If you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York, you may have gotten a feel for what New York was like back in the day. But the history of this city, its inception (the origin, not the movie), is best explored with the help of the many excellent historical museums and societies that can immerse you in the fascinating backstory behind the Big Apple. Check out a few of these excellent options.
Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Ave & 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029
Located across the street from the stately Conservatory Garden along Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Museum Mile, the Museum of the City of New York boasts an absolutely stellar collection of over 750,000 objects that help interpret the history of the city right up to today. With exhibits ranging from temporary exhibitions like “Rebel Women, Defying Victorianism” to the permanent collection of costumes and textiles, paintings and photographs, furniture and manuscripts, to archival materials for researchers, you can really dig in as deep as you want to go. Founded in 1923, the mission of this world-class repository of knowledge is to bring to life all things NY, in an accessible and evergreen way. We think it succeeds!
New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024
Across the park on the Upper West Side, you’ll find that the founders of the New York Historical Society – all survivors of the Revolutionary War – meant serious business when it comes to keeping history alive. Conscious of the impact of events in this burgeoning fast-paced city, and loathe to let any important detail fall into obscurity, they vowed to preserve important documents and artifacts that bring to life the vital core of the city. To that end, they and the generations of curators that followed have created an excellent collection that includes everything from a Children’s Museum where kids can explore NYC history at a level that suits their interests and enthusiasm, to a library full of research and archival materials, to exhibitions of paintings, decorative arts, and furnishings by American artist from the 1700s to today. Founded in 1804, this is actually the city’s very first museum!
103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002
The Lower East Side is rich with history, particularly the immigrant experience. And tenements are at the heart of how New York’s immigrants lived and worked (and still do). A visit to the Tenement Museum is an immersive experience where you walk through history as you explore room after room in these old apartments on Orchard Street and experience life just as the tenants of the past did. A visit is by guided tours only, providing a robust experience that brings the past to life. You can even take a live-action tour and interact with actors portraying residents from the eighteen hundreds to nineteen-thirties. Be sure to combine your visit with a walking tour of the neighborhood, which will edify you even further while providing some pleasant exercise and a chance to explore what is now a very trendy neighborhood.
99 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
New Yorkers may kvetch about the mass transit system (for good reason), but rail and road history enthusiasts will love this Brooklyn museum showcasing everything from the buses to subways to the old-school trolleys the citizens of New York once used to get around. Building the infrastructure that supports the city’s arteries was a massive engineering feat, which continues to this day (the ambitious recently opened Second Avenue Subway Project is a great example). From their vintage fleet of restored and replica train cars to permanent collections showcasing tools, maps, signage and more, to rotating exhibits that keep things fresh, kids and adults alike will find themselves in awe of the massive system that keeps NYC on the move. If you haven’t had enough after an afternoon at the New York Transit Museum, there’s even a Grand Central Annex and shop to further explore while you’re in Manhattan’s greatest transportation hub.
Museum of the Moving Image
3601 35th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106-1226
The history of moviemaking in NYC reaches far beyond the countless episodes of Law & Order and Woody Allen movies filmed here. To catch a glimpse of the fascinating backstory of film and TV, there’s no better place than the excellent Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. From old-timey cameras to vintage props and sets, to cinematic technology old and new, you’ll see through the lens of pioneering moviemakers how we’ve evolved to today’s avant garde cinematography. You’ll also have the opportunity to attend all sorts of screenings of movies both old and new, so check their website for info about current exhibitions and screenings before you go.
The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016
J.P. Morgan was a legendary robber baron and philanthropist in New York’s gilded age, and as such, had the best of everything. Which included his own private library, built in 1906 at a cost of over a million dollars by famed architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. The stunning Palladian building is now both a New York City and a National Historical Landmark, and when you enter you’ll see why. “Imposing” doesn’t begin to describe the East Room, with its jaw-dropping painted ceilings and three stories of leather-bound tomes stacked to the rafters. The marble-pillared Rotunda contains exhibits of Americana but the room itself is an awe-inspiring artwork as well. Don’t miss the ruby-red silk wallpapered private study, if you want to imagine what it was like to be this legendary New York City benefactor. Among the most famous exhibits are manuscripts ranging from Gutenberg Bibles to hand-scribbled original Bob Dylan lyrics. In recent years, the museum has expanded to include Morgan’s private residence as well.
It’s a quintessential example of how the industrialists who made the city what it is today once lived.