Category Archives: Museums

Who Gets to Be An American?

America’s story depends on where you stand. If you’re standing on the Navajo Nation reservation or maybe somewhere in Flathead, Montana, America’s story is a story about conquest and resilience. If you’re a black American whose ancestors were brought on slave ships, your story might be about survival and resilience. If you identify with those who arrived on different ships—and now on planes—fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, then America’s story is perhaps a story about possibilities and resilience. Nowhere is this story better told than at The Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side.

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Look, I don’t readily gush about New York City. It’s crowded, noisy, and abrasive. I lived in Greenwich Village over 20 years ago, and I’ve been back in this sphere now for almost 14 years. I’ve stood in long lines for a morning bagel (back before I was gluten-free); I know my schmears; I’ve gotten stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel; I sneezed while driving across the George Washington Bridge and hit the car in front of me; I got broadsided by a dump truck on Second Avenue; I’ve had afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria where I rode the elevator with Leah Rabin five years before she died; I got to see Top of the Rock for free because I knew people. I’ve done almost all of New York except see Hamilton because, like most of America, I can’t afford to see Hamilton. Oh, and I eat my pizza folded (is there any other way???).

Now that we’ve established my NYC street cred, let me get back to gushing about 97 Orchard Street, the visionary magnificence of museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson (and that is not hyperbole), and the brilliance of how the Tenement Museum executes this vision.

As expected, visitors are taken through the apartments of families who lived in this complex, which was built in 1863 and closed in 1935 before being rediscovered in 1988. Some of the 325-square-foot apartments are restored in the styles of the time, and you’re walked through a single family’s experience of living there, where they worked, how they ate, and even work-life balance, which wasn’t a term in the late 19th century, but still a problem because so many people, children included, were overworked.

Here’s what’s glorious about what Abram and Jacobson did: they left some of the apartments untouched, as they found them: abandoned, peeling, with handwritten notes scribbled in pencil on the walls. Some of these notes are inventories listing numbers of jackets or dresses since this part of New York was central to the garment trade, sewing the clothes for most American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We see what Abram and Jacobson saw in 1988, which was how the interior of the building was last seen by those who lived there before being kicked out in 1935. They were smart enough to leave things alone, recognizing the impact of decay, how time is really layers. The design of the museum is a restored time capsule interspersed with the real time capsule.

Our guide explained that the walls contain 40 layers of paint and 21 different types of wallpaper, one over the other, each wave of immigrants and families leaving their mark. There are also different layers of flooring cracked and peeling, revealing the tastes of the previous occupants: big, floral patterns, bright turquoises and reds, the working class so eager to mimic the decor uptown. The chipped walls are like the rings of a giant Sequoia tree, each layer an era, a story, a family’s place in history. They won’t let you touch the peeling walls, and I understand why, but I very much wanted to.

Seven thousand people lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. We took the “Hard Times” tour featuring a German family in the 1870s headed by a single mother who somehow got all three of her daughters educated. Our other tour, “Sweat Shops,” focused on a Lithuanian Jewish family who followed the Sabbath despite pressures to work Saturdays. The father was a tailor, just about everyone in the family worked, and over the years, they managed to save up enough to move to Brooklyn, considered the Promised Land back then with its newer construction and green parks before hipsters and artisanal pickle factories took over.

The Tenement Museum couldn’t be more relevant than it is now. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was just getting off the ground when Trump’s white supremacy decided otherwise. His hatred and myopia leave hundreds of thousands terrified about their futures, many of them non-white. Trump’s action was a move to decide who gets to be an American, a question posed by our guide. Sadly, this question isn’t new in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, anyone could show up and try to earn a living, and then over the generations, the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration fluctuated, sometimes open arms, sometimes a door in the face. The federal government officially took an active role in managing immigration beginning in 1891, just in time for the “Great Wave” of 24 million immigrants who arrived between 1900 and 1920, thousands upon thousands of them landing on Ellis Island, a pipeline to lower Manhattan, a pipeline to 97 Orchard Street.

