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The History of Film Revealed in the New York Borough of Queens
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The History of Film Revealed in the New York Borough of Queens

Picture of Ellen Von Weigand
Updated: 12 December 2015
The Museum of the Moving Image is the only museum in the United States to thoroughly explore the history of the moving image from the perspectives of art, history, technique and technology. This treasure trove of artifacts and interactive film displays also hosts frequent film screenings and opportunities to engage with the film elite.

Founded in 1988 the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York is the only United States institution dedicated to the study of the moving image in all its forms. Although Hollywood is internationally recognised as the centre of film production, this curious museum in the easternmost New York City borough stands to remind of Queens’ own role in the making of cinematic history.

In the earliest days of filmmaking in the United States, New York was an important cinema hub, and Queens served as the centre of the city’s industry. The Kaufman Astoria Studios were built here during the era of silent film, and served as the production site for industry giants such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, as well as the site of the first Sherlock Holmes sound film shot by Basil Dean in 1929. The studio was then known as Astoria Studio and Paramount Studio, before Paramount moved its enterprise to California in 1932. Following Paramount’s departure, independent producers continued to use the facilities and release their films through Paramount.

During World War II the site was taken over by the U.S. Army to serve as a production studio for army training videos and was renamed the Signal Corps Photographic Center. The Army left the complex in the 1970s, and the disoccupied studio soon fell into decay. Seven years after its abandonment, a coalition of New York City and government representatives, union officials, and other industry players came together to restore the complex. Renamed as the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation, feature film and television production were resumed on the site, beginning in 1977 with Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz. In 1980 it was decided, under the executive direction of Rochelle Slovin, that a museum should be built at the complex, and the American Museum of the Moving Image was finally opened in 1988.

The institution, now known as the Museum of the Moving Image, has recently undergone a programme of expansion, and was opened in its new form in 2011. Architect Thomas Leeser head up the project, transforming the space through stunning contemporary design that facilitates the display of temporary exhibitions, multiple film screenings, the presentation of video art and the complete re-curation of the permanent exhibition.

Titled Behind the Screen, the corps exhibition features displays on film, television, video games and digital media whilst also exploring pre-film forms of optical entertainment. Occupying two full floors, the presentation can be categorised into three areas: artifacts, computer-based interactive experience and audio-visual material, all designed to immerse viewers in the process and history of film making.

Around 1,400 artifacts can be counted among the museums collection. Included are objects such as cameras, projectors, television sets, as well as magazines and posters, film props and licensed merchandise. The museum has also begun a collection of video arcade games which act both as artifacts and as interactive displays, as visitors are invited to play with these relics.

Among the other interactive displays featured is a device that records visitors’ movements and then prints them out in a series of still photographs in the form of a flip book. Guests can also create voice-over recordings following a film script, mimicking the same procedure that actors use when dubbing their lines post-production. In another example, visitors are able to add music to scenes from television shows or films to explore the role that music plays in establishing the tone or emotion of a scene.

Audio-visual materials range from video clips which contextualise featured artifacts, displays of the earliest kinetoscope films – a device designed so that only one individual can watch a film at a time through a small window at the top of the mechanism –, and a reproduction of a live TV control room. Furthermore, artworks that have been commissioned by the museum especially for their inclusion in Behind the Screen create another dimension to the display.

In addition to Behind the Screen, the museum offers an impressive array of annual exhibitions which span from video to art and live performance events. Exhibitions are complemented by the museum’s extensive programme of film screenings which number as many as 400 films each year, presented in the institution’s state of the art theatres. These screenings are recognised for their broad scope and celebration of all genres, and present a mixture of classic and contemporary cinema. The institution also serves as a host to public discussions through it’s Pinewood Dialogues project, an ongoing series in which conversations with film industry professionals are facilitated within the museum. The list of rock star names who have participated in these dialogues includes: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, David Cronenberg, Daniel Day Lewis, and Paul Thomas Anderson among many others.

The Museum of the Moving Image seeks to further visitors’ knowledge and appreciation for the history, art, methods, and technology involved in filmmaking and the production of all forms of moving image media. It’s success derives from its multidisciplinary approach, and offering of artifacts, screenings, exhibitions, artworks, as well as its deep involvement within the film community.