West 81st Street Subway Station

Central Park West, B & C Trains

Text and Photographs by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Natural History special issue

Part of City of Stars photo essay.

The American Museum of Natural History is one of the privileged places in New York City that can be entered from a subway platform. The south end of the 81st street station along the B and C lines grants access to the Museum’s lower level. If you exit from the north end of the platform, however, you emerge on Central Park West, in full view of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. During the construction of the Rose Center, just before the turn of the millennium, the city and the Museum worked in tandem to refurbish the entire subway station in a way that would reflect the Museum’s scientific mission. The walls along the south end of the station are now studded with mosaics of reptiles, mammals, fish, bugs, and other critters, as well as fossil casts of extinct vertebrates, which seem to emerge from the tiles as though the subway platform itself were an excavation site.

On the bottom of one stairwell on the platform’s north end, the walls are entirely covered entirely with deep blue tiles that represent what one sees in the night sky including planets, stars of different colors, and constellations.

Bottom of a stairwell with dark-blue-tiled walls decorated with stars and planets.

On the walls of the adjacent stairwell is an artist’s design for a in vibrant orange and yellow tiles—all the way down to its fifteen-million-degree core. Whoever created this image either didn’t know (or perhaps chose to ignore) that extremely hot things, like the center of the Sun, glow blue and not red.

The base of a stairwell in the subwaystation with yellow tiled representing a cut-away of the Sun's interior.'

Even the platform area near the station’s north-end token booth is a site for astronomical art. Off-white inlays in the beige tile floor depict several fanciful spiral galaxies. In space, of course, galaxies are collections of billions of stars in mutual gravitational embrace; on the subway platform at 81st Street, however, the elliptical shapes suggest some sort of weaponry that might be thrown by a master of an obscure martial art.

The floor of the subway station with decorative spiral objects in tile that loosely represent spiral galaxies.

So if you happen to lose touch with your surroundings while riding the train (having entered that semidazed dream state that a subway commute sometimes induces), nature will be staring you in the face when the doors open on 81st street. And there will be no mistaking that you have arrived at the American Museum of Natural History.