Staten Island Children’s Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Staten Island Children's Museum

I didn’t spend much time there, but I loved Block Harbor, which combines a nautical theme with tons of blocks of all sizes and materials.

It’s taking me ages to review my last few museums. They’re mostly the children’s museums and scheduling visits with my friends with kids has proven tricky. So I was insanely pleased when I talked a good friend into taking her two kids to Staten Island with me on a gray Sunday afternoon.

The Staten Island Children’s Museum is a denizen of Snug Harbor, the former retirement home for old sailors that today serves as the borough’s convenient one-stop shop for cultural institutions, housing among other things:

Staten Island Children's Museum

Continue reading “Staten Island Children’s Museum”

American Museum of Natural History

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 168 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Who am I kidding.  I’m pondering, “What’s my favorite thing at AMNH?” when there’s no way I would pick anything besides the dinosaurs.  Triceratops was my favorite as a kid. Undoubtedly were I cooler I would’ve picked a carnivore.  But whatever.  Triceratops it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about space. 

‘Space,’ it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

I quote that not because the American Museum of Natural History is home to the Hayden Planetarium, a great place to learn about space.  Although it is. Instead I quote it because at 111,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet), the American Museum of Natural History is big.  Really big.  You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Hayden Planetarium

And yet, whereas space is mostly utterly empty, so empty that stars and galaxies and planets and museums and all lesser matter is basically a rounding error on the emptiness of the vacuum, the American Museum of Natural History is almost always totally full.  Of kids and harried parents.

Mindbogglingly full.  All sucked in by the vast gravity of its impressive, unparalleled displays of taxidermied animals, dinosaur fossils, the wonders of space, gems, minerals and meteorites, artifacts and every other thing scientific-type people have sorted, classified and analyzed over the past century and change. Continue reading “American Museum of Natural History”

National Museum of Mathematics

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 137 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Museum of Math puts model racing cars on a Möbius strip track and lets kids drive them round and round.

National Museum of Mathematics - MoMath - New York
Möbius racing car track

The depiction and the accompanying explanation of how one-sided shapes work are rich and complex, and epitomize the museum’s approach to learning.

The National Museum of Mathematics (or, inevitably, MoMath, sigh), occupies two floors of a deep, somewhat narrow storefront on the northern border of Madison Square Park.  You know you’ve reached the right place because the door handles form a red letter π.

Automated vending machines dispense unique, reusable tags for visitors to wear.  There’s a lot they could do to customize the visitor’s experience based on the tags.  Possibly the things generate a useful datastream showing visitors’ paths through the museum and the exhibits they try or skip.  I hope they do, at least; I didn’t see much in the way of visitor-facing uses of them.  In which case why not use a traditional sticker or little metal badge? Continue reading “National Museum of Mathematics”

FDNY Fire Zone

 

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  *
Time spent 77 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
FDNY Fire Zone
Keep Back 200 Feet

These toddler-sized fire-engine-red longjohns, with “keep back 200 ft.” on the rear.  Sound advice!

FDNY Fire ZoneTucked into Rockefeller Center, the Fire Department maintains a small kid-oriented presence called the FDNY Fire Zone.  The Fire Zone consists of a modest-sized space with all sorts of fire equipment lining one wall, an old fire truck (at least, the cab of it and a slice of the back part), huge numbers of patches, given or traded from fire departments the world over, and a gift shop about the same size as the exhibit space.

The Fire Zone offers occasional fire safety demos (for a fee), and it is staffed by a guy running the shop and a fire fighter who is happy to answer questions about the items on display.  I got to talking with him about the communications gear in the truck (very outdated according to him) and the pros and cons of GPS, which the Fire Department does not use.

FDNY Fire Zone

Where’s the Fire?

My grown-up reaction to the Fire Zone was disappointment.  I wrote it off, and was ready to move on to other things in five minutes.  But the group of three kids I borrowed for the visit loved it.  Gear to look at.  Heavy fire jackets to try on. A fire truck they can get inside and pretend to drive?  Best. Thing. Ever.  They would’ve stayed there all day, maybe.  We grown-ups talked about museums and joined in the kids’ intense pretending periodically.

FDNY Fire Zone

Therefore I’ve asterisked my “Should You Go?” rating for this place. Any grown-up not in need of any Fire Department-branded gifts can skip this place.  At least one of the visitors while I was there worked as a fire fighter and seemed to enjoy talking shop with the FDNY officer on duty.  So amend that: fire fighters might derive value out of a visit.

