The NYC Museum-a-thon: The Cathedral of St John the Divine and the Harlem Studio

One couple has challenged themselves to visit all the museums of New York City and meticulously document their adventures.

Pauline and Paul, a married couple transplanted to New York from the West Coast, have made it their goal to visit ALL 180 museums of New York City and blog about it. On Saturday we joined them to visit their 100th museum, which turned out to be the Harlem Studio, who just launched their new exhibit, Spiral, on the African-American art collective based in New York City during the 1960s.

There are a few rules to the challenge. They must either see 75% of the collection or spend 3 hours in the museum. They spent 12 hours at the American Museum of Natural History. Public transport is recommended but since they come in from Westchester, the MTA just hasn’t been the best as they usually want to get check out  3 to 4 museums on a Saturday. They’ve also come to terms with several museum closures since they started, but also the opening of new ones.

Paul and Pauline don’t always agree about a museum. Paul hated the Girl Scout Museum, not unlike many of the other men dragged there by their wives and daughters. The most unexpected and incredible museums for them include the Paley Center for TV, radio and advertising and the Hispanic Society  in Audubon Terrace  with its collection of El Grecos set inside an “architectural wonder” of terracotta ceilings and carved wood walls. They also highly recommend the Louis Armstrong House in Queens. Be prepared for the high security at the American Numismatic Society, they warn me, not surprisingly since its located in the Federal Reserve.

NPR had just done a piece on Harlem Studio’s Spiral exhibition on Friday so we expected large crowds but at noon, things were still quiet. The Spiral group was eclectic and internally contentious, and you could tell in the exhibition. The highlight for me was the separate collection of oversized black and white Polaroids by Lyle Ashton Harris that included portraits of Cindy Sherman. Each person is photographed from the front and back. And in the bottom floor there is a nice exhibition of photography by New York-area high school students juxtaposed against the work of quintessential Harlem photographer James VanDerZee.

Most impressive on Saturday however was the vertical tour of St. John the Divine (I’m biased due to my inherent interest in architecture). It’s rare to tour a church vertically via cross section and the walk stops along various levels of the cathedral, finishing at the roof. The tour is full of historical tidbits: the cathedral is still not finished! The buttresses don’t actually fly! The coolest fact was that the (incredibly narrow) spiral staircase goes counterclockwise because unlike castles, there aren’t supposed to be fighting on the stairs. In medieval castles, the staircases are oriented clockwise going up so that the sword arm could remain free. The cathedral was deliberately built using medieval methods. This means hand carving, no steel and the columns are built by layering blocks on top of each other.

Paul and Pauline rank the museums on a google spreadsheet which you can view on their blog. They report their experience in detail with pictures. And most importantly, they’re always happy to have people come along with them. They’ve met some kindred spirits, with equally interesting personal challenges. One couple is aiming to hit all the historical sites on the east coast, so they’ve randomly bumped into Paul and Pauline on more than one occasion.

For an in-depth look into the  museums of New York, follow Paul and Pauline on their adventures!

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.

 harlem, Harlem Studio, manhattan, St John the Divine

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