New York City has its iconic museums— the Met, the MOMA, Natural History, and of course the Spiraling Guggenheim. They are fantastic. But NYC has more than 80 museums across its five boroughs. Many are unique and speak to the New York experience in a way the iconic ones don’t. Some are also small enough to see in an hour or two and all are great with kids.
Here are ten lesser known NYC museums we think families should know about in case you’ve already visited the big ones, you don’t want to deal with their enormous crowds or you just want to try something a little different.
Technically, The Cloisters is an annex of the Metropolitan Museum, but it’s a world apart from it. Perched above the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park on the far upper west side, its focus is medieval art and architecture. From the time I was a teen I have loved its castle-like ensemble of namesake European cloisters, its giant unicorn tapestries and the gardens, which abound with medieval plants and herbs including elegant quince trees.
Bypass the lines at the Museum of Natural History and look for the statue of Frederick Douglas beckoning you into the New York Historical Society, my daughter’s favorite museum at the moment. The basement has a fantastic exhibit just for kids. One interactive board lets kids try their luck as hustling “newsies.” A collection of letters tell the stories of kids sent away from the crowded city for a better life out west. A reading room has a wall full of kids’ books about New York (great for a rainy day). Exhibits upstairs change but are often kid-friendly if not aimed at kids. At holiday time there is sometimes a collection of working toy trains on the first floor.
Your kids might worry that you are trying to slip learning into their glamorous New York vacation at the National Museum of Mathematics near Madison Square Park, but go anyway. Visitors can play with robots, roll over acorns, ride a square-wheeled trike and more at interactive stations that let kids solve puzzles and apply the rules of math and physics without even realizing they’re learning.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is less a museum than an interactive experience. It consists of two residential buildings on Orchard Street, one the tenement home to immigrants in the 1800s and early 1900s, the other home to a wave of newcomers after World War II. Take a guided tour, “meet” one of the older building’s historic residents or take one of the museum’s tours of the neighborhood. All are kid friendly but follow the museum’s age guidelines, which vary depending on the activity.
Sometimes it rains when it shouldn’t or the kids are tired of sightseeing and just need to be kids. This is where the Children’s Museum of the Arts, my daughter’s former favorite museum, comes in. Tucked away on a side street in West SoHo, this small museum is all about doing stuff with your hands. Try the clay studio, the “ball room,” the preschool room with building and crafts materials or the art studio, where projects for school-age kids change daily.
George Washington was sworn in and sat as president at Federal Hall, a National Historic Site that overlooks the New York Stock Exchange. The building was also city hall, a customs house and U.S. Treasury building at various times. Take a tour if a ranger is handy and be sure to grab a junior ranger book for kids 12 and under. The building is small but the three kids I brought one day spent two hours looking around and doing activities.
The National Museum of the American Indian near Battery Park is an outpost of its namesake Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. See exhibits about indigenous cultures from across the Americas, from Alaska to the Caribbean and beyond. And also take part in special activities for families on Mondays and the third Thursday of the month.
Head to Queens for the American Museum of the Moving Image, which explores everything and anything to do with the movies. A new exhibit all about Jim Henson and his Muppets opened this spring. And an exhibit on the history of movie making technology lets kids make stop-motion films, do voice-overs and try out the earliest forms of moving-image entertainment. On weekends and school breaks there are family activities and movie showings (including lots of Henson movies recently), but they do fill up so it’s good to get an early start.
The Brooklyn Museum is a large museum with an eclectic mixture of art from most ancient to up-to-the-minute contemporary. Don’t miss the cat, bird and dog mummies in the Ancient Egypt rooms. Kids like the Rodin statues in the lobby and the Creativity Lab drop-in art program on certain Sundays. The museum is free in the evenings on the first Saturday of every month. People of all ages, including plenty of kids enjoy live music and special activities. When the kids get bored head next door to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to run around.
Bring your appetite to the Museum of Food & Drink, which is in a temporary “lab” space in Brooklyn while it finds a permanent home. The latest exhibit explores the history of the Chinese restaurant in America with 100-year-old menus, a working fortune-cookie machine and a parade of Chinese-American chefs coming thorough to do tastings. My daughter visited for the Lunar New Year last year and came home with themed crafts and a freshly made fortune cookie.
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