New York: Small museums that shouldn’t be overlooked

Posted in: New York Sights


New York's Tenement Museum
Inside New York's Tenement Museum. Photo: Pietroizzo

By Suzanne Russo in New York—

The Guggenheim is an incredible building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The American Museum of Natural History has that huge dinosaur. And the Met is… well, the Met. All amazing and worth visiting. But with iconic museums come hefty prices. Plus, New York is home to many smaller museums that are equally fascinating, will likely be less crowded, and will definitely be cheaper.

Here are our top five picks for smaller museums in New York that pack a big punch:

1. The New York Transit Museum
Boerum Place & Schermerhorn St.
Web site

Ah, the subway. What would New York be without you? You’re a feat of architecture, engineering, and city planning that has been the heart of this city since 1904. The New York Transit Museum, housed in a historic 1936 subway station in Brooklyn Heights, dives into transportation history in New York, from trolleys to buses to the subway itself.

If you think that sounds yawn-worthy, think again: You’ll be treated to photos and artifacts from the days when the subway was new and gleaming, along with the stories of the bright, courageous, and hardworking men who built it.

Open: Tuesday-Friday, Tuesday – Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday Noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and children aged 3-17. (Seniors visit free on Wednesdays.)

2. Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street
Web site

In our humble opinion, it doesn’t get much cooler than the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side. From the time it was built 1863 until the time it was closed to residential use in 1935, the building that is now the museum was home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. Irish, Germans, Greeks and Italians all took their turns trying to survive in the cramped apartments of this crowded building.

PS1 Queens

Hanging out at PS1. Photo: TIA

The brilliant and caring crew at the museum has carefully researched the lives of real families who lived in the building, and each tour tells the story of a few of those lives—in apartments that look like they would have then. But our favorite part may just be the room that is left at only partial excavation so that visitors can see the true palimpsest of wallpaper upon wallpaper, lives upon lives, that is New York, past and present.

Open: Daily, 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Check out the tours currently on offer.
Admission: $20 adults, $15 students and seniors, including private tour.

3. PS 1
22-25 Jackson Ave at the intersection of 46th Ave
Web site

Since it opened in 1976, the MoMA PS 1 of Queens has invited innovative, cutting-edge, and emerging artists to create installations that transform the building’s spaces into art. Which brings us to the building itself: A Revival Romanesque former public school in Long Island City, Queens, complete with a beautiful courtyard, which in the summers becomes transformed by the winning design from a talented young architect, as part of the Young Architects Program (YAP). This installation is then the setting of the popular summer music series, Warm Up, which takes place every Saturday throughout the summer.

Of course you could stay in Manhattan and see van Gogh in the MoMA, or you could venture out to Queens for some innovative art in a truly unique space. Admission is half the price of MoMA, as well!

Hours: Thursday through Monday, 12 – 6 p.m.
Admission: $10 suggested donation ($5 students and seniors).

4. The Merchant’s House Museum
29 East Fourth St
Web site

Back in Manhattan, not far from the Tenement Museum, is another treasure trove of New York history. The Merchant’s House Museum is a lovely brick row house built in 1832, and totally preserved — inside and out — since then.

How, you ask? Well, dear Cheapos, in 1835 a wealthy merchant family by the name of Tredwell moved into the house, at the time considered the elegant “uptown.” Their youngest, Gertrude, was born in that house, and there she remained, changing very little, until her death in 1933. It became a public museum three years later and today its eight rooms provide a glimpse of how the Tredwells once lived, complete with all of their belongings in place. Oh, and in case you’re still craving New York ghosts post-Halloween, this historic gem is said to have its share.

Open: Thursday through Monday, noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: $10 general admission, $5 students and seniors, and free for children under 12 accompanied by an adult.

5. National Museum of the American Indian
One Bowling Green
Web site

There are many reasons to visit the National Museum of the American Indian, not least of which is the fact that admission is, wait for it… FREE. That’s right, you can enter the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in downtown Manhattan, and explore its incredible architecture—that’s reason number two—without spending a cent.

The last, but certainly not the least, reason to visit is the museum itself: The 16th museum of the Smithsonian Institution, it is a wealth of information and extensive collections of artifacts depicting both historic and contemporary Native American life.

Open: Daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.
Admission: Free

About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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