The Met and MOMA are stunning, but there are other fascinating and lesser-known museums worth exploring in NYC.
New York is undoubtedly a museum city, with an entire stretch of Manhattan dubbed the “Museum Mile.” Many of New York’s museums are iconic and prominently featured in every travel guide, tv show, or taxi cab ad, but if you’re seeking a new museum experience, the city has plenty of overlooked options to explore. Some delve into the city’s history, others focus on under-represented groups, and some focus on pop culture. Nerdy, provocative, and brilliant, here are a few of the lesser-known museum gems to visit.
Top Picks for You
Museum of Food and Drink
Formerly an outpost in Williamsburg, this museum is dedicated to showcasing food as culture. Earlier this year, inside the Africa Center in Harlem, MoFaD began showing “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” the first major exhibition dedicated to the culinary contributions of African American chefs and inventors. James Beard Award-winning historian and author Jessica B. Harris led the curation, celebrating figures like Nathan “Nearest” Green, a formerly enslaved person who taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey. The original Ebony Test Kitchen is displayed, which served as the lab for developing recipes for the legacy Black magazine for over three decades.
INSIDER TIPEnd a visit to the museum by sampling the shoebox lunches inspired by the boxed lunches Black travelers packed to avoid stopping for food in the Jim Crow era. The rotating menu is curated by chefs Carla Hall, Adrienne Cheatham, Chris Scott, and Kwame Onwuachi.
WHERE: Flatiron District
Fotografiska is a branch of the Swedish Museum of the same name, with five floors of iconoclastic photography housed inside a 45,000-square-foot Renaissance Revival landmark on Park Avenue. The museum celebrates female and underrepresented photographers with galleries designed to be immersive and irreverent. Neon pink photo backlighting matches the equally pink carpet and walls in one showcase, while another includes a curated playlist of pop hits alongside images. The Nude exhibition now features 20 female-identifying photographers exploring nudity and has Yushi Li’s provocative collection entitled “My Tinder Boys,” depicting nude men she scouted on the dating app.
WHERE: Upper East Side
The Neue Galerie is dedicated to 19th-century German and Austrian art and design. The big draw is the iconic Gustav Klimt painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, but among the collection are photographs of the famed artist and his charcoal sketches. His protege Egon Schiele is also heavily represented in the collection, including a few of his famed self-portraits and photos of the artist captured by Anton Josef Trcka. The award-winning design shop with its modern interiors line, Neue Haus, sells decor inspired by Biedermeier and Bauhaus designs and is worth browsing on the way out.
INSIDER TIPCafé Sabarsky, the museum’s restaurant inspired by early twentieth-century Viennese cafes, is a must-stop for strudel or sachertorte alongside Viennese-style coffee.
WHERE: Lower East Side
Located inside two former tenement buildings on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, this museum focuses on the immigrant experience in New York City. Guided tours take visitors through the recreated homes of former residents between the 1860s and the 1980s. The museum tells the personal stories of the working-class individuals who lived in these densely populated tenement apartments in order to build their new lives in America. The walking tours are not to be missed, as they explore how immigrants transformed the Lower East Side.
Museum of Moving Image
WHERE: Astoria, Queens
This one is for pop-culture lovers. The Museum of Moving Image examines film, TV, video games, and digital culture. Explore the technical process of movie and tv making, go inside the mind of Jim Henson and the creation of the Muppets (many of which are on display), or go behind the scenes of The Underground Railroad with director Barry Jenkins’s companion installation to the movie. Temporary exhibits are worth keeping an eye on, the current showcase on deep fakes explores manipulation in film and television, while past exhibits have included The Simpsons drawing collections and installations exploring TikTok.
New York Transit Museum
WHERE: Downtown Brooklyn
Appropriately so, the New York Transit Museum is located in a decommissioned subway station. Transit is a mundane part of life but also a feat of engineering brilliance when contextualized by the museum. This museum is a tactile experience, as guests wander on and off old subway cars and buses, grab the cleanest open seat ever witnessed on public transit, and marvel at vintage subway signs that mark the changing eras. It’s a bit niche and a little nerdy, but fun for kids and an excellent way to experience New York City’s history.
Brooklyn Navy Yard
WHERE: Navy Yard, Brooklyn
A trip to the Navy Yard is multiple experiences in one. The newly renovated shipyard in northwest Brooklyn features several public art spaces. It stretches along Flushing Ave as does its half-mile-long free art walk celebrating artists and innovators in the area. Inside Buildings 77 and 92, public art installations speak to the history of labor at the Navy Yard, while Building 92 also has, “Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present, and Future,” an ongoing installation chronicling the yard as one of the nation’s first federal shipyards and its transition into an industrial hub.
INSIDER TIPGrab lunch inside Building 77’s food hall, featuring a local brewhouse and many fast-casual spots, most notably, a Russ and Daughters outpost, with hardly a line and a full view of the historic baking operations.
El Museo del Barrio
WHERE: Upper East Side
El Museo del Barrio specializes in Latin American and Caribbean art, focusing on works from Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem, where the museum was originally located. The permanent collection spans pre-Columbian art and artifacts to contemporary art, examining the diasporic history of Latinx culture. The “En Foco” collection of street photography documenting Latino life in New York since the 1970s is a beautiful visualization of the “barrio” of East Harlem over time. The “Representing Latinx” section reevaluates Latinx identity through various lenses, from queer and trans identities to Indigenous and African roots.
Museum of Chinese in America
This museum explores the heritage and culture of the Chinese American experience, past and present. Packed inside the modest space are thousands of artifacts, from clothing to textiles, and photographs chronicling Chinese American history from the 19th century, contextualizing the iconic Chinatown neighborhood and the Chinese American experience in a broader American narrative. A timely and necessary current exhibit entitled “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism” addresses Covid-era assaults on AAPI individuals, using first-person accounts juxtaposed against history via a hand-painted and inscribed timeline.
INSIDER TIPAdmission is free throughout the run of the “Response” exhibition, on display until September 2022.
The Museum at FIT
Although admission to the Fashion Institute of Technology is competitive, admission to the on-campus museum is free. The small gallery’s main draw is the special exhibits, often highlighting clothes from the world’s most iconic designer collections. Current special exhibits include a history of women’s accessories and an exploration of ’90s fashion and the designers who defined it, featuring vintage Versace, Gucci, and Prada—a perfectly seasonable showcase as ’90s fashion is again in vogue. The permanent collection includes 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present, documenting trends and the timeless silhouettes that have defined fashion.
The Museum at FIT is a terrible museum. The exhibitions are uninspired, and its exhibition space is blah (its main space is a dark and dank university basement). The fashion exhibitions at both the Metropolitan Museum and Brooklyn Museum are miles above in quality what the Museum at FIT stages.
Museum of the Moving Image—the correct name of the museum—is my favorite museum in the city.