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A Summer Guide to New York Museums


A Summer Guide to New York Museums

No city on the planet does culture like New York. Street style and dollar slice are only half of it: nowhere else do dinosaurs, Rembrandts, and the work of Charles Eames all share the same ZIP code. But this was no happy accident. Thanks to wealthy philanthropists and some world-class curation, Manhattan island is now home to perhaps the most complete archive of the human condition ever assembled. 

From art to science to now even ice cream, New York's museums are legendary the world over. So, over my internship summer, I made it my goal to see as many of these museums as possible, casting my net wide to get the most holistic experience I could. Instead of ranking each museum against each other (a fruitless apples-to-oranges), I'll instead provide a quick review along with my highlights in the order I visited each. Whether you have time for one museum or the whole Museum Mile, let this list be a guide to the best cultural institutions New York City has to offer:

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue)

The Met. The Louvre. Musee d'Orsay. No other building in the hemisphere contains a collection as broad or as deep as the one housed here. From ancient sculpture to 3D-printed couture, the Met is to art what the Dictionary is to language: a resource, a guide, and above all else, an achievement. I can't recommend visiting enough.

My personal highlights include the Arms & Armour section, the Costume Exhibition, and this summer's rooftop "PsychoBarn" installation. Fair warning: one visit isn't enough. I've spent 4 hours exploring Floor One alone. Giving The Met its due will take days, even years. But oh, is it worth it.

2. The New Museum (235 Bowery)

The New Museum is a downtown art museum that's "downtown" inside and out. Relentlessly modern, The New is a champion of the underground: exhibitions here typically feature new artists, unconventional curation, and a focus on social commentary. Founded in 1977, it is certainly the youngest of New York's major art museums - but what it lacks in heritage, it redoubles in soul. When I visited, the New's featured exhibition was "The Keeper", an exploration of collections and those who curate them. Framed in the New's industrial-chic gallery spaces, it was a true visual treat.

Also worth mentioning: the New's top-floor SkyDeck. Your Insta will thank you.

3. The Frick Collection (1 E 70th Street) 

In the early 20th century, American industrialist Henry Clay Frick willed that his "modest" Upper East mansion be turned into an art museum upon the event of his death. A lifelong patron of the arts, Frick so loved his collection that he wanted it displayed for the benefit of all, even if he weren't there to enjoy it. In 1919, Frick passed away; his wife, Adelaide Frick, lived in the home until her death in 1931. The Frick Collection opened to the public four years later - an enduring symbol of American philanthropy, even in the midst of economic depression.

Why the history lesson? Because unlike any other museum on this list, The Frick specializes in the past. A trip to The Frick nurtures the Art History student in all of us: works by Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, and other "Old Masters" line the halls of this Gilded Age residence-turned-gallery. If you go, visit on one of the Collection's "Summer Nights." You'll enjoy live chamber music, guided tours, and even light refreshments. Visiting any time is a joy, but a Summer Night experience immerses you into the galleries like nothing else. I left with a notebook full of sketches and a head full of dreams.

4. The Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street)

New York's Museum of Modern Art is the Yin to the Met's Yang. The MoMA, as it is known, focuses exclusively on modernist art, defined as artistic works created during the period 1860 to the present. My Art History friends will tell you that modernism ended in the late 1970's and everything since is instead "postmodern", but for the sake of simplicity, just know that MoMA shows Van Gogh while the Met shows Raphael. And no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is named after a modernist.

The MoMA is in my top 3 museums of all time alongside The Louvre and London's Imperial War Museum for its utter excellence in every single dimension. The curation is arguably the best in the world - each exhibit, a story; each piece, a invaluable contribution. In addition, the variety of exhibits on display provides a holistic picture of the art affecting our world. For example, my most recent visit featured an exhibit on American multimedia artist Bruce Conner (juxtaposing nuclear weapons with satirical campaigns for local government) alongside a profile on the work of photographer Nan Goldin, whose slideshow "The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy" made waves in the New York art scene circa 1980. I promised I wouldn't editorialize much, but if you have time for a single museum during your NYC visit, make it MoMA. You won't regret it.

5. The Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (2 E 91st Street)

Finally: a museum for nerds like me. The Cooper-Hewitt is America's industrial design museum, a monument to the hidden arts that make everyday life a joy to live. As you'd expect from a museum of design, the space itself is unequivocally beautiful: you could spend a day wandering the halls alone, breathing in one big display. Take the time to dive beneath the surface, however, and you'll find a rich experience just waiting to be appreciated. I highly recommend the audio tour. Coupled with the Cooper-Hewitt's "digital pen" interactive catalog, everyone from design buffs to users of Comic Sans alike will leave feeling enriched.

My highlights were too many to count: the Thom Browne Selections, the Mid-Century Modern chairs, the two-floor exhibit exploring the very nature of objective "beauty." I'm just happy a place like this exists. Great design may be invisible, but the Cooper-Hewitt is a must-see.

6. MMuseumm (4 Courtlandt Alley)

My summer began with one of the world's largest museums, and so it ends with the smallest. MMuseumm (estd. 2012) is both the creator and sole practitioner of a curation style known as "Object Journalism." Through this practice, an era's everyday objects are synthesized into parts of a uniquely human story, much like how investigators uncover hidden truths. Billing itself a "modern natural history museum," objects on display when I visited included a collection of objects that caused bomb scares, perfume bottles shaped like women, and even currency issued by ISIS. I relished every inch, however few there were.

MMuseum's small-but-dedicated staff take immense pride in their work, and the effort shows: packed into a Chinatown garage isn't just the world's smallest museum, but the most concentrated cultural experience this side of microfilm. It's a tad too short to recommend a specific visit from out of town, but if you're in the area, take the detour. MMuseum is little; but she is fierce.

Honorable Mention: The Tenement Museum (103 Orchard St)

I technically visited The Tenement Museum before I moved in for the summer, but the experience is so uniquely and culturally "New York" that I had to mention it. If you're interested in American history, social movements, or life during the 1800's, attend a tour here. I took a guided tour through a restored Irish apartment and found the experience deeply moving. This is not "How the Other Half Lives"; it's a door into a world the books forget, but history need remember. The APUSH student in me enjoyed every minute.

Visited any of my picks? Or did I miss your favorite museum? Let me know in the comments below. Until then, enjoy the culture of the city!


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