W Bush administration and
subsequently made public as
retribution for her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s reveal about the false
information that led to the US invasion of Iraq; she also had knowledge to
disprove Bush’s contention that the aluminum tubes that Iraq had could be used
as centrifuges for nuclear material. Also, how Andrew McCabe, the foremost
counter-intelligence expert on Russia, was drummed out of the FBI by Trump to
short-circuit the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign
and the 2016 election).
Spyscape will excite and thrill as
it informs and intrigues. It helps to be prepared in advance for what you will
encounter – I think I would have done considerably better and had better
And like skiing, it is an experience
that adults and older children will relish doing together.
There is a continuing relationship – they send you the profile, and follow up with articles, stories, spy challenges, sharing news about factual and fictional worlds of spying and hacking “and helping you develop your own spy skills. We will be adding content from top hackers and spies to spyscape.com/academy so check in regularly to see what’s new.”
I think I’m being groomed. I’m
From Spyscape, I walk down to the KGB Museum in
Chelsea. It is an interesting Spy v Spy counterpoint that enhances the
experience of each one separately.
is optimized for adults and teens, but children are welcome. Bringing
pre-school-age kids is not recommended. You
need about two hours. There is a pleasant café and the gift shop is loaded with
spy-related merch. Open Monday-Friday,
10 am-9 pm and Saturday-Sunday, 9am-9 pm, last entry at 7:30 pm. (Adult, $39;
child 3-12 $32).
Dragons and dancers paraded through New York
City’s Chinatown on Sunday, February 17 to usher in the Year of the Pig in the city
with the largest population of Chinese descent outside Asia.
The parade is a colorful pan-Asian procession that incorporates the great variety of Chinese traditions – with a smattering of Brazilian drummers, Hispanic dancers, and Irish bagpipers. Tens of thousands lined the parade route as it wound from Hester Street, Mott, Broadway, and Forsyth to Sara D. Roosevelt Park, with US Senator Charles Schumer and NYC Mayor Bill DiBlasio among other elected officials, along with leaders from the Chinese community, leading the way.
his remarks to the gathering before the parade got underway, Senator Schumer
applauded the contributions of “immigrants from all over who made America
With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000,
Chinatown has been a favored home for Chinese immigrants. Indeed, Lower
Manhattan has long been a haven for immigrant communities, from Jews in
neighboring Lower East Side (the Tenement Museum), and Italians in Little
Italy, and today, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos
among others add to the multicultural mosaic.
The Lunar New Year is cherished as a time to embrace family and heritage.
“Lunar New Year is the liveliest and most important celebration
in Chinese culture and Chinatown is the place to experience it!”
And the parade is an expression of celebration for Chinese heritage in America – as evidenced by the sheer variety of costumes and traditions on display.
Here are highlights:
The Museum of China in the Americas (MOCA)
offers a walking tour that takes visitors through Chinatown to learn about
holiday traditions and customs observed by Chinese households. Witness how the
neighborhood transforms itself in preparation for the New Year and discover the
characteristics that make this holiday unique.”
Tours are conducted in English and are led by MoCA docents with
personal or family roots in the neighborhood. In case of inclement weather,
tours will be held in the galleries. Advance reservations are required. For
information and reservations call 212-619-4785 or purchase tickets online, www.mocanyc.org.
(Museum of Chinese in America, 215 Centre Street New York, NY 10013, 855-955-MOCA).
My favorite activity for the holidays in New York is an evening stroll to see the holiday windows and decorations. My route typically goes from Macy’s (this year’s theme, “Believe in the Wonder of Giving”), up to Fifth Avenue to Saks Fifth Avenue which is directly across from Rockefeller Center (from which you can see the amazing light and sound show that is projected onto Saks building, this year, a “There’s No Business Like Show Business” vibe) and across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral (stop in), up to Bergdorf Goodman (still the most artful, creative windows of them all). Returning along Sixth Avenue, stop in at the Rockefeller Center skating rink and then to Bryant Park with a fantastic skating rink and holiday market.
My walk this year led me to “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a new (and timely) play at the reincarnated Studio 54. The play, based on what is apparently true events turned into an Essay/Book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, stars Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale who play (respectively) Jim Fingal, an intern/copy editor, magazine publisher Emily, and prominent, respected writer John D’Agata. I had been wanting to see it, intrigued by the subject (fact-checking an important essay) and the issues it raised (“What is truth?” “What is poetic (embellished) truth in the service of a greater good?” “What is truth and trust in the scheme of journalism business, liability and viability?”). And so took a chance, and walked up to the box office and bought a ticket. I was so delighted I did: it is smart, intelligent, extremely interesting and thought-provoking and oh-so relevant in light of truthiness, “fake news” and the Rolling Stone Magazine affair.
the play was a serendipitous and satisfying addition to my holiday stroll
regimen, something that is oh so possible in New York. Broadway and off-Broadway theaters add
performances during the holidays, one of the most popular times of the year for
Some of the best places to catch some discount tickets include Broadwaybox.com, Theatermania.com, Stubhub.com, and Tdf.org, and waiting on line at the TKTS counter at Duffy Plaza in Times Square (a happening in itself), with two other locations, at Lincoln Center and South Street Seaport. Some hard-to-get shows, like Aladdin (which we thoroughly enjoyed over Thanksgiving), offer daily lotteries for discounted tickets.
For more information regarding the most wonderful time of the year in the five boroughs, find NYC & Company’s official guide to the holidays in New York City at NYCgo.com/holiday.