Gather ‘round, fellow cinephiles! I have seen our mecca — it is good and it is in Astoria. The Museum of The Moving Image is the sort of place film geeks like myself have pictured in our dreams, but never thought could exist in reality. The Museum, an extension of Kaufmann-Astoria Studios in Queens, is one of New York’s best-kept secrets. It’s a museum that is readily accessible, but conveniently tucked away from the path of the average Manhattan-bound tourist. From the outside, it looks more like a warehouse than a monument to the motion picture. Inside, the excessively whited-out interior makes it seem like a leftover set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an appropriate aesthetic for a place that helps us remember the past while still feeling years ahead of its time. From the curving, futuristic-looking architecture, to the walls that function as de facto movie screens, the place practically pulsates with cutting edge media. The Museum is three floors of interactive displays, video and voice capture devices, and memorabilia from over a century of cinema.
The Museum of the Moving Image opened in 1988 with the mission statement of “advanc[ing] the public understanding and appreciation of the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television, and digital media.” In simpler terms, it’s a veritable treasure chest of film and television history. It’s also a cool place to go if, like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time in front of the television or in a darkened movie theater. I discovered the Museum through the recommendation of a friend some years ago, but didn’t take the initiative to actually go until a break in the production of my latest play in Brooklyn. Feeling a bit overburdened and slightly burned out by mounting five shows in one summer, I felt a trip to the Museum might help refresh my enthusiasm. After a few hours of perusing an interactive Jim Henson exhibit complete with archival notebook pages and commercial footage, interviews with Henson’s friends and collaborators, and displays of the Muppets themselves, my only regret was that I hadn’t gone sooner.
The Museum is a revolving showcase of domestic and international cinema, with a working movie theater featuring classics of the big screen and experiments in multimedia. Each month features a different theme highlighting the work of a particular artist of filmmaker. The day I went, I just missed a month-long showcase of the works of Wes Anderson — in time for the release of Moonrise Kingdom. The feature that evening — keeping with the Museum’s “Features of Paramount” showcase — was one of my personal favorites, The Godfather Part II. One of my favorite films bookending a retrospective of a director I admire greatly? Barely 10 minutes into my visit, I felt as if the Museum had been catered to my own unique tastes. Talk about enhancing the experience!
Film geek indulgences aside, the Museum offers a comprehensive and informative glance at the history of motion pictures. Some of the earliest short films of Thomas Alva Edison are displayed alongside contemporary works in motion capture. A lengthy exhibition features a detailed breakdown of all the major roles involved in making a motion picture from designer to director to producer to actor. I got a faint glimmer of hope at the screenwriting section, which displays pages of teleplays and screenplays positioned under projections of the shows they were eventually made into. In a business where the writer so often feels relegated to the periphery, it’s nice to know that there is still a place that acknowledges our importance in filmmaking. Further inside, visitors are treated to an interactive history of television and video games, complete with a replica ‘60s TV lounge playing Laugh-In near a full-fledged video arcade. It’s surprising to see monuments to both my childhood and my mother’s childhood side by side. It’s even more surprising to find myself torn between which one to spend more time at.
This, however, is the sort of allure The Museum of The Moving Image possesses: it finds new and interesting ways to highlight film and television in a way that is beyond a simple nostalgia trip. It’s a testament to the power of motion pictures, and the relevance it has in our culture. Outside the realm of entertainment, film and television has documented our time. From The Beatles playing on Ed Sullivan to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and beyond, moving images have enlightened and informed our times. No, I didn’t copy this off an info brochure, this is just one of the things that you can’t help but appreciate on a deeper level after a visit.
The Museum of The Moving Image is like a tourist attraction for the locals. The day I was there, only a handful of others were in attendance, making it feel like our own personal media playground. Such a place might seem like a better fit for Hollywood, but the Museum has a distinctly less sensationalized feel. It’s more about the substance and science of motion pictures than the style. The Museum’s rotating exhibitions offer something for film lovers of virtually any taste. As an entertainment professional myself, I found my time at the Museum refreshing and informative. It’s important to take some time out from the hustle and grind of our work and remember why we do what we do. Be sure to check out the interactive display that allows you to make your own stop-motion animated film (like I did) on the way out. The Museum of The Moving Image is the sort of place you’ll want to return to over and over again.