New York’s big-name museums have a new rival: the Queens Museum. After flying under the radar for decades, the museum was reborn in 2013, thanks to a multi-million-dollar, top-to-bottom renovation that added a spacious atrium, new galleries and an outdoor seating area. In fact, the renewed interest in the museum is extending to the borough itself. “Five, six years ago, Queens was not getting this kind of attention,” said David Strauss, the Director of External Affairs and Capital Projects at the museum. He’s right: These days, Queens is on the itinerary of many more New Yorkers and visitors, helped in no small part by the new museum. And with the museum’s reopening, many of its secret histories are also coming to light.
The Queens Museum owes its existence to not one but two World’s Fairs
Both of the World’s Fairs hosted by New York City — in 1939 and 1964 — took place in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and the Queens Museum building played a big role in each. The museum building is actually the only surviving structure from the 1939 Fair that is still in its original location. At the time, it was known as the New York City Building, and it housed the 1939 World’s Fair displays for the New York City police and fire departments, including a small stage where policemen enacted the show Murder at Midnight, to depict how they treated a crime scene. The original red-and-blue tiles from this very first incarnation of the building are on display in only one place in the museum: the first-floor bathrooms. Interestingly, the museum itself didn’t move into the building until well after the 1964 fair, in 1972. “The museum was established during a World’s Fair withdrawal period,” said Strauss, referring to the period after the 1964 World’s Fair left town. And, 2014 is a special year: It marks the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the two fairs. To celebrate, the museum has unveiled ChronoLeap: The Great World’s Fair Adventure, a virtual reality game where guests can experience the sights and sounds of the 1964 World’s Fair via old photographs and recordings.
The museum once housed an ice skating rink
When the museum opened in 1972, it shared the building with an ice skating rink, used as a rec facility for visitors of the park. “I have memories as a kid skating in the museum building,” recalled Rob Mackay, the Director of Public Relations for the Queens Economic Development Corporation. “Because Queens was home to a big immigrant population, many of whom came from warmer places, you saw a lot of first-time skaters there – a lot of skaters holding on to the walls.” The former skating rink is now part of the renovated lobby, which holds a massive steel-and-glass structure.
The famous City Panorama was originally an amusement park ride
The Panorama of the City of New York, first unveiled during the 1964 World Fair, was originally built as an amusement park ride, where guests could take a nine-minute “helicopter ride” (actually a small car) over the Panorama. You started at sea level and then rose on a helicopter tour of NYC, while listening to a recording by broadcasting legend Lowell Thomas, who spoke of the inner workings of the city. At the time, the ride cost 10 cents per person. The Queens Museum is in the process of restoring one of these “helicopter” cars.
The Panorama is really, really intricate
The Panorama took three years and 200 people to build. Two of those builders — Billy and Ed — etched their names into one of the islands along the Rockaways. There are a total of 895,000 structures and 150,000 individually crafted buildings. Artists used aerial photographs and documentation to build as closely to reality as possible. “This was before the days of Google Maps,” explained Strauss. If documents stated there was “a three-story brick house” at a certain address, that’s exactly what was built for the Panorama. “To get an idea of the size of the Panorama,” said Strauss, “a car on the Roosevelt Avenue train is the size of a pinky nail.”
“Master builder” Robert Moses made sure his mark was felt in the Panorama Robert Moses, one of New York City’s most famous urban planners, commissioned the Panorama — and so he made sure that all the NYC buildings he helped construct are marked in the Panorama by a distinctive pinkish color. And, since he was also the Parks Commissioner, the Panorama originally showed NYC parks in a brilliant green color (now more of a faded green). And although everything is to scale — 99.9 percent accurate, according to the museum– the bridges are shown a little larger than reality. Why? Moses was in charge of the maintenance of New York City bridges, too.
Many a world crisis was solved in the Queens Museum building
“Most people don’t realize that the Queens Museum building was used as the headquarters for the United Nations General Assembly for four years,” said Rob Mackay, “And some monumental decisions were made there.” During that time, from 1946 to 1950, nearly every world leader visited the building, and the General Assembly made key decisions regarding the partition of Palestine and the creation of UNICEF.
Amid the World’s Fair tchotchkes, there’s a presidential artifact
The Queens Museum has a collection of over 10,000 items related to both World’s Fairs, and during the renovation, a new second-floor gallery was built to permanently display 900 of those items. Until now, many of the objects had never been shown to the public. While much of the collection is made up of commemorative dishes, bookmarks, coins and even a salt and pepper set, there is one collectors’ item with presidential weight. It is an early touchtone phone used by President John F. Kennedy to call the managers of the World’s Fair to begin the one-year countdown to the 1964 celebration.
The mysterious disappearance of one of its exhibits
The Watershed Model – a Queens Museum display of how water travels through tunnels and reservoirs from upstate to New York City – was originally commissioned for the 1939 Fair as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project. It was pulled from the fair at the last minute, and was ultimately put on display in the 1940s at the Grand Central Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. It mysteriously went missing after that, and then was discovered in a DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) warehouse 10 years ago. The Queens Museum worked with the DEP to add it as a permanent exhibit in the museum, and it’s now on view to all.
Tiffany Glass was born in Queens
Did you know that Tiffany Glass is headquartered in Corona, Queens? It’s a surprising fact known by few, and it explains why the museum houses the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass. The permanent exhibit marks a partnership between the museum and Tiffany collectors Egon and Hildegard Neustadt, who have a splendid collection of Tiffany lamps, windows, metalwork and an archive of leftover Tiffany shards collected from the studio. Lewis Comfort Tiffany opened the Tiffany Studios in Corona in 1893. It was here that Tiffany experimented with glass colors, pottery-glazing and stained-glass windows, ultimately establishing the foremost decorative glass company in New York City, if not the world. The studio stopped producing glass in 1932. The Queens Museum also has photographs, original tools and numerous glass objects from the personal collection of Tiffany employees.
Putting the “Art” in Queens Museum — and Taking it Off Again
After the renovation in November 2013, the Queens Museum of Art decided to shorten its name to simply Queens Museum. That was actually the name of the museum when it originally opened, but “of Art” was added in the ’90s. The current museum directors decided to go back to the original name because Queens Museum showcases much more than art. In fact, for the second phase of the renovation in 2014-2015, a branch of the Queens public library will open inside the museum, making it the country’s first art museum to house a public library.
The Power of Art: Social Justice and Art Therapy
“The Museum has a crazy dedication to community engagement and involvement,” said Strauss. There are nine artist studios located in the museum, which host artists from around the world for two-year residencies. The Queens Museum also has one of the nation’s most renowned art therapy programs, Art Access, with three full-time art therapists on staff. Additionally, the museum employs three full-time community organizers who work on social justice issues in the nearby neighborhood of Corona. As Strauss emphasized, “We are doing so much more than art — the new name, Queens Museum, better reflects what people will see.”
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