Astoria, Queens was an important site in the early development of motion pictures: nearly 100 silent films were shot there in the 1920s. Today, it’s home to Kaufman Astoria Studios, where TV shows like Orange Is the New Black and Sesame Street are made. That history makes it a fitting home for the Museum of the Moving Image—the only institution of its kind in the US dedicated to the history of movies and television, and their continuing societal impact.
The museum, affectionately known as MoMI for short, is packed with fascinating exhibitions and ever-changing programming. We’ll walk you through what you have to see so you don’t miss any of the action.
How to Get There
Take the N or W subway train to 36 Ave., or the M or R to Steinway Street. The ride takes about 20 to 25 minutes from Midtown Manhattan.
36-01 35th Ave., 718-777-6888, Astoria, Queens
The Museum’s main exhibition, Behind the Screen, takes on the immense task of capturing the process and history of film and television. The two-floor display includes a mix of artifacts, information and interactive installations. For example, you might see an assortment of real motion picture cameras dating back to the late 1800s through today while also learning how the devices work. Visitors have a chance to record and play back their own movements—turning that footage into a flipbook, among the earliest moving-picture formats.
It would take a long time to walk readers through every notable artifact in Behind the Screen, but the following rundown of interesting items we saw during our visit may gave you an idea of the exhibition’s breadth and depth:
- Drive-in speakers, from the mid-century era when drive-in movies were a popular way for Americans to watch motion pictures.
- Decades’ worth of licensed movie and TV merchandise, including a Get Smart lunchbox and an assortment of Star Trek figurines sure to delight many a nerd. Even Star Trek Barbie and Ken dolls!
- Old film fan magazines, including issues of Film Fun (1915–1942) whose racy covers serve as a reminder that “sex sells” is not a new idea.
- Costumes worn by Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy and Mrs. Doubtfire, boxing gloves worn by Robert De Niro as he trained for Raging Bull, a sweatshirt worn by Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, and many other wardrobe items and props.
- Set models for The Verdict and The Silence of the Lambs, among many others, revealing the intensive behind-the-scenes work that goes into every small detail of a movie.
- Mutoscopes, coin-operated 19th–century devices that displayed moving pictures by attaching stills to a large wheel that users moved by turning a crank.
- A display demonstrating how professionals edit live television, using the many camera angles from a Mets game as an example.
- A slew of special-effects artifacts, including the mechanical Regan MacNeil puppet from The Exorcist that made possible the famous shot where the character’s head rotates 360 degrees.
- A 1939 RCA TRK-9, the largest television the company sold before the United States entered World War II. The wood console is large and almost jukebox-sized, but the screen itself has roughly the proportions of a tablet computer.
The Jim Henson Exhibition
The recent opening of the Jim Henson exhibition has brought a renewed buzz to the museum. Painstakingly researched and organized, and with a huge collection of artifacts—many of which were donated by Henson’s family—it’s a comprehensive and fascinating look at the work and influence of the puppeteer, director and producer.
It traces his career from his early work on local television in Washington, DC—where, as a teenager, he created Sam and Friends, which pioneered his combination of the marionettes and puppets he named “Muppets”—through major projects like Sesame Street (still produced at the Kaufman Astoria studios next door), The Muppet Show and motion pictures like Labyrinth and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The exhibition includes a genuine Big Bird puppet from 1975—which really is quite large, and includes turkey and ostrich feathers—plus the opportunity to build your own Muppet and see what it looks like on camera, along with some of the sketches and storyboards that became some of Henson’s most memorable productions.
We were also fascinated by Henson’s funny, creative advertising work for companies like Red Diamond coffee, because the exhibition demonstrates how that work paved the way financially and creatively for the projects that eventually made him internationally famous.
Video Arcade (through January 2018)
This exhibition highlights the impact video arcades had on pop culture, particularly in the 1980s and ‘90s. The games on display—which, yes, you can play—rotate, but when we visited they included Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Centipede and Ms. Pac-Man. Each includes a placard explaining its broader significance (for example, Mortal Kombat’s pioneering use of live-action video and controversial violence, and NBA Jam’s use of official league licenses and mimicry of TV-broadcast presentation). Look, they’re video games. It’s fun, we promise.
Moving Image Café and Moving Image Store
Have a coffee or a snack in the sleek, space age–style lobby café, and bring home movie-centric souvenirs (like vintage posters and coffee table books on film) from the gift shop.
- If you’re going to see the Henson exhibition, make reservations in advance. It’s very popular. You can reserve tickets up to 24 hours ahead of time. Also, consider bringing headphones so you can hear the footage on some of the screens (there are also headphones available to rent for a small fee).
- Check out MoMI’s website to see if you’re interested in any of the screenings in the mod-looking Redstone Theater or other special events while you’re in town. Recent happenings include a screening of a 70-millimeter print of 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of their annual “See It Big” summer movie series. MoMI also hosts panel discussions with notable figures from the film world, matinee screenings for kids and interactive programs.
- While it’s fun to look around the museum yourself, the institution also offers guided tours for the general public, students and corporate groups.
- Check out the Astor Room, next door at Kaufman Astoria Studios. Originally the commissary for the movie studio, it’s now a restaurant and upscale bar where you can enjoy live music (every night and during “jazz brunch”) and find yourself surrounded by movie history and historic architecture. Hey, if it was good enough for Charlie Chaplin....