Beyond the familiar corners of 107th Street, where O’Connell’s and Lime Leaf duel for undergraduate attention, lies a little-known oasis of quiet. The Nicholas Roerich Museum, tucked away in an unassuming townhouse between Broadway and Riverside, is home to hundreds of the Russian artist’s mystically themed tempera paintings and host to frequent cultural events. “[The museum] is on the hidden gem side of the spectrum,” says Trenton Barnes, CC ‘12, a former Roerich Museum intern. Although most Columbia students may not frequent the museum, it is far from empty.
On the second floor, a cellist tunes up for one of the Museum’s weekly free concerts. Held during the early evening every Sunday, the concerts are part of a larger cultural program that includes regular poetry readings, and soon, their holiday music festival. The beginnings of a Bach suite drift through the gallery as a Hunter College student examines one of the paintings up close—but she is here for a music class, oddly enough. Roerich, an artist and intellectual who contributed to the cultural landscape of his native Russia as well as those of Finland, England, the U.S., and India—where he traveled extensively—is also well known in the musical world for collaborating with Stravinsky and Nijinsky on “The Rite of Spring.”
More than any particular paintings or musical works, the museum celebrates the larger cultural mission of Roerich, who pioneered the Roerich Pact, a treaty signed in 1935 by President Roosevelt and 21 other leaders to protect art and culture during times of war. The museum’s motto—pax cultura, or “peace through culture”—emphasizes its dual goal of promoting the arts and fostering peace. Aida Tulskaya, the museum’s assistant director, values the “peace and quiet” the museum offers for the arts within the busy city. “It’s a special place,” she says, sweeping her hands around the room to emphasize the paintings and books that line the wall. “It’s my life. I cannot separate myself from the museum.”