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While great cities such as New York are shaped by large events in history, the day-to-day lives of the people in those cities are often more fascinating. Over hundreds of years, New York City has become a city so strongly defined by its people that its ideas & culture have spread around the world. And the world in turn has shaped New York City, with immigrants & visitors alike bringing their own culture into the Big Apple. The Museum of the City of New York tells the story of all of these New Yorkers, covering everything from the history of New York City & what made New York New York to NYC’s rich history of activism & pop culture. It’s a fantastic city museum near Central Park that’s worth a detour for any fan of history or entertainment.
How to visit the Museum of the City of New York
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 5th Ave at 103rd Street in the Upper East Side. The closest subway stop is 103rd Street, which is served by the 4 & 6.
Permanent exhibitions at the museum
The Museum of the City of New York has several long-term exhibitions that provide a complete overview of the city’s history & its evolution.
The best introduction to the Museum of the City of New York (website) is by watching Timescapes, their 28-minute video that covers the historic events of New York City. It gives a decent high-level view of hundreds of years of the city. Plus, the video is narrated by Stanley Tucci. If you haven’t watched his travel & food show, “Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy“, I recommend it.
New York at its Core
Digging deeper into the history of New York City, New York at its Core is broken up across time periods.
These rooms tell the history of what made New York New York, in accordance with 4 key themes: Money, Diversity, Density, & Creativity. These ingredients are the common factors that have shaped NYC for centuries.
Activist New York
Activist New York tells the history of protests & other political movements that have socially evolved the city.
Topics covered include religious freedom, abolitionists, temperance, birth control, garment workers, Prohibition, civil rights, anti-war protests, Stonewall, & Occupy Wall Street.
As the fight for human rights still continues, the exhibit continues to evolve. There are sections devoted to Black Lives Matter & the most recent racial justice protests.
This room reminded me of the also-excellent People’s History Museum in Manchester, England.
Collecting New York’s Stories
On the 3rd floor of the museum, there is a photography exhibition that depicts the lives of New Yorkers. It’s called “Collecting New York’s Stories.”
The subjects include regular people, but you’ll also find celebrity New Yorkers there as well. What is displayed is just part of a massive collection. If you have ties to New York City, it makes you wonder if any of your family & friends are part of that archive.
New York New Music
The final selection of the museum’s main collection is titled “New York New Music”. The exhibition covers pop music from 1980 to 1986. This period saw several genres leap from the New York City underground to the rest of the world.
Acts like Madonna, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, & the Talking Heads all became popular in this era as hip hop, alternative & more evolved following the end of the disco & punk era.
And of course, this period also saw the launch of MTV. With videos changing the landscape, the network’s NYC presence helped these artists get a wider audience, along with local radio stations.
As you’d expect from an exhibit like this, there’s plenty of music to listen to & videos to watch throughout.
Special exhibitions at the museum
TheMuseum of the City of New York features several galleries of rotating temporary exhibitions, offering something new for each visit. Here are some examples of the museum’s recent exhibitions.
“Rising Tide” depicts the impact of climate change around the world. There is a special focus on how it will impact New York City.
This is important, as New Yorkers are already seeing these changes. There was Sandy, but also other storms that had recently flooded subways & low-lying coastal areas.
Puppets of New York
It’s exhibitions such as this one that really make a place like theMuseum of the City of New York unique. Initially, you may think that it’s a niche subject, but once you enter this puppet-filled room, you realize just how much the puppets of New York have influenced not just the city, but pop culture as a whole.
First, you have children’s favorites from the early days of television, such as Lamb Chop & Shari Lewis, as well as Howdy Doody.
That gave way to the 70s & 80s, with The Muppets & Sesame Street.
More recently, Avenue Q brought puppetry to Broadway.
The history of puppets in New York City doesn’t just relate to pop culture. Smaller local social & political groups have also used puppets to promote their messages, as anyone who has seen Scabby the Rat at a union protest can attest.
The City of New York actually hires civil servant puppeteers, that’s how ingrained they are into the life of the city.
Temporary exhibitions such as these really show just how much interesting history there is in New York City.
The Museum of the City of New York is one of my favorite New York City museums. I love learning about this type of history. It’s a great rainy day activity in NYC or a break from the heat during the summer months if you’re near Central Park or the Museum Mile. I’ve always believed that it’s important to learn about the history of places you visit. The Museum of the City of New York does this well while also tying the city’s history to its cultural influence on the world.
If you’re looking for a place to stay near Museum Mile, check out these New York City hotels.