New York's Other Museums
by Leon Schwarzbaum
Almost every visitor to New York City knows about the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Any one of them can fill more than one vacation day, and even then a visitor will not have seen everything available.
But those of us with adventurous spirits search for and find less famous museums. Having traveled the world and, frankly, having seen a surfeit of fine art and historical museums, I find the less-known and off-beat museums more interesting. After all, New York City is home to more than 100 museums, so finding them is not difficult. Most newsstands carry "Museums New York," a pocket-sized booklet crammed with information that is updated monthly. Within its covers, readers can discover sources of free tickets, discounts and special program information.
While art museums make up most of the roster, there are other collections for those with "special" interests. Come with me to some of the New York City museums that I enjoy strolling through.
In Queens, across the river from Manhattan, two museums draw me back again and again. I find them easy to get to on a day the weather encourages outdoor viewing, and I combine the outing with lunch at one of the ethnic restaurants for which the area is famous.
The late sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, lived and worked in Queens, and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum at 32-37 Vernon Boulevard (718 721-1932) uses his former studio as a backdrop for a collection of his works. The use of space, the outdoor garden and the serenity of the sculpture draw me back time after time. Visitors can take the N subway line to Broadway (in Long Island City) and walk to the studio. For more detailed travel instructions call the museum.
From the Noguchi, it's a short walk to Socrates Sculpture Park at Broadway and Vernon Boulevard (the staff at the Noguchi can point you in the right direction), where an outdoor exhibit of contemporary and avant garde sculpture is dramatically displayed against the background of Manhattan's skyline.
For lunch, I head back toward the N train and continue to Uncle George's, a Greek tavern at 33-19 Broadway. The decor is not elegant, but the number of "locals" testifies to the authenticity of the food. In one of the largest Greek communities in the city, surrounded by other good Greek restaurants, Uncle George prospers.
Back in Manhattan, my favorites are scattered around the island.
Fire department buffs will find the New York City Fire Museum (212-691-1301) at 278 Spring Street, in the middle of New York's trendy SoHo district. In a renovated 1904 firehouse, a collection of fire-related art and artifacts from the 18th century to the present includes a fire engine, hose wagons, hats and toys. Special exhibits are changed from time to time, and a lucky visitor may find a private collection on view. Recent shows included insurance company emblems used to mark insured properties for the private fire companies to identify. Take the C or E subway to Spring Street.
Theodore Roosevelt's Birthplace is at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan (212-260-1616). TR was the only U.S. president to date born in New York City. The 1865 period rooms and galleries contain his memorabilia and artifacts. Tours are conducted by knowledgeable docents frequently during the day. The subway 6 train stops a few steps away, at 28th Street and Park Avenue South.
Another of my favorites is the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum (212-245-0072) aboard the USS Intrepid, a WW2 aircraft carrier, berthed at West 46th Street and the Hudson River. Real aircraft, spacecraft and warships are in, on and around the retired carrier. The permanent exhibit grows slowly as new equipment is added, but the temporary exhibits change often enough to warrant repeat visits. Climb down into a real submarine, climb up into a Navy flight simulator, pose in front of an assortment of military hardware and enjoy the river views from the bridge. For the less hardy, Bus M50 will take you cross-town, but the walk from 12th Avenue to Midtown is a show in itself.
At the northern end of Manhattan, The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (212-923-2700) in Fort Tryon Park offers a glimpse of Medieval art and architecture in a tranquil cloister high above the city on a natural hill. Views of Manhattan and New Jersey from the gardens provide an extra bonus to viewers. Take the A train to 190th Street or Bus M4 (North on Madison Avenue in Midtown).
While technically not a museum, Sony's Wonder Technology Lab (212-833-8100) on 56th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, is another of my favorite visiting sites. Hands-on multimedia exhibits on communication technology fascinate the young and old. A great place for a bad weather day - not far from the famous FAO Schwarz toy store, Tiffany's and the posh Fifth Avenue shops. More public transportation at or near this location than space permits me to list.
An exceptional opportunity will be missed if a visitor to New York City (or a resident, too,) doesn't visit Ellis Island Immigration Museum (212-269-5755) on the famous island that was a gateway to thousands of immigrants. While the museum is free, the ferry to the island (and to the Statue of Liberty) charges a fee. See the Great Hall where immigrants waited, take the guided tour and learn of the varied backgrounds of the people who came here to make America great. Combine both historical sites on a day trip in good weather. Subway 1 or 9 to South Ferry. If time permits, walk a block to the east and take the Staten Island Ferry across New York harbor and back. The view of lower Manhattan's skyline is magnificent.
One last group of museums should be on your list. Upper Fifth Avenue has been designated Museum Mile. Starting at 104th Street, some of New York's most prestigious museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian, the Jewish Museum, the New York Historical Society) are interspersed with smaller but excellent museums. Choose a nice day, put on a pair of walking shoes and start at El Museo del Barrio at Fifth Avenue and 104th Street and walk south. They're all on the east side of the Avenue (Central Park is on the west side) and you can't miss them.
NOTE: Some museums are closed on scheduled days. Some museums charge an entry fee, some request voluntary contributions and some are free at designated times. Call first, or check the museum listings in the daily newspapers, in "Museums New York" or with the concierge at your hotel. Many museums have coffee shops, cafeterias or restaurants offering refreshments ranging from low to high priced. Most have museum shops offering souvenirs and other appropriate merchandise. But wherever you go, you will find clean restrooms and friendly museum staffs.