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NYTimes: Stand Clear of the Ghosts (NY Transit Museum Review)

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An article on the Transit Museum, focusing heavily on it's new exhibition, “ElectriCity: Powering New York’s Rails.” Article courtesy of the NY Times.


Stand Clear of the Ghosts



Most of us, while visiting the New York Transit Museum, will not care too much that in the 1930s large coiled tubes containing liquid carbon tetrachloride were used as fuses to protect the city’s subway system from short circuits. Many of us approach this subject so lightly that we might think a label on an electrical contraption — “Edison Bipolar Dynamo” — is missing a colon after the name of the inventor, who may not have been bipolar but was certainly a dynamo.


We also don’t think much about what makes the trains run, which is the subject of a major new exhibition here, “ElectriCity: Powering New York’s Rails.” Usually the only possible thrill in combining the words “electricity” and “subway” comes from recollections of the ominous sensations of childhood coalescing around that half-hidden “third rail.” The topic now inspires excitement only in times of failure, when stories are told about passengers lining up in the darkened tunnels, trying to avoid scampering rats while mounting ladders to safety.


One of the ways in which this charming and often engrossing museum in Brooklyn Heights works, though, is to recognize that most of us are thoroughly convinced of its subject’s ordinariness. We approach the museum as we do the subway early in the morning, in calm resignation, prepared for whatever fate has to offer. We descend the steps almost as if we were ordinary straphangers, as if we didn’t realize this Court Street subway stop (complete with original enameled signs, tiled walls and miscellaneous turnstiles) was decommissioned long ago to be used as a museum.


But it doesn’t take long before a nostalgic, geekish curiosity replaces ordinary commuter consciousness. We look around in wonder. How did this come to be? When did it change? How does it work?


This is a museum of specimens, a natural history museum of the city’s public transportation. There are facades of buses and trolleys along with their genealogies; models of diesel engines; examples of 70 years of turnstiles; and even an examination of how money and tokens — now almost obsolete — were once the subway’s currency. Original signs are posted like remnants of a dream: “Spitting on the platforms or other parts of this station is unlawful,” or “Warning. Do not lean over the edge of platform.” There are archives of photographs, drawings and blueprints. Head down to the tracks, and you see the ghosts of trains past: long extinct cars along with their descendants. They stand with open doors, as if awaiting passengers to rush for cane seats and enameled poles, the sight of which inspires fulsome memories of sweltering summer heat.


The new electricity exhibition doesn’t quite succeed in making a place for itself in this company, but no one who comes here will see it in isolation, so it is best to take its strengths and weaknesses in stride. It was designed by curators from the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and has some clever participatory displays (particularly those encouraging visitors’ play with electrical circuits) along with some terrific old machinery. But it takes its time on things that can be quickly portrayed and rushes through matters that are potentially bewildering, as if an uncertain engineer were at its helm.


It also seems somewhat anemic since it immediately follows an exhibition, “Steel, Stone and Backbone,” that examines the subway’s construction during the early decades of the 20th century, when 30,000 men were extending the city’s reach below ground as others were propelling it skyward. Along with equipment of that era — surveying chains, enormous digging tools, a 15-ton jack — are explanations of how tunnels were dug underwater; how the “sandhogs,” the men who did the most dangerous work, worked in compressed air at the tunnels’ most vulnerable endpoints; how ethnic politics and labor unions evolved with the subways; and how, from time to time, lives were lost and sometimes saved.


In 1916, we learn, Marshall Mabey and two other men were working on the tunnel under the East River when air started rushing out through a hole, and water began to pour in. The men were shot upward through the soft earth as if on a geyser. Only Mabey survived. “The last thing I recalled,” he said, “was seeing the Brooklyn Bridge above me while I was whirling around in the air.”


How can descriptions of electrical generators compete with that? It can’t. At the opening of the electricity show we are dutifully shown four methods of generating power that together account for 98 percent of United States electricity: fossil fuel, nuclear power, hydropower and wind power. Each is represented in a panel display in which lights blink and mini-turbines spin, showing how the pressure of steam, water or wind creates electrical power. But the demonstrations are humdrum, the graphics rudimentary and the generators essentially the same.


More interesting is a map of United States energy production. The top three states in production of hydropower? Washington, Oregon and California. The top state in production of wind power? Texas. Also suggestive is a rough chart of energy costs: Wind power requires more land and is most expensive; nuclear energy requires the least land; fossil fuels are the cheapest but have by far the highest carbon emissions.


The most effective demonstration of a generator, though, is a real one. Turn an enormous wheel that moves coils through a magnetic field, and arcing sparks of electricity are created. But it is unnecessarily difficult actually to see what is taking place. You can try studying a nearby diagram, but compressed details — “Wire coils connect to the commutator, which turns the rotor. Brushes gather electricity from the commutator.” — eclipses the clarity and immediacy of the working model.


And how is this related to the transit system? This should be the clearest and most dramatic part of the exposition, yet we can’t really put the pieces together. Why is Thomas Edison’s concept of direct current used for the subway’s third rail? George Westinghouse’s and Nikola Tesla’s rival idea of alternating current allowed electric power to be transmitted over long distances and into homes. But what is the advantage of direct current in the subway? And how does the train itself close the electrical circuit? This should be much clearer.


“Control boards” of earlier eras, once used to manage the subway system, are also intriguing but mysterious. You can actually learn more about the subway’s controls from the two film versions of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” both of which used the museum’s subway station as a set.


Pay attention instead to the atmosphere of this underground technological world, which has its own version of muscular wonkiness, as if demanding full attention from the menial and the mental. It is also astonishing how much equipment from the turn of the 20th century was used almost to the century’s end. A wooden ammeter for measuring current was in use from 1900 until the 1980s; the system’s rotary converters that changed alternating current into direct current were used until 1999; a 1932 control board was in service until 1994. How is this possible, given the ordinary pace of technological change?


One answer is implied in another exhibition here, “The Plans Behind the Power,” which displays blueprints for the subway’s electrical stations and equipment. The plans don’t just demonstrate great care but are also self-consciously monumental, as if this project were as grand as, say, the construction of dams and canals. A 1903 drawing of a cross section of the 59th Street Powerhouse in Manhattan is an archetype of industrial art. A map of the slew of third rails in the 1910 Coney Island station looks like the beginning of an intricate roller coaster.


Monumentality and care accompanied an almost elementary simplicity: the entire system, after all, is based on the creation of sturdy electrical circuits. Once established, no major improvements were really necessary; pieces could simply be replaced by more sophisticated counterparts. Advances really came in engine construction and brake design and ultimately with the introduction of computers, which now make it possible to analyze enormous amounts of data used to control the largest urban transportation system in the world.


That doesn’t always translate into passenger delight, but in much of the museum, at least, it is possible to come close.


The New York Transit Museum, Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn Heights; (718) 694-1600, mta.info/mta/museum.


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Stand Clear of the Ghosts-NYTimes.com

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