History Back in Motion

The Museum of the Moving Image Reopens After Major Renovations


The original Yoda puppet from “Star Wars” on display in one of MOMI’s memorabilia rooms. (Kyle Morrison/The Observer)

Published: February 2, 2011

On Jan. 15 the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in Astoria, Queens opened its doors again after closing for major renovations in 2008. Alongside the old displays that trace a century of cinema history are a series of new exhibits and renovated theater space that seek to honor the modern technology that’s transforming how we interact with film, television and digital media. The museum will also utilize its new 267-seat theater for six weeks of film screenings in a program entitled “Celebrating the Moving Image,” which opened with a restored 70mm version of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The renovations began with the museum’s exterior. Replacing the antique yellow sign that hung outside since 1988, neon pink lettering now adorns the entrance, a more appropriate façade for the revamped interior which looks a bit like the hallways of Kubrick’s “2001” spaceships.

Parallel to the new main theater is the first exhibit, Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima’s “City Glow,” an incredible animation that spans the entirety of the left entrance wall much like moving graffiti art. Aoshima worked with New Zealand animator Bruce Ferguson to create a looped narrative that acts a lot like digital wallpaper. The viewer is led through a fluorescent metropolis where skyscrapers are covered in forest, and a fantasy world of Aoshima’s design pulsates with life. It doesn’t seem like a faraway reality when digital art pieces like City World will live in the homes of those wealthy enough to afford the technology.

The second floor of the museum is devoted to the work of Martha Colburn, a Long Island filmmaker who photographed figurines in MOMI’s memorabilia stock, the largest in the country, to put together a schizophrenic stop motion film titled “Dolls vs. Dictators.” “Dolls” draws from a series of collage panels Colburn created for MOMI’s reopening, in which she fuses political and pop imagery to create a world where the Power Rangers, Pee Wee Herman and Kim Jong-Il, among many others, are all vying for political control.

The second floor further opens into an extensive series of rooms in which every evolution of “the moving image” is given its due. This expansion is massive, and the MOMI has gone to great lengths to make this part of the museum as interactive and accessible as possible. Visitors can play arcade classics from the ’50s or watch a baseball game on dozens of different monitors, as the sports editing process is broken down and explained in real time. In one area, museum guests can learn the basics behind stop-motion filmmaking and create their own animation from a variety of props. Here, MOMI will also begin to host a series of educational programs, hosting 60,000 students a year, ranging from young children to high school seniors, in afterschool workshops and tours.

Of course, much of the joy of visiting the MOMI can still be found between the new additions, where an incredible archive of props, costumes, drawing boards and antique equipment fill the gallery space. Pieces as modern as the prosthetics used in “Black Swan” are on display next to cult relics like “The Warriors” gang jackets. And every evolution of the television and film camera line the walls of another gallery room.

The third and final floor is home to MOMI’s feature exhibit, a series of five pieces that test the boundary between the virtual world and our own. An anticipated sixth piece is expected to be installed soon by renowned video artist Bill Viola, who has created his first interactive art exhibition entitled “The Night Journey” working with video game designers at Electronic Arts.

Out of the five exhibits, “Into the Forest” was the one at which I and the other visitors seemed to spend the most time. Created by OpenEnded, a group comprised of Paul Keiser, Shelley Eskar and Marc Downie, “Into the Forest” utilizes motion tracking technology to place the viewer into a three-dimensional forest in which two children are playing hide-and-seek. At a time when the notion of 3D technology is almost always associated with cheap thrills, “Into the Forest” was a stunning case for how it can be used to achieve just the opposite. The environment OpenEnded has created looks like a Monet, and it shifts and changes along with the children, as the viewer moves with the piece.

“Cathedral,” a nine minute video loop by artist Marco Brambilia, layers over 150 hours of footage from a Montreal supermall, to create a kaleidoscope of consumerism that reads like a religious tapestry. “Augmented Sculputure,” a 2007 piece by architect Pablo Valbuena experiments with applying a “virtual skin” over a physical body. Valbuena slowly runs a white video projection over a building structure that stands in the corner of the room. It doesn’t come across so much as a work of art as an exploration in possibility; like Aoshima’s piece, Valbuena leaves us questioning when the virtual world might seamlessly blend with our own.

While the museum has undoubtedly done a successful job filling the expanded space they’ve been given, one inevitably wonders upon reaching its conclusion if too much of the $67 million renovation went to style and not substance. Rows of memorabilia are an invaluable draw for most visitors, but those looking to experience a large body of innovative new art will find the limited selection intriguing but ultimately unfulfilling. Furthermore, the history of the “moving image” presented is largely a mainstream one. While the museum is intent on showcasing avant-garde history through its film series, it gets little love on the walls and in the display cases. In the day of the “Avatar” audience, this is perhaps a smart but unfortunate concession.