Review: Museum of the City of New York

Visited June 2012

Quick Review

Because it combines presentation of history and cultural issues, the Museum of the City of New York reminds me in some ways of the civilization museums in Canada (Canadian Museum of Civilization, Quebec Museum of Civilization), even though this museum is as old, if not older, than those.  The other distinction between the civilization museums and this one is that, as its name suggests, it’s all New York history and culture, all the time.

Permanent exhibitions include:

    • Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of New York, a video that introduces visitors to New York and provides a capsule history of the city (no small task for a city with a history as rich and diverse as this one).
    • New York Interiors: Furnishing for the Empire City, which is a collection of rooms from “the colonial era to the dawn of the 20th century,” (MCNY website), and which shows how homes evolved from the earliest times to the early days of Gotham.  The rooms (about 10 in all) immerse one in the intimacy of daily life over several hundred years and the labels explain major developments in furniture, decorative arts, and room design.  One also observes the evolving wealth of this metropolis. Most of the rooms are rescued from real historic structures that have either been demolished or remodeled, rather than re-creations.

Something about the display felt a bit dated—like the area need a good coat of fresh paint of something—but that’s admittedly a cosmetic issue and does not seriously affect the value or appreciation of the exhibition.  I understand that the museum is in the midst of preparing for a major overhaul and my guess is that these rooms will receive some attention in that effort.

I also wish they had a sumptuous art deco interior, similar to the ones in the Musee d’Orsay and a 1960s interior because that seems so “New York” to me, though those are admittedly personal wishes and I have no idea where they’d place them.  All of the space in the exhibition area is full already.

Temporary exhibitions on display and that I visited (the museum might have replaced them when you visit):

  • Activist New York, which is definitely not your basic “we overcame adversity and won our rights” story but, rather, a deeper exploration of the evolution of thinking on several flash-button issues through the ages.  For each, exhibition labels provide a clear, succinct background on the core issue, summarizes the various positions on it, identifies which New Yorkers were involved and major events in New York surrounding the issue (thus keeping the focus on the core issue of the museum—New York), and describing the resolution.  Although the curators clearly had a point of view, but did not let that get in the way of presenting a balanced story.
  • The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of the formal street grid of Manhattan.  Specifically, the exhibition describes the initial proposal for the grid system and the challenges in receiving approval for it, the story of integrating existing streets into the grid (think Lower Manhattan), actually building the streets (sometimes, they left existing houses sitting several feet above the street as a street was channeled in the middle of a hill), the impact of the streets on development of the city, and alterations to this rigid system to create spaces like Central Park and the Upper West Side.  Designed as a grid itself, the exhibit immerses visitors in the streets of New York and amplifies this feeling through photos, paintings, and objects.  I especially liked this exhibition because it provided the chronological history of New York lacking in my own knowledge base and that I always prefer.  The streets truly tell a story…
  • Capital of Capital, which explains how New York emerged as the financial capital of the United States as well as provides a foundation on several key concepts related to finance.  The exhibit also confronts the history of scandals and issues plaguing the financial industry, including the ones emerging from the crisis of 2008.

From what I can tell, the majority of the exhibitions are temporary ones.

Insights gained:

  • The challenge of displaying the story of a city.  The exhibition on the street grid in New York was unique in telling the history of a city from the perspective of a particular development in that city’s history.  So did the exhibition of period rooms.  In doing so, these exhibitions demonstrated that history emerges from a culture. So one cannot display the history without also honoring the culture.
  • Although the temporary exhibition on the street grid satisfied my basic curiosity for a history lesson (indeed, it piqued it), had that not been there, my curiosity would have gone unfulfilled.
  • Reimagining the Waterfront, which displays several proposed redesigns for the Upper East River Esplanade.  The explanations were helpful in understanding the drawings; as I will mention in a future review of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, drawings don’t make the most compelling exhibitions.  But placed in a hallway used as a waiting room for the multimedia show, it made the time waiting for the video to start useful.
  • One of the things I like about this museum—and that I question about the Canadian approach—is that the museum tells the story of New York.  Not Samurais, Mayan Civilizations, or Etruscans. These exhibitions are fascinating, but have nothing to do with the history of the places covered by their museums.  This museum is all New York, all the time. It’s a huge city with thousands of stories to tell.  It’s great that this museum mines them.

Weakness:  A minor, admittedly petty, issue: the museum is a bit of a walk from the subway (at least, in New York terms), but well worth the exercise.

Fast Facts about the Museum

Type of Museum: History and culture.

Highlights of the Permanent Collection: (a) Multimedia presentation on the history of the city. (b) Series of period rooms that immerse visitors in the daily lives of residents from the first several hundred years of the city, (c) an exhibition of toys.

Notes about Special Exhibitions: They change frequently.

Special Amenities: The website includes virtual exhibitions and a link to the online archives of the museum collections.

Admission Discounts: Seniors (reduced rate), children 12 and under (free).

Issues to Consider When Visiting: Plan on a visit of about 2 hours (give or take 30 minutes) to see most of the museum.

A bit of a walk from the subway.



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