The Museum of the City of New York is a treasure trove of history, art, and culture, showcasing the rich tapestry of stories that have shaped this iconic metropolis.
Every community has a story to tell. Nowhere is that truer than in New York City, America’s largest and most culturally diverse metropolis.
No visit to the Big Apple would be complete without spending a day – or two – in the New York City Museum, or as most might call it, Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).
The city’s largest repository of historical artifacts offers the chance to experience four centuries of the human story, from the Native Americans of Manhattan Island to George Washington’s inaugural ball and Broadway’s brightest stars.
Photo courtesy of MCNY
The Museum of the City of New York traces its origins back to a stone, which a construction crew unearthed in 1904. The stone turned out to be a chunk of Fort George – a British structure from the 1700s – and was turned over to the New York Historical Society, where interested writers complained it would never be seen by the public.
For several years, newspapers like New York Herald argued that the Big Apple should a municipal museum – like its rival city, Chicago, did. None of the proposals got off the ground until 1923, when Henry Collins Brown – a Scottish immigrant, author, and champion of historic preservation – set out to create a museum that would capture the imaginations of ordinary New Yorkers.
At first, the city allowed Brown to house his exhibits in Manhattan’s Gracie Mansion, a private residence built in 1799. Brown turned out to be a better organizer than a director, and in 1926, his own board of trustees fired him and set out to build a new museum of Fifth Avenue facing Central Park.
Photo: Joseph H. Freedlander
Architect Joseph H. Freedlander – famous in his day for designing public buildings – submitted the winning design for the new museum in 1928. Freedlander envisioned a four-story building in the Georgian Colonial Revival style, with monumental columns at the entrance. Statues of Alexander Hamilton and New York Senator DeWitt Clinton were to be placed in niches in the front of the building.
Completed in 1932, the new museum opened with a small collection of artifacts which had been displayed in the Gracie Mansion. In the nine decades since then, the museum has amassed approximately 750,000 artifacts, works of art, and memorabilia.
New York at its Core exhibit
The museum was designated a New York City landmark in 1967. The Hundred Year Association of New York presented the museum with the Gold Medal Award in 1982 in recognition for outstanding contributions to New York City.
The MCNY opened its first permanent exhibit, “New York at its Core,” in 2016. The 8,000-square-foot exhibit tells the story of New York City over the span of four centuries. The exhibit’s popularity resulted in a $10 million donation from the Thompson Family Foundation in 2017.
Today, visitors are greeted by Starlight Hanging Grid II, an art installation featuring 5,283 points of light in the rotunda above the museum’s main circular staircase.
A photo from MCNY’s Photographs Collection
The New York City Museum boasts six main collections of artifacts:
1. The Photographs Collection tells the story of New York City from the 19th century to the present day in more than 400,000 prints and negatives. Many of the images were captured by famous photographers – Stanley Kubrick, for example, who worked as a photographer for Look magazine before he became the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A large part of the collection documents New York’s changing skyline from the 1960s through the 1980s.
An MCNY painting by Alice Neel
2. The Paintings & Sculpture Collection contains about 1,500 paintings spanning two centuries. Some are by famous artists like Gilbert Stuart, best known for an unfinished portrait of George Washington which ended upon the dollar bill.
You might not think of graffiti as art in the traditional sense – but the collection has more than 300 canvases and sketchbooks by contemporary graffiti artists. Among the sculptures are life casts of the hands of famous boxes such as Jackson Johnson and Jack Dempsey.
A photo from MCNY’s Theater Collection
3. The Theater Collection documents New York’s long tradition of live theater, in the form of 200,000 artifacts from Broadway productions – dating all the way back to 1785.
Along with posters and scrapbooks, the collection preserves sheet music that belonged to composer George Gershwin, handwritten plays by the Noble Prize-winning dramatist Eugene O’Neill, and scripts and other papers that belonged to actress Mary Martin.
A photo from MCNY’s Costume & Textiles Collection
4. The Costume & Textiles Collection tells the story of New York through its changing fashions, in 26,000 garments. More than a giant closet, the collection traces the dynamic relationship between socio-economic conditions and aesthetic choices in America’s fashion capital.
