In a city that is home to the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Frick, and the Museum of Natural History, it’s easy to miss some of the quirkier institutions that thrive in the shadow of the Big Kahunas. For instance, did you know there is a museum devoted to skyscrapers (photo right) in lower Manhattan? Or that NYC is home to a museum of finance? Many of these lesser-known institutions offer experiences and insights on a par with the bigger museums, only you won’t always be paying big museum prices to get in, and you’ll almost always find fewer crowds. Here are a few of our favorites.
El Museo del Barrio
Back in 1969, Puerto Rican educators, artists, and community activists founded El Museo del Barrio to document the richness of their culture and life in East Harlem’s el Barrio, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Thirty years later, El Museo del Barrio has morphed into the city’s only museum dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American art. El Museo retains its strong community roots and is very much about cultural pride, but you certainly don’t need to be a Latino (or speak Spanish) to enjoy the vibrant exhibits. Among the highlights is the “Santos de Palo” collection, which includes 360 “santos”—carved wooden saints used for domestic devotions. The Puerto Rican collection includes posters and advertising materials created on the island from the 1940s to the present. 1230 Fifth Avenue, www.elmuseo.org.
Museum Of Sex
Visitors to this museum get tagged with a scarlet letter—the admission token is a bright red “X” sticker. Known to its friends as the “MoSex museum,” the collections are an interesting combination of the staid and spirited. You?ll see porn but also scholarly exhibits. Past shows include “Sex Among the Lotus,” a survey show of 2,500 years of Chinese erotica; and “Vamps & Virgins,” a look at the history of American pinups, from the 19th century to the 1950s. So, yes, this is the adult version of sex-ed class, but it’s also fun and frisky. Among the highlights of the permanent collection is Ralph Whittington’s compendious porn collection, which includes more than 400 8-millimeter films, 700 videos, 1,500 magazines, 100 books, and artifacts such as blow-up dolls and bawdy house coins from the 1970’s through the present. Whittington knew how to document history—he was a curator at the Library of Congress for 38 years. 233 Fifth Avenue, www.museumofsex.com.
The National Museum of the American Indian
Housed in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, one of the grandest Beaux-Arts buildings in New York, NMAI’s remarkable collections support the mandate to honor the traditions and beliefs of the native nations of the Americas. That said, this isn’t a stuffy collection of relics. In addition to intricate stone carvings, wooden masks, and painted hides, the museum also focuses strongly on contemporary Native art and cultures, and regularly showcases art, film, music, and lectures from native artists and tribal elders. A recent exhibit, “New Tribe: New York,” showcased the work of New York-based Native American artists, with paintings and assemblages that explored parallel traditions in indigenous and Christian religions. One Bowling Green, www.nmai.si.edu.
The Skyscraper Museum
Inside this first (and so far only) museum in the world dedicated to the history of the skyscraper, stainless steel floors and ceilings enclose an excellent collection of architectural drawings and models, construction photos, and other artifacts documenting the engineering feats that made possible some of the world’s most incredible buildings. The exhibits are reflected in the mirror-like surfaces of the floors and ceilings, creating a kaleidoscopic mural of the world’s most interesting buildings. Exhibits have included an exploration of “green” towers and New York apartment buildings that use sustainable energy technologies. 39 Battery Place, www.skyscraper.org.
Sony Wonder Technology Lab
Of course the Sony Wonder Technology Lab touts Sony products, but the exhibits don’t club you over the head with promotional spiels. The four floors of interactive exhibits focus on technology, communication, and digital entertainment—visitors can add sound effects to music clips or paint with pixels on the fourth floor, program and play with robots on the 3rd floor, edit a TV show or create a music video. The less squeamish can diagnose diseases with the latest medical-imaging technology and treat a variety of ailments. Kids love it, and parents will also be amused. 56th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, sonywondertechlab.com.
See Fodor”s New York City for additional museum info.