I absolutely love museums; I think it’s important to learn about new things, different cultures and histories, and about the places we visit. You can find out a lot about a place through its food, its people, its architecture – but I also like immersing myself in historical museums to also understand a bit more about the places I am visiting.
I was lucky enough to have an extended stay in New York back in 2018, and during my visit managed to spend quite a bit of time in some of the amazing museums the city has to offer. Here were 5 of my favourite cultural and historical museums, which I really think are worth a visit if you have time when you’re in the Big Apple.
1. Museum of the City of New York
This was an amazing museum. There is an incredible exhibition which traces 400 years of NYC’s history. Starting in 1609 as a Dutch trading colony, through to becoming an English Imperial Port from 1664-1775, to the American revolution and tackling the challenges of growing population density, alongside constant waves of immigration from Europe, New York’s early history was one of constant change. In to the 1900s and the makeup of immigrants changed again – with more from eastern and southern Europe; tenements grew and whole neighbourhoods like Chinatown developed. In to the 1920s New York roared, with an economic boom and the skyscrapers and greater New York area starting to take shape – until the 1929 Wall Street crash abruptly ended the period of prosperity and NYC entered a depression. But yet again the city rebuilt, worked hard, fought in a world war and by the 1950s was again the capital of he world. The museum then talks through the civil rights movement, women’s rights, the Vietnam war, the growth of Hip Hop, the new immigrant economy from South America – and the atrocities of September 11th 2001. The Museum tells the city’s history in fact, through people’s stories and items. Ultimately the museum considers what New York actually is, what it means, and what the future holds.
Entrance to, and inside, the museum
It concludes that New York is a money town – a fierce marketplace. It’s also driven by people from around the world and to be a New Yorker means to be diverse, and promote and be a part of cross cultural tolerance. Density is another defining feature of NYC – the crowds, the people, and the innovations this has spurred. But finally, that New York is a city of creativity – a city of relentless constant change and energy – constantly attracting more money, more diversity, more density and continually redefining itself.
I loved it. And I learned a lot. In fact I spent an entire day there just reading and buying lots of books. Oh and the staircase was awesome.
2. American Museum of Natural History
This museum is located in the Upper West Side, and so is perfect to combine with a visit to Central Park. The museum is dedicated to cultures, the natural world and the known universe – it is absolutely incredible and again, you could easily spend a whole day here.
Entrances to the Museum
There is so much to see – from the Human Origins and cultures halls (covering everything from Asian, African and Central American heritages, to the Plains Indians and development of humans themselves), to the Mammal halls exhibiting animals from all over the world, to the Fossil Halls, Planetary Science Halls, Birds and Repitles Halls and the Biodiversity and Environmental Halls. Also on site is the Rose Center for Earth and Space, as well as the Hayden Planetarium where you can sit in the giant dome and watch incredible shows taking you around the universe. A lot of the museum is interactive and super engaging so great for kids and adults alike.
3. Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Traditionally, the Lower East Side was an immigrant, working class neighbourhood. Originally New Amsterdam covered this area, with the bulk of early settlers being Dutch. Then in the late 19th/early 20th century, again the bulk of immigrants to the city came to the Lower East Side, moving into the crowded tenement buildings there. Part of the area became Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), and this was followed by groups of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Eastern European Jews, Russians and Ukrainians. By 1920, the Jewish neighbourhood was one of the largest of these ethnic groupings, and this heritage can still be found in the area today.
Since the 1960s, the area has been settled by immigrants primarily from Latin America. Today it’s a predominantly a Puerto Rican and Dominican community, and this diverse history of immigration is what makes the Lower East Side so special.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum preserves this heritage. It is actually housed in two preserved tenement buildings which were home to c.15,000 people from over 20 countries between 1863 and 2011. The museum promotes understanding and you can tour the tenement buildings on various experiences, including learning about the earliest immigrants, Holocaust survivors, Latin American immigrants, Chinese residents and much more.
The tours enable you to enter the restored tenement building (as it would have looked at the time). I took the Under One Roof tour which told the story of The Epsteins, Velezes and Wongs who had all lived at the address in different times, in different circumstances. There are many more tours on offer to suit you interests – this museum was actually my favourite in New York so I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Inside the museum
4. 9/11 Memorial and Museum
What is there to be said about this museum that hasn’t already been said. Visit it, be moved, be shocked, cry – and most importantly pay your quiet respects to the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 that shocked the world. The museum and memorial are beautifully done as a tribute to ensure those who lost their lives are never forgotten. I was teary the whole way round and also learned a lot about the politics and the build up to the attacks that I hadn’t really appreciated before. Given everything going on in the Middle East at the moment, I really worry about where we will end up again.
Reflection pool (L) and vehicle destroyed by the explosions (R)
5. Museum at Eldridge Street
Learn about New York’s Jewish community at the synagogue on Eldridge Street. This Synagogue, opened in 1887, is one of the first in the USA by Eastern European Jews, and one of the founders was Rabbi Eliahu the Blessed who was previously Head Rabbi of St Petersburg in Russia.
The Synagogue thrived but after the Great Depression was used less and less. Eventually it became in need of serious repair, and was closed for renovation for 20 years, then reopened in 2007 after US$20 million of renovation as the Museum at Eldridge Street. The museum offers informative tours that relate to American Jewish history and the history of the Lower East Side and immigration. Again it really is worth a visit and at least a few hours of your time. Plus the blue window of the interior is absolutely stunning
Outside and inside the amazing museum
My ultimate takeaway from all of these museums is that New York is a melting pot- of cultures, people, creativity and diversity. Where I live in the UK, things stay pretty stable. My partner’s family have lived in the same 10 mile radius for 8 generations, and that’s pretty common. But in New York it’s constant change, constant innovation, constant hard work and changing population dynamics.
It’s an amazing city really – and I can see why people are so proud to be New Yorkers. It would be way too exhausting for me though, and after an amazing break in the city I was glad to get home to my rural, quiet life in England with no traffic, rolling fields, clean air and hedgehogs in my garden and reminisce on my time there. You can read my posts on NYC here:
Thank you for reading – I hope this post is helpful if you’re looking to learn something while in New York; or if it’s just raining and you need something to do indoors to stay warm and dry! Stay safe and happy travelling everyone.