What you see at the Tenement Museum is how immigrants have been the backbone of this country for decade after decade, generation after generation. Who would we be without them? Who would I have been if Anna Woznicka got cold feet about leaving Poland all those years ago when 97 Orchard was hopping? My memories of my great-grandmother are limited, but vivid: a 1950s kitchen with a Formica table and counter tops; above the booth-like seating around the table, a photo of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president who had been long dead by the time I was hanging out in Great-Grandma’s kitchen. Next to JFK was a photo of a very youthful Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s first Polish Pope, who was at his peak then. These two faces were the first faces you always saw upon entering my great-grandmother’s house.

Before our visits, in the car ride over (a blue Oldsmobile station wagon) my mother would always tell us not to eat anything that was offered, concerned we would be getting expired treats, which was highly likely. I don’t know when Anna Woznicka left Poland, but I know she spoke little English. I know she was born in July 1894, sometime arrived to New York before 1915 when my grandfather was born, gave birth to four children in America, lived most of her adult life in Syracuse, New York, and by the time I was old enough to remember her from visits during the 1970s and early 1980s, she was a raisined old lady wearing pastel housecoats that looked like tablecloths. She would shuffle about the house crying and mumbling in Polish. No one ever explained why she cried during our visits. Sometimes she and my grandfather would bicker in what I could only guess was Polish because it certainly wasn’t English, and I was working hard at a young age to try to pick up words where I could. She would disappear into her bedroom down the hall and return with $5 bills, one for me and one for my younger brother. Once, I received a Christmas card in Polish and had no idea how to read it. She died in 1988. I was 15, my parents were newly divorced, and I wasn’t at the funeral. I have no clue what happened to the Christmas card written in Polish.

But Anna Woznicka got to stay, and by 1973 when I was born, there wasn’t any question that I, a third-generation American, a blonde, green-eyed girl with a Polish name who couldn’t pronounce a word of Polish, would get to stay.

So go to the Tenement Museum, and definitely book more than one tour. Look at the peeling paint on the walls. Listen to the stairs creak beneath your feet. Think about the smells that were outside those windows in 1863 or 1901 or 1915—plenty of horse shit and garbage and beer because the neighborhood was predominantly German at the end of the 19th century with countless saloons. Think of who you are and where your family comes from. Think about your neighbors; mine are mostly Korean who speak Korean—one little girl two doors down recently learned English. Think about who became American and why, and then think how America could still be America yet turn people away.

Chasing Chihuly

Experiencing Chihuly in a museum in downtown Montreal and experiencing Chihuly in the Phoenix desert surrounded by agave and cacti are equally amazing and completely different even though some of the works of art overlap. Now through mid-May the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is showing a selection of artist Dale Chihuly’s pieces that are situated across the grounds as if colored glass–instead of Arizona’s hallmark colored rock–had pushed through sand overnight.



Two pieces were saw in Montreal and that also appear in Phoenix are works from “The Boats” series and “The Sun.” How is that outside, glass takes on a whole different meaning than it does when behind walls? Inside, it’s something to step gingerly past to avoid breaking. Outside, amid flora plucky enough to beat the heat, the glass appears less fragile and more vigorous. Chihuly’s glass works, when viewed outside in the desert, imply water where there is none. I compared the Montreal exhibit we saw last fall to snorkeling through glass, for Chihuly’s pieces take me below sea level and evoke the colors of the Caribbean. In Phoenix, I felt like his art brought the sea to the desert, as if lifetimes ago, back when meteors were striking Arizona, heat and glass and color had bubbled up from the depths of Sonoran rock, and the residents of Phoenix simply built garden walls around their discovery.





Tickets are $22 for adults, and the exhibit is best enjoyed starting at sunset, a time when Arizona shines. Silhouettes of cacti are everywhere as you walk through the garden, and sunset colors ricochet off Chihuly’s art before disappearing altogether and letting you view the garden in magnificent darkness (and all those stars in the Arizona sky! Wow!). We were lucky to be there during the holiday luminarias, which added even more beauty to an already spectacular evening. The 140-acre garden, established during the height of the Great Depression, is home to about 21,000 plants, including many indigenous plants that are being threatened by mass development (drive around suburban Phoenix and very few homes look older than 20 years). Paths crisscross through the greens and pass traditional adobe buildings. The Desert Botanical Garden is the American Southwest at its finest; that fierce love and respect for nature is encapsulated there and meshes beautifully with Chihuly’s art. I felt a bit rushed since we were there with little kids, but I soaked up what I could. If I lived nearby, I’d return to this exhibit at sunset again and again and again until I knew the names of the all plants that lived there and they would come to recognize me, that giddy Yankee gal at the gate ready to skip through a manicured piece of desert.




