Best NYC Museum You Haven't Visited: New-York Historical Society

by  Paul Eisenberg | Jun 19, 2012
New York City skyline
New York City skyline / Sean Pavone/iStock

Ever try to identify all the flavors of a delicious sauce while nursing a head cold or listen to a concert while fighting off an inner-ear infection? Then you have some idea of what it was like to evaluate the New York Historical Society while chaperoning my daughter's fourth grade class.

The funny thing is, even with the eruptions of noise and unruliness and general unease that comes from watching nine-year-olds stand close to glass display cases, it was entirely possible to enjoy the museum and leave wanting more, and that’s saying something.

If like me you grew up in New York City but have never been to the museum, or if you’re visiting and had no intention of factoring the New-York Historical Society into your museum circuit, here are a few reasons to check it out.

Enormous Lincoln head. With more than ten million objects in its collection, the museum (New York’s first, by the way) has had to keep many of its treasures in offsite storage. Fortunately the Henry Luce III Center up on the fourth floor is up to the task of displaying many of them, including a full-size plaster model of Abe Lincoln’s head (pictured) made by sculptor Daniel Chester French as a study for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Finding this piece here was almost as awesome as chancing upon Lincoln’s Ford’s Theatre rocker at Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum a few weeks ago.

However, you soon realize that it makes perfect sense for the big Lincoln head to be in New York as Abe has strong ties to the city, including his 1860 Cooper Union speech that vaulted him to political superstardom. And not for nothing, sculptor French maintained an art studio in New York City, further underscoring that the museum's pieces may be national treasures, but many of them also have a little New York twist.

Queen Anne potty seat. Also in the Luce Center is a Queen Anne roundabout chair, which we were all delighted to learn had a flip-up seat affording easy access to a commode. The way my daughter earnestly recalls it, if you were in the middle of a meeting in the mid-1700s and had to go to the bathroom, you could just flip up the cushion! She makes it sound civilized and really, isn’t this what every present-day conference room needs?

New York in 18 minutes. In the first floor auditorium, a fast-moving documentary (played throughout the day) chronicles New York from its Native American beginnings to the present. As the fourth-grade has been studying colonial times, my daughter appreciated the depictions of colonial vendors selling vegetables and fabrics on the streets. Also well received were the compelling time-lapse nighttime shots of the city and Central Park’s changing seasons.

I appreciated the film’s treatment of September 11th. It illustrated the devastation and sorrow in a panorama of not-too-graphic stills that were appropriate for an audience born a year after the disaster. This measured approach is matched in the 9/11 exhibit in the entrance gallery, which includes a rotating selection of more than 6,000 photos. Most noticeable in front of the display is a door from a fire truck destroyed during the attacks. But linger for a moment and look down: included among the nine windowed “History Under Your Feet” artifacts built into the floor is a clock forever stopped at the moment the second plane hit the south tower.

Entire interactive children’s floor. One of the better-kept secrets in the city has got to be the New-York Historical Society's lower level, an interactive exhibit unveiled last November as part of the museum's three-year renovation. Geared toward children 8-13, the exhibit space focuses on the lives of historical kids, such as the immigrant newsies that my daughter knows of from seeing the ads for the Broadway show. But since our class trip group never made it to the new facility, it’ll be our first stop during our return visit.

The New-York Historical Society, hyphenated because that’s how it was done when the museum was founded in 1804, is $15 for adults, $5 for kids 7-13, and free for children under 7. There’s also pay-as-you-wish admission on Fridays from 6-8pm. And if you’re in town during Independence Day weekend, this is a logical place to celebrate American history in New York – it’ll be air conditioned, and, on July 4th, free to visitors under 18.

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