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Queens Museum reflects borough’s diversity

Tamerra Griffin | 11/14/2013, 4:29 p.m.
The grand reopening of the Queens Museum after a deep, two-year renovation

If the race for most beloved borough were a competition, Queens would be the underdog, cast as suffering from “third borough syndrome” to the likes of shiny Manhattan and indie Brooklyn. The reopening of the Queens Museum, after a two-year deep renovation, could be a game changer.

The space inside the New York City Building, which has housed the museum since its establishment in 1972, resumed its services on Saturday, Nov. 9, completely revitalized in artistic and social philosophy. According to Queens Museum Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl, these are both accurately summed up by the most physical change made to the museum: its openness.

The history of the building itself reflects Queens’ rich multicultural identity. Situated between Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Grand Central Parkway, the New York City Building was the site of two World’s Fairs in 1939 and 1964. It was also the first location of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946 to 1950 during the construction of its current premises. The space in which delegates once joined and established the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (currently known as UNICEF) has been transformed into an atrium where families gather to view museum exhibitions.

Finkelpearl noted that increased space and additional light inside the Queens Museum have been pivotal to the makeover. The front side of the building has been outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing natural light to filter into the space and illuminate the works on display. The center of the museum, said Finkelpearl, is “almost a cathedral,” with its high, vaulted ceiling.

Sarah Kamboj recalls taking field trips to what was then known as the Queens Museum of Art when she was a student at Louis Armstrong Middle School. She also recalls the difference in space. She noted “It wasn’t very exciting because it didn’t seem like there was much to look at. I remember a lot of the kids didn’t want to go.”

A volunteer trip in the mountains of Malaysia gave Kamboj a newfound appreciation for the intersection of art and culture. When the 24-year-old returned, she left her job at a law firm and became one o f the museum’s newest staff members.

“I am amazed at how much it’s changed,” she said. “It’s a lot more modern now.”

The theme of openness is two-pronged. Not only is there now more room to roam the Queens Museum, but the values it promotes and explores through its public displays are intentionally wide-ranging. The first floor alone features larger-than-life sized black-and-white murals and sculptures by German artist Peter Schumann; a collection of iconic stained glass works from American designer Louis Tiffany; a proportionally measured panorama of the city of New York, complete with tiny airplanes gliding overhead from suspended cables; and an assortment of cross-generational, mixed media Cuban art.

Tucked inside the cafe is a glass-windowed gift shop, its shelves lined with greeting cards, children’s clothes and jewelry all made in Queens. This, said Finkelpearl, is a deliberate effort to promote a Queens identity among museum visitors—the majority of whom he expects to hail from the borough of 2.2 million.