A museum the city can call its own
The Museum of the City of New York, all the way up Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, is definitely a destination.
But make the trek – we’re talking figuratively, as it’s actually quite accessible – and be handsomely rewarded.
That’s because this impressive institution is devoted to all things related to New York City.
Exhibitions have put the spotlight on everything from historic happenings to fashion, economics to interior design, cultural trends to art, transportation to entertainment.
A leisurely visit on a recent morning yielded not only a glimpse of a 17th-century silver tankard and an elaborately beautiful 1880s stained-glass panel, but also an authentic stretch of 1929 ticker tape, a 1991 Nan Goldin photograph and a 2012 painting of a typically frenzied moment in Grand Central Terminal.
The Museum of the City of New York offers the proverbial something for everyone, in surroundings that embody grand New York.
The museum’s own history
The museum itself has a Manhattan home many would envy, a generously proportioned Colonial Revival building designed by Joseph H. Freedlander and completed in 1932.
A nonprofit founded in 1923, the museum was first housed in Gracie Mansion. Celebrating and interpreting the city for the benefit of residents and visitors alike, the museum remains the city’s official museum, the only one devoted to exploring all five boroughs.
Today, the museum’s collections include more than 300,000 photographs, along with costumes, furniture, decorative arts, prints, paintings, theater memorabilia, toys, manuscripts and other historical artifacts.
It’s all displayed in a setting that captivates you from the moment you enter off Fifth Avenue.
From the stately Nathalie Pierrepont Comfort staircase to the marble floors, from the large second-floor windows that look out over Fifth Avenue with Central Park beyond to the arches that tie the galleries together, there is an impressive sense of history.
Start your visit with “Timescapes,” shown every half-hour throughout the day for a fast-paced overview. This multimedia “portrait of New York” – narrated by Westchester’s own Stanley Tucci – takes you on a tour of the city over the centuries. (They pack in an amazing amount in an absorbing way, no small feat.)
Continue your visit at your own pace. Grab a floor plan and simply wander to whatever sounds interesting.
“From Farm To City: Staten Island, 1661-2012,” which recently opened, highlights changing land use in this borough; “Capital of Capital: New York’s Banks and the Creation of a Global Economy,” through Oct. 21, traces New York’s banking sector; and “Reimagining the Waterfront: Manhattan’s East River Esplanade,” through Oct. 28, looks at proposals for revitalization.
A pair of exhibits offers two must-sees – “City Scenes: Highlights of New York Street Photography” and “London Street Photography,” both through Dec. 2. These are detailed looks at each metropolis, as seen through the eyes of some of the most noted photographers.
Those with an interest in style, home design or simply a great “New York story” will want to visit “The World of D.D. and Leslie Tillett,” the first retrospective of the work of New York textile designers whose names are not really known outside the field.
Donald Albrecht – a curator of the exhibition, which opens Oct. 17 – says sharing the Tilletts’ story is a perfect example of how the Museum of the City of New York fills an important role.
“This fit into our mission,” he says. “It’s also one of those stories about people who are largely unknown….They’re predominantly textile designers, but they also did fashion.”
Their story, which sees them designing for everyone from New York-based interior designers such as Albert Hadley to the Kennedy White House, he says, is inspiring. And it also taps into today’s focus on smaller companies and artisan efforts.
“They were very much very self-made people,” he says of the Tilletts.
All exhibits, he says, relate to New York and often tell stories that never get the chance to be explored.
“What we do is we put it in a city context,” he says. And in doing that, “We’re also telling something about the city.”
Visitors can always count on some favorite exhibitions to be continuing.
Ongoing shows include “Activist New York,” a look at social activism through 14 case studies, plus “On the Move,” transportation toys from the permanent collection, and the perennial delight, the Stettheimer Doll House, an elaborate home that holds court on the museum’s ground floor.
Capping a visit
Once you’ve wandered the galleries – something that could be completed in a whirlwind or ideally, savored over a couple of hours – the museum’s amenities beckon.
Head down to the ground floor and stop in the casual café for everything from soups to prepared salads and sandwiches to baked goods and espresso beverages.
A pair of gift shops flanks the Fifth Avenue entrance. Each carry a selection of goods that range from books to puzzles, jewelry to T-shirts, prints to calendars – and plenty more.
And in nice weather, settle into a courtyard table outside to look over your brochure, which details upcoming special events. Extend the neighborhood visit with a stop at El Museo del Barrio just another block north or across from there, Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. These six acres of formal gardens feature an impressive gate. A sign tells how it once guarded the entry to the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion nearly 50 blocks south.
It’s yet another New York story, just the kind so artfully celebrated at the Museum of the City of New York.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Ave. For more details, call (212) 534-1672 or visit mcny.org.