Snorkeling Through Glass

Chasing art exhibits is never a budget-friendly experience, but it is always worth it. My first true art chase happened in January 2011 when I convinced the family that it was worth the money to fly to Paris to see David Hockney’s ipad art exhibit “Fresh Flowers.” There was skepticism at first, of course, and then tickets were booked, planes were boarded, art was admired, and everyone came home thinking “Wow! Let’s do THAT again.”

So we did. This time without planes.

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I don’t even remember when or where I read that glass artist Dale Chihuly had an exhibit in Montreal, but it happened sometime when we were in California this summer. Surfers surfed the ocean; I surfed the web, and suddenly we’re back in Canada for a weekend wandering through another museum. Because that’s what we do.

The Chihuly exhibit at Musee Beaux Arts Montreal, which is fun to say (go ahead and say it with a French accent) and even more fun to visit, has now been extended to October 27. When I booked tickets, the exhibit was scheduled to end on October 20, but people keep coming, and when you’ve got a crowd-pleaser, keep on keeping on. My husband is now well-accustomed to my art-chasing shenanigans, but he walked away really impressed by the Chihuly exhibit, and noted that I had successfully pulled off another spontaneous, art-chasing weekend in which everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves and no one felt bad about the money we should not have been spending. Now that’s a win. Our kitchen may crumble, but, by God, our minds are enriched!

What’s so awesome about Chihuly anyway? Why does a seventy-something, frizzy-haired chunky dude wearing an eye patch and who doesn’t even really blow glass anymore still draw crowds? Chihuly is a controversial figure from Tacoma, Washington, a multimillionaire whose contributions to art are indelible, but beyond that, I don’t have an answer as to why I, and, apparently millions of other folks, find his work so mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the way he bends color and light. I feel the glass more than I see it. The Montreal exhibit features trademarked Chihuly classics: “Mille Fiori” (my favorite), “Persian Ceiling” (very trippy), and “The Boats,” (my other favorite). “Mille Fiori” or “A Thousand Flowers” was inspired by his family’s garden, but to me it felt like snorkeling through the Caribbean, finding secrets within a buried coral reef unharmed by modern life. “The Boats” gave me a similar feeling, like I was floating. Tentacled glass reaches for you, for the ceiling, for the floor. Colors twist. Light bounces. Curves of glass play hide-and-seek. Chihuly’s work is playful and serious. It’s technique and abandon. It’s jagged and smooth. I found a place to sit in these galleries, to absorb all these contrasts, and to look for a long time.

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So if you live in the Northeastern United States or Southeastern Canada, get to Montreal before October 27. The art museum is quite full on weekends, so weekdays may offer you more Chihuly to yourselves. After all that gawking and staring at masterfully-designed glass, you’ll be hungry, so read my poutine trail story for CheapOAir, and find out where to get some decent fries, gravy, and curd. Should you miss Chihuly in Montreal, he has a longer-running exhibit at the Seattle Center, where you’ll also find the iconic Space Needle and Experience Music Project. Friends keep inviting us back to Seattle, and it’s on our to-do list. We’ll also be catching Chihuly in the Southwest this winter; a new Chihuly exhibit debuts next month at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m already planning on getting tickets since we’ll be in the ‘hood.

Speaking of neighborhoods, while visiting Montreal, it’s worth going a bit out of your way to stop at Point G, a cookie shop on Avenue Mont-Royal. This is off the tourist track, where buildings are shorter and streets are a mix of apartments, cafes, dry cleaners, artists’ studios, and bars. Point G, which specializes in Plaisirs Gourmands or Gourmet Pleasures, is a macaroon mecca, and as colorful as a Chihuly exhibit. Flavors come in 22 varieties, like lime-basil, orange blossom, and balsamic vinegar, in addition to traditional dessert flavors like chocolate, caramel and raspberry. All macaroons are gluten-free or “sans gluten” as they say up north. I’m eating a couple macaroons from my box of twenty as I write this. I have two left, and I know that international macaroon-chasing is just not in the cards.

