From NYC, biking, city life

Doing the tourist thing, at the genocide memorial

Kigali Genocide Memorial (and the 9/11 Museum)

A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted this essay–The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction–about the new 9/11 museum (excuse me, National September 11 Memorial Museum) in New York, and it got me thinking.

First, the whole museum seems icky, doesn’t it? Just twelve years after the event. $24 admission–what, it’s like the MoMA now? And a gift shop, for God’s sake. I have no interest in going.

Yet…when I went to Rwanda, one of the “tourist” things I did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Which is also a museum.

(One of the more bizarre moments on that trip was telling our host we’d gone to the memorial, and we’d liked the museum. “Wait, did you go to the memorial, or the museum?” Because of course there’s not just one memorial, or one museum. Our conversation went around in circles, like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell situation.)

Honestly, Peter and I were thinking we would blow it off–we’re not morbid tragedy tourists. Except the people we were visiting said it was good!

It was great. It was somber without being grossly emotional. It was very informative (Herero massacre–what?). It was well lit and professional, but with no multimedia fanciness. And it was free–though of course donations are encouraged. The “gift shop,” in a little wood hut, carried a few books about the genocide, and some crafts.

The whole thing opened in 2004, on the ten-year anniversary of the genocide. Too soon? Not if you want a genuine memorial for people who died, of course not. (Though I would be curious to know how it was discussed at the time.)

The key to the genocide memorial not seeming maudlin or exploitative or generally icky was that when we arrived, a guide greeted us and took us to one of the mass graves. He briefly explained the situation, and the efforts of the memorial center, then we stood for one minute of silence.

After that, we were free to walk around however we wanted, with our audio tour or without.

I don’t envy that guide his job, but I think this human connection made all the difference in how we saw the whole museum/memorial.

Because, honestly, tourists can suck. I’ve yawned or daydreamed at some very serious places, maybe in full view of people who had been affected by the given event. It’s easy to fall out of the moment, if you’re hungry or your traveling companion has raced ahead, or whatever.

But one real, live person, talking directly to you–that’s the key to helping you focus on the place, why it exists, and what you might get out of it.

There’s plenty to learn from Rwanda, but that’s one concrete, small thing, and I’m glad I saw their model. It makes me at least not hate the idea of the 9/11 museum.

Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric

Local Tourism: The Steinway Factory

You can tour the Steinway piano factory, you know. It’s just sitting up there, at the north end of Steinway Street in Queens, doing its thing like it’s done since, oh, right after the Civil War. Peter finally got on the stick and scheduled a tour–but you have to plan way ahead. Peter called in November, and the first dates available were for May.

So if you have a spring trip to NYC planned, call now! (718) 204-3175.

The place is a marvel of hand-crafted skill, scaled up and mechanized only slightly. And solidly union.

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Steinway=sweet ride.
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Safety glasses are required. Our tour guide (background) was a retired carpenter.
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Wood choices.
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Of course the wood floors in this place are beautiful.
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And of course in a factory full of carpenters, you get a good dry-erase-marker holder.
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A little bit of Astoria Ugly style in the shipping room.
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Right after we took the tour, this spring, the Steinway company was bought by a hedge-fund bajillionaire. I hope it all works out OK. In the 1870s, Steinway was New York City’s largest employer, and it still provides good jobs for really skilled people.

I’m also still rooting for the Steinway Mansion. Check it out while you’re up here for the tour.

American Museum of Natural History: Our Global Kitchen

I’ve been traveling so much, I’ve really lost the thread with New York. I mean, on Wednesday I got on an uptown train instead of a downtown train by accident. I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake, at least not while I’ve lived here.

So what better way to feel New York-y than to go to the august American Museum of Natural History? You know, the one with all the taxidermy.

I went to the preview for the new exhibit Our Global Kitchen. It opens today, November 17, and runs through August 11, 2013. (I shouldn’t tell you that far-off end date–it’ll make you feel less urgency, and then you’ll wind up missing it. This happens to me all the time.)

In short: You should go. It’s fun, and you’ll learn something. And, since it’s the AMNH, the dioramas and models are great.

I could have stared at this model of the push-pull farming technique all day.

The details: This is a really ambitious exhibit. Where to begin when you want to cover what the whole world eats, three times a day? Oh, and it’ll cover the food-supply chain as well.

As a result, it feels a little compressed, a little rushed–each section of the show could easily be expanded into its own exhibit. Then again, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about global food, and food production, so maybe it’s a perfectly good introduction to the issues and to non-American cuisine–which everyone should get.

Let's just take a look at another one of those models, shall we? (photo courtesy AMNH)

To my taste, the food-industry section, which starts the exhibit, could’ve taken a stronger “It’s time to change this!” stance. And certainly the curators’ comments before the show were more in this vein–the word “unsustainable” came up a lot.

But there’s some progress. This same exhibit 30 years ago would’ve been sponsored by ADM and Cargill, and had a thoroughly gee-whiz-technology-is-great tone. At least now we get the cons of fish farming listed alongside the pros.

And you get square Japanese watermelon! (photo courtesy AMNH)

After all the supply-chain stuff, the rest of the exhibit feels a lot more colorful and fun. There’s a fancy show kitchen, where you can eat actual food, and there’s a mirror where you can stick out your tongue and see how many tastebuds you have. There are buttons to push to smell things, and touchscreens to learn about banana transport. You can post your food pics to Instagram with the tag #CelebrateFood, and they’ll show up on screens in the exhibit.

But the meat of the exhibit is still the actual physical stuff. There’s a whole wall of cookbooks from around the world. There’s a vaguely obscene-looking Mesoamerican popcorn popper, and beautiful molds for Korean rice cakes.

See what I mean about the popcorn popper?

And there’s a vivid diorama of a just-before-Cortes-landed market in Mexico.

Somewhere in there is a basket of grubs! (photo courtesy AMNH)

I also loved the set rooms and meals from different places and times in history: a Roman empress’s breakfast, Kublai Khan’s buffet on the hoof…

In the same room, the juxtaposition of Gandhi’s typical breakfast with Michael Phelps’s is fascinating. It struck me as the stealth message of the exhibit. If Americans learned to eat more foods from elsewhere–more vegetarian staples, more flavor and spices–we might all put a lot less stress on the world’s food systems.

And definitely settle in for the second big video presentation, at the end–all about celebrations and special foods from around the world.

I’m glad such an august institution as the American Museum of Natural History has taken on such a huge and meaningful subject as food. And I hope it sparks some thoughts in people who haven’t thought so much about food yet. There’s a lot more to taste out there…