B.M. Cowperthwait & Co. trade card, 1882
5. The Manuscripts & Ephemera Collection contains…well, a little bit of everything. The manuscripts are fairly straightforward – historic maps and letters from famous New Yorkers.
The ephemera part of the collection touches on New York education, industry, politics, and entertainment, and ranges from pennants to restaurant menus, promotional buttons, and 1,500 colorful trade cards which advertised New York businesses in the 19th century.
Clarkson Crolius, Jr. Crock, 1835-1849
6. The Furniture & Decorative Arts Collection tells the story of New York furniture manufacturers and preserves items which belonged to famous people like Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay, DeWitt Clinton, and former New York governor-turned-presidential-candidate Al Smith. Glassmaking was one of New York’s earliest industries – dating back to the Dutch colonial days – so the museum preserves ceramics and glassware, too.
Obviously, there are too many items to be displayed at once in the museum. MCNY offers a chance to see many of these items online in its Collection Portal.
Photo courtesy of MCNY
Because the Museum of New York City features revolving exhibits, no two visits are the same. However, some of the most popular artifacts are featured in the permanent “New York at its Core.” Pieces of New York’s past you might see include:
A Lenape ceremonial club. The Lenape people were the original New Yorkers – a tribe of hunters and gatherers who lived on Manhattan Island and engaged in the fur trade with European colonists. The hickory wood club has a human face on top, with eyes made from copper salvaged from European kettles or shipwrecks.
A small chair which belonged to Sarah Rapelje, who was born in the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1625. That was one year prior to the establishment of New Amsterdam – the forerunner of New York City – by the West India Company in 1626. Rapelje is believed to have been the first child of European descent born in North America.
A set of engraved powder horns used by American colonists in the period between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War (c. 1754-1783). Powder horns were vital accessories for hunting game, but what makes these special are the scrimshawed buildings, ships, and simple rhymes like this one: “I Powder with my Brother Ball / A Heroe Like do conquer all.”
A suit worn by a guest at George Washington’s post-inaugural ball in 1789. New York City served was the nation’s first capital, and Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. president at Federal Hall on Wall Street in April 1789.
Washington did not have an official inaugural ball – the first would not be held until James Madison became president in 1809. However, George and his wife, Martha, were invited to a dance in New York City after the inauguration.
Harper’s Weekly engraving, from a sketch by H. Balling
A Jollie glass ballot box. New Yorker Samuel Jollie set out to solve the problem of ballot box stuffing in 1856 by inventing a ballot container with a transparent glass globe set in an iron armature.
The New York City Council embraced the new ballot box. While it did not prevent election fraud, the glass ballot box became a staple of 19th century newspaper cartoons that satirized New York’s machine politics.
A dollhouse like no other. Carrie Walter Stettheimer (1869-1944) spent two decades building a 12-room dollhouse with tiny crystal chandeliers, a microscopic mahjong game set, and an art gallery of modernist paintings and sculptures by famous artists like Marcel Duchamp and George Bellow. The MCNY acquired the dollhouse in 1944, and it has been a visitor favorite ever since.
Photo courtesy of MCNY
The New York City Museum is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
MCNY recommends purchasing timed tickets online before your visit. Tickets can be purchased at the door, but this can delay your entry, depending on how busy the museum is when you go. Groups of ten or more must make a reservation.
Weekdays are the best bet for avoiding the crowds. If you are visiting on a weekend, try to schedule your visit as early in the day as possible to avoid the rush. General admission for adults is $20. Young people under the age of 19 can enter for free.
For an enhanced museum experience, pay a little more for a private or group tour. The MCNY offers one-hour guided tours which include in-depth looks at five exhibits, free admission to the rest of the museum, and 15 percent discounts in the gift shop for $350.
Alternatively consider getting the The New York Pass which will grant you access to the New York City Museum alongside over 100 other attractions in the city including the Empire State Building and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
To arrange a customized MCNY tour experience, contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise you can purchase a ticket for up to 15 people on online. Enhance your tour by ordering breakfast or lunch from Chalsty’s Café in the museum’s second floor.
For educators, the MCNY offers the Frederick A.O. Schwartz Education Center digital platform with student activities and programs, lesson plans, and a virtual teaching blog for teachers. Visit the platform here.
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