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Do Museums Inspire You to Change?

An estimated 2.4 million pounds of plastic enter the world’s oceans every hour, so Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan took 2.4 million pieces of plastic from toothbrushes, combs and all the other junk that fills modern life and created a recreation of the famous Japanese painting “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Hokusai. We’re drowning in a tsunami of plastic, says Jordan, whose interpretation is on display at the fiercely creative Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California aka the Central Coast.

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Seahorses and jellyfish are very cool, but the small, yet powerful plastics art exhibit had the greatest effect on me. A seagull made from plastic sporks. A collage of plastic bottles. A lamp upcycled from old plastic. What’s the message? Well, there are several. Plastic chokes the oceans and kills endangered wildlife (plastic comprises 90 percent of the manmade crap floating in the oceans). Plastic has promise (don’t just chuck it, make something beautiful from it!). Plastic is evil (got it). Change is happening, however. Thanks to Los Angeles for being the largest city in the country to ban plastic grocery bags, and now the city council at Manhattan Beach, one of my new favorite places on the planet, seeks to ban styrofoam food containers. I hope this kickstarts other coastal communities and parks into action.

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This past spring I volunteered at my daughter’s school lunch recycling program and was horrified by all the individual food packaging that clogs our lives. Afterward, I recycled as much of our household plastic as possible. I hate plastic. I love art (and the oceans). As others walked by these plastic art displays, what were their reactions to what these artists were saying? Did they worry about their plastic water bottles? All the plastic trinkets attached to their kids’ strollers? Would they eat their takeout and toss plastic containers into the trash or leave it sitting on a beach somewhere? Had they recycled all their plastic tupperware, as I did, and did they wrap their kids’ lunches in biodegradable paper towels, as I did? Did they ban Saran-wrap from the house as I did? Who wants to gaze out to the flowers surrounding the bay and see floating junk? No one. We’re all responsible for our environment yet are we all taking responsibility?

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The Monterey Bay Aquarium was visionary; founded in 1984 in the heart of the rusted out fishing factory scene of the early 20th century, this museum attracts about 1.8 million visitors every year. I’ve paid admission to aquariums and museums all over the world and Monterey’s aquarium exhibits are thoughtful, thorough and visually stunning. No one wants to see a plastic water bottle stuck in the kelp forest, but is anyone questioning their individual carbon footprints when they see litter on the beach? A lot of people were taking photos at the aquarium, but I wondered, does anyone leave these museums inspired to change their daily behaviors? The aquarium addressed responsible fishing and eating sustainably-sourced fish, yet Cannery Row has plenty of fried seafood joints. Were these fish responsibly netted before being dipped in beer batter? I have no doubt I ate sushi these past two weeks that probably were not trapped with at-risk sea turtles and sharks in mind. And had I asked the waiter, “Hey, how was this fantastic and deliciously-tender chutoro tuna caught?” I’m sure I would’ve gotten a blank look.

Museums educate, entertain, and elucidate. Do they inspire? I am an over-thinky type and already spend too much time in the grocery store reading up on how a particular organic apple was farmed or whether my lavender shampoo is phthalate-free or were these bananas or this avocado fairly traded? I try to buy local and I try hard not to buy anything made in China. And now I will wonder if my sushi added to the world’s ecological imbalances. Did the tourists at the aquarium, including the guy who blocked Mike’s view and the woman who whacked me with her backpack, feel moved by the aquarium’s many messages? Will they start carrying canvas bags to stores or remember to bring refillable coffee mugs to their favorite cafe? How many of these 1.8 million visitors are now changing their minds about plastic? I don’t often agree with Margaret Thatcher, but we are a society of individuals with individual responsibilities to each other. The aquarium seeks to instill individual action and collective dedication.

Museums are love letters, like the American Museum of Natural History is a Valentine to everything that ever roamed the Earth. Other museums, like the New York Botanical Garden, remind us the importance of preserving what remains. We visited the Museum of the American West at the Autry Center in Los Angeles, which was a time capsule of what glorified the frontier. And other museums like the Monterey Bay Aquarium are stalwart advocates. At the aquarium, tourists Instagrammed photos and tweeted messages, but will this translate into real change? Will people use less plastic at home because of what they saw behind a glass case and read on a plaque? I hope so.

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