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NYC Museums, an Overview

From the grand institutions along 5th Avenue’s museum mile to an underground museum in a converted subway station in Brooklyn, to the dramatic new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District, New York City is home to an almost overwhelming collection of artistic riches, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead. This overview includes museums listed elsewhere in the book; check the index for full listings.

Major Museums

It’s hard to create a shortlist of top museums in New York City because, well, there are just so many top museums. That said, ambitious art lovers will likely focus on the Big Five. One of the most-visited museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (known locally as "the Met," not to be confused with the Metropolitan Opera, also known as "the Met") is a must. It's collection consists of more than 2 million works of art representing 5,000 years of history. From its world famous dinosaur halls, its halls of fossils, gems, and human evolution, and its planetarium, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the most celebrated museums in the world. Both the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are known as much for their incredible spaces—MoMA, a maze of glass walkways, was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, and the nautilus-like Guggenheim was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—as for their superlative collections of contemporary art and curated shows. The Whitney Museum of American Art, which is moving from its Upper East Side home to the Meatpacking District in spring 2015, is the city’s hottest museum ticket, as much for its Highline and Hudson views as its expansive indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces.

Other Top Museums

There are many other important museums in the city. The Frick Collection, an elegant museum in the neoclassical mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is especially worthy of a visit. Best known for its collection of paintings from the Renaissance to the turn of the last century (Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, Degas, Goya, Van Dyck, and more), you’ll also find 18th-century French furniture, Oriental tapestries, and an ornate garden court. The Morgan Library and Museum is another mansion-museum founded on the vast and varied collections of a magnate—in this case J. P. Morgan. The collection includes medieval artworks, manuscripts, manuscripts, rare letters, and drawings by European artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Picasso. The American Folk Art Museum is dedicated to American folk art and the work of contemporary self-taught artists. The New Museum is the only museum dedicated solely to contemporary art in Manhattan. There are several museums to satisfy design-lovers including the Museum of American Illustration and Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art at the Society of Illustrators, the Museum of Arts and Design, the Museum at FIT, the Skyscraper Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Speaking of lovers, the provocative, adult-only Museum of Sex explores the history, evolution, and cultural significance of sex while the Museum of American Finance satisfies our obsession with all things money.

New York–Specific Museums

It’s appropriate that the city’s oldest museum, the New-York Historical Society, is dedicated to the city itself. Founded in 1805 this recently renovated neighbor of the American Museum of Natural History offers a unique and comprehensive overview of New York’s history, as well as quirky and compelling exhibits. Other NY-centric museums to provide context and insight on the city’s include the Museum of the City of New York, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Merchant’s House Museum, the Fraunces Tavern Museum, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the New York City Police Museum, the New York City Fire Museum, the 9/11 Memorial Museum (at Ground Zero), and the New York Transit Museum.

Culturally Specific Museums

New York City is often referred to as a melting pot, which explains the profusion of culture-specific museums dedicated to sharing the broad and specific stories, struggles, and experiences of certain cultural and ethnic groups—often overlooked in mainstream museums. El Museo del Barrio focuses on Latina American and Caribbean art and features a popular collection of carved wooden folk-art figures from Puerto Rico. The Hispanic Society of America Museum and Library houses paintings by Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco, as well as an unsurpassed collection of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American artifacts. The National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution), explores the diversity of the Native American peoples through cultural artifacts, and regular music and dance performances. The Jewish Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Museum at Eldridge Street explore Jewish culture and art, and the Jewish experience in New York. The Asia Society and Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), the Japan Society, and the Rubin Museum of Art are dedicated to the art and experiences of Asian communities. Other notable ethnic- or culture-specific museums include the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the Ukranian Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem (for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally).

Museums Farther Afield

The Brooklyn Museum is the second-biggest museum in New York City and home to an impressive collection of European and American paintings and sculptures, an outstanding Egyptian collection, and a sculpture "memorial garden" of salvaged architectural elements from throughout New York City. A visit to Queens means innovative and experimental art at MoMA PS1 and the small museum and garden of the Noguchi Museum, dedicated to the art of Isamu Noguchi, a prominent modern art Japanese-American sculptor. Other top museums in Queens include the Museum of the Moving Image and the Queens Museum of Art. The Cloisters Museum and Gardens (an outpost of the Met museum) in Fort Tyron Park in Upper Manhattan is a bit of a trek, relative to other city museums but we can pretty much guarantee you'll think it worth the trip.

Children’s Museums

Some kids museums are fun just for the kids, like the Children’s Museum of the Arts, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, but many are fun for the entire family. Kids of all ages will appreciate the fleet of jets, the flight simulator, and other hands-on activities, the space shuttle Enterprise, and the Growler submarine at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Other crowd pleasers include Madame Tussaud’s New York, the Museum of Mathematics, and the New York Transit Museum. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum (at the New-York Historical Society) has interactive exhibits geared to help kids connect with children throughout New York’s history.

Updated: 2014-06-25

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