There are two things I dislike about the Museum Mile Festival:
1) It happens only once a year.
2) It lasts only three hours.
There simply isn’t enough time to take in everything that happens during this event which stretches along Fifth Avenue from 82nd Street to 105th Street — 23 blocks offering nine museums (all providing free admission) along with concerts, clowns, jugglers, face painters, and arts and crafts projects.
In past years I’ve started at the lower end, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 82nd Street, and attempted to work my way up but never made it past the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum at 91st Street. This time I decided to start at the northern end of the festival, heading down from El Museo del Barrio at 105th Street.
Unlike the rest of the institutions on museum mile, El Museo does not have its own building. Instead, it is one of variety of Latino arts organizations housed in the massive, block-filling, neo-Georgian Heckscher Building at 1230 Fifth Avenue (other tenants include the Raíces Latin Music Museum Collection of Harbor Conservatory and La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña).
Although El Museo is currently closed for renovations, the Latin-flavored music issuing from their loudspeakers inspired passersby to dance in the street. Inside the Heckscher Building, through corridors of worn linoleum and flickering florescent lights, they offered a mask-making workshop, a salsa jam session, and promises that they will reopen in the fall.
The next stop was across the street to the Museum of the City of New York, which is charged with a “unique mandate: to explore the past, present, and future of this fascinating and particular place and to celebrate its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. A variety of exhibitions, public programs, and publications all investigate what gives New York City its singular character.”
The current programs are tied to NY400: Holland on the Hudson, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch. In 1609 the Half Moon, guided by Captain Henry Hudson, landed on the shores of what is now New York City. Hudson’s arrival led to the establishment of New Amsterdam and the New Netherland colony.
This was my first visit to the museum and, while I was eager to rejoin the celebrations outside, I couldn’t drag myself away from the programs including exhibits about Manhattan before Hudson’s arrival, the Dutch city, and the acapella concert by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
I kept checking my watch, thinking that I was missing the rest of the festival, but remaining unwilling to leave as I learned about the many Dutch influences that continue to touch our lives in New York City today. I lingered at a map that shows areas of the city with their original Dutch names: Breuckelen (Brooklyn), Vlackebos (Flatbush), Boswijck (Bushwick), Conijne Eylandt (Coney Island), Midwout (Midwood), Nieuw Utrecht (New Utrecht). I listened to recordings based on diaries and letters written by the Dutch colonists. I gazed at the rare artifacts, books, manuscripts, maps and globes.
I stayed until the museum was ready to lock its doors for the night. When I got back to the street, the festival was over. The street had reopened to traffic and a few stragglers were using discarded pieces of chalk to make their marks on the sidewalks and walls.
Perhaps next year I’ll take in more than one or two museums during the festival. Then again, perhaps not. Why rush to “get through” a good experience?
I once read a highly-recommended guide to Paris by Rick Steves which included instructions on how to see the Louvre Museum in less than an hour (maintain a brisk pace and glace at certain key works in case your friends back home ask what you thought of, say, the Mona Lisa). When I got to Paris I ditched the book and spent an entire day inside the Louvre, lingering after dark to watch the skateboarders clattering on the stairs and terraces above the Seine. The “in a hurry” crowd never knew what they missed.