NYC Museums, an Overview

From the grand institutions along Fifth 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 short list of top museums in New York City, because, well, there are just so many of them. That said, ambitious art lovers will likely focus on the big five. One of the most visited museums in the world, the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art (known locally as "the Met," not to be confused with the Metropolitan Opera, also known as "the Met") has a collection that consists of more than 2 million works of art representing 5,000 years of history. Some of the Met's modern art collection is showcased at the Met Breuer, in the former Whitney Museum building. The Whitney Museum of American Art itself, which moved from its Upper East Side home to the Meatpacking District in 2015, is one of the city’s most memorable museums, famous as much for its High Line and Hudson views as for its expansive indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces. With its world-famous dinosaur exhibits, 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 for their incredible spaces—MoMA, a maze of glass walkways, was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, while the nautilus-like Guggenheim is a masterwork of Frank Lloyd Wright—as well as for their superlative collections of contemporary art and space-specific shows.

Other Top Museums

There are many other important museums in the city. The Frick Collection, an elegant art museum in the neoclassical mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is a refined experience for its works, decor, and architecture. 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 American Folk Art Museum is dedicated to American folk art and the work of contemporary self-taught artists, while 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 Arts and Design, the Museum at FIT, the Skyscraper Museum, the Museum of Illustration and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art at the Society of Illustrators, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, packed with hands-on activities for grown-ups. Speaking of lovers, the provocative, adults-only Museum of Sex explores the history, evolution, and cultural significance of sex, while the Museum of American Finance satisfies our curiosity about money and Wall Street.

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 neighbor of the American Museum of Natural History offers a unique and comprehensive overview of the city's history, as well as quirky and compelling exhibits. Other New York–centric museums 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 Fire Museum, the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, 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 Latin American and Caribbean art and features a popular collection of hand-carved wooden folk-art figures from Puerto Rico. The National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution) explores the diversity of 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 Ukrainian Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem (for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally).

Outer-Borough Museums

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, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and a memorial sculpture 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 Japanese-American sculptor. Other top museums in Queens include the Museum of the Moving Image and the Queens Museum. The enchanting Cloisters Museum and Gardens (an outpost of the Met museum) in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan is a bit of a trek relative to other city museums, but it's almost guaranteed that you'll find 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 & Space Museum. Other crowd-pleasers include Madame Tussauds New York and the National Museum of Mathematics. 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.

Galleries

There are countless art galleries in Manhattan and Brooklyn worth visiting; check neighborhood chapters for specific listings. Your interest in these may vary depending on what shows are on at what times, so we also recommend checking the listings in New York Magazine and the New York Times.

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