From the Universal Hip Hop Museum to a tavern where George Washington bid farewell to his troops, the Big Apple is full of small museums
The New York City museum scene is dominated by the big-box tourist magnets where visitors can submerge themselves in treasures for entire days: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum of American Art, for example.
But those are just four in a metropolis packed with more than 200 different museums, most of which exist in the shadow of the big league institutions.
There are a few good reasons you should seek out smaller, quirkier museums on your next visit to the Big Apple: a more intimate experience, often with docents leading formal and informal tours, and the chance to see parts of the city to which you normally wouldn't venture.
And a bonus: You just might gain a new appreciation for a very specific museum subject, whether that is the arcane history of the city, the roots of hip-hop or how George Washington liked to party.
1. City Reliquary
An old light from the Statue of Liberty's torch; a chunk of stone that fell off the Flatiron Building; a turnstile from Ebbets Field, erstwhile home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. These are just a few of the artefacts that make up the permanent collection of City Reliquary, a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, repository crammed with the meaningful minutiae of New York history.
"We preserve objects that people didn't want but tell a different story about the culture and history of this city," said docent Jacob Ford. Started in 2002 in the front window of founder Dave Herman's ground-floor apartment around the corner, City Reliquary is now housed in a former bodega space with a verdant back garden.
Details: 370 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn; cityreliquary.org; $7/$5
2. Universal Hip Hop Museum
There are many reasons to visit the Bronx, including Yankee Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden and Arthur Avenue, a far better "Little Italy" than the one in Manhattan.
Another reason? This museum dedicated to the history of hip-hop.
Set in a temporary home in the South Bronx, the Universal Hip Hop Museum will make you want to wave your hands in the air (and yes, you'll also want to wave them like you just don't care). It features a rotating array of curios from the genre's history, including audio samples, videos of early rap luminaries such as Grandmaster Flash, and fliers promoting DJ and MC sessions in the Bronx from the late '70s and early '80s, before hip-hop became a global phenomenon.
Until the state-of-the-art building is erected across the street in 2024, the museum is telling its story in instalments, currently displaying posters, videos and other remnants from 1980 to 1985. Starting in January 2022, the exhibit will shift to the years 1986 to 1990.
Details: 610 Exterior St., Bronx; uhhm.org; $10
Is there an unwritten rule that a museum has to be housed in a grand neoclassical building or a structure designed by a famous architect? If so, don't tell that to Alex Kalman and the filmmaking brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, who saw an elevator shaft in an alley on the border between Chinatown and Tribeca in 2012 and thought: That space is perfect for a museum. Or in this case, a Mmuseumm, a little exhibition space with an extra-long name.
It's easy to at first dismiss this 36-square-foot room as a joke or some kind of publicity stunt. But the remnants on display in the diminutive elevator shaft are political, often profound and sometimes disturbing. They call it Object Journalism - objects that tell a story and how those artefacts intersect in people's lives. Items include things that were found on people of colour when they were shot and killed by the police, Islamic State currency, receipts from death row prisoners' last meals, and personal possessions found in the Sonoran Desert after mass migrations, among others.
Details: 4 Cortlandt Alley; mmuseumm.com; $10 for a private viewing for up to five people
4. Rubin Museum of Art
What started as a private collection of Himalayan art by Shelley and Donald Rubin in the mid-1970s has become a dynamic showcase for art from Asia and the Indian subcontinent, particularly that of Tibet. Each floor reveals Buddha and Bodhisattva statues from centuries past, and useful placards explaining Buddhist concepts and historical context make the Rubin an entertaining and educational spot to spend a couple of hours.
Plan your visit for Friday evening, when admission is free and the museum stays open until 10pm. The Rubin also organises meditation sessions with such luminaries such as Sharon Salzberg and Kate Johnson, among others; at the moment, the sessions are online only, but in-person events will return at some point.
Details: 150 West 17th St.; rubinmuseum.org; $19/$14
5. Fraunces Tavern Museum
On December 4, 1783, nine days after British soldiers evacuated New York City for good, General George Washington bid farewell to his troops during a feast in the second-floor Long Room at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan. The room where Washington ate, drank and celebrated is preserved in this museum, which sits above the still-operating tavern. Opened in 1762, Fraunces is the oldest tavern in the city - but not the oldest continuously open tavern. (That designation belongs to McSorley's Ale House in the East Village.)
The museum leads guests through the history of the watering hole, which has seen its fair share of momentous affairs, including the plotting of the New York Tea Party in 1774 and a meeting between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr a week before their famous 1804 duel.
Exhibitions focus on the period when America was transitioning from a colony to an autonomous nation, with rooms dedicated to Washington as well as George Clinton, the first American-born governor of New York. If all that history has built up a thirst, you only need to walk down to the ground-floor bar to party like it's 1799.
Details: 54 Pearl St.; frauncestavernmuseum.org; $7/$4
6. Morbid Anatomy Library
An offspring of the now-defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum, this 1,000-square-foot cabinet of curiosities is slated to open in a new, permanent location on September 18. It houses hundreds of, well, morbid artefacts and books, such as antiquated medical equipment, taxidermy, funereal ephemera and skeletons.
You need not have a fascination with morbid and the macabre to enjoy this space, but it might help you to better appreciate, say, the taxidermied two-headed duckling, various rubber human body parts once used for medical instruction, or the wall of books on everything from the philosophy of death to ancient funeral rites.
The museum's new facility is located in Industry City, a complex of erstwhile waterfront warehouses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that now house galleries, boutiques, restaurants, bars and, shortly, one museum of morbid mementos.
Details: 220 36th St., Brooklyn; morbidanatomy.org/library; free
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