FDNY Fire ZoneHowever, if you have kids roughly 4-8 years old, the story differs dramatically.  In that case the Fire Zone merits 4 Met buttons for visitability.  For anyone with young kids interested in firefighters or fire trucks (and what young kid isn’t?), this place will seem ultra-cool, with a whole truck to play in and around.  It’s a rare free, indoor play space. While it is somewhat commercial (there’s that gift shop after all), it’s not nearly as commercial as say the other kid-friendly indoor spots near Rockefeller Center, the Nintendo or Lego stores.

For any grown ups interested in fire departments and fire fighting, I strongly recommend the Fire Museum in SoHo, but you can safely stay out of the Zone.

FDNY Fire Zone

For Reference:

Address 34 West 51st Street, Manhattan
Website fdnysmart.org/firezone
Cost  General Admission:  Free.  Fire Safety Demo $6

 

Queens County Farm Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In the dormant children’s garden, the sign for Egyptian walking onions, which I learned are a type of perennial onion.

Queens County Farm Museum
Walk Like An…Nevermind

Queens County Farm MuseumThis is a necessarily incomplete review.  Visiting a “farm museum” in midwinter is not a recipe for seeing the place at its best, busiest, or most inviting.  Indeed, I’m not sure why the Queens County Farm Museum doesn’t just shut down from December til March.  But it was open and it’s on my list. So I gathered an intrepid friend and we trooped out to the far eastern fringes of Queens, where New York City blurs into Nassau County, to get the lay of the land.

I imagine this place exists mainly so that city kids can learn that chickens come in forms other than McNuggets and wool doesn’t start out life as a sweater.  And I bet most visitors arrive on school buses.

The Farm in Winter

Queens County Farm MuseumI’m sure that in more clement seasons the 40+ acres of grounds are verdant and bucolic.  This time of year, not so much.

Queens County Farm Museum
Alpaca Truths

On a winter weekday, the only things to see are the livestock and some dormant farm equipment.  A couple of alpacas, some goats, a few sheep, a couple of cows, and a whole flock of laying hens.  Indeed on that last point, you can buy farm fresh eggs at the gift shop when it’s not winter (hens apparently don’t do much laying in cold months).  You can also get farm-fresh honey and alpaca yarn at the gift shop.

Queens County Farm Museum
Urban Chickens

As I was flying the coop a touring school group came crowding around to look at the birds.  One kid asked if he could pet them, the answer to which was a resounding “no!”  Chickens like to peck.  And as I got further away I thought I heard a kid say “KFC! KFC!” However, I was almost out of earshot.  It might have been “I can’t see!  I can’t see!”

Queens County Farm Museum

A Little History

The origins of today’s farm museum extend all the way back to an actual farm founded in 1697, though there aren’t any physical traces from that era.  The grounds do still have an historic house belonging to the Adriance family, dating to just before the American Revolution.

Queens County Farm Museum

The Adriances kept the place in their family for about a century, before it passed quickly through a succession of other farming families, and from there to the Creedmoor State Hospital, which owned and operated it from 1926 through the 1970s.

Creedmoor is a nearby psychiatric hospital associated with this and another New York museum, the Living Museum (review coming very soon).  Creedmoor used the farm for rehabilitation and to grow food for patients, and flowers and ornamental plants to brighten its campus.

As Creedmoor’s population shrank, it had less need of its own farm, and so the place spun off into a museum in 1975.

Should You Visit the Farm?

The Queens County Farm Museum website claims that its receives 500,000 visitors annually, making it “the highest attended cultural institution in Queens County.”  I feel skeptical about the superlative given that the borough is home to New York’s great contemporary bastion of tragedy (and occasional farce), Citifield.  But it likely is the highest attendance of a Queens County museum.

Regardless of the myriads of others who go, should you?

Certainly you shouldn’t visit the farm in the dead of February.  Most of the buildings are shut down, there’s no public greenhouses like the New York and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens or Wave Hill have, and the various zoos offer more convenient places to encounter a goat if you feel inclined to do that.

Queens County Farm Museum
For de-goating yourself

I felt disappointed in the place from a learning perspective; I wanted more in the way of explanatory texts. Even with fields fallow, the place could explain what farms do during the winter. But perhaps they have an awesome brochure, or do a great guides/docents/explainers program in warmer seasons.  I will have to come back.

The largest downside to the Queens County Farm Museum is its location. For anyone coming from more central parts of the city it’s decidedly inconvenient.  You have to really want to go (and ideally have a car).

Additionally, I didn’t see much attraction for grown-ups. Buying farmstand stuff grown right there would be neat, but New York these days is blessed with an abundance of farmers markets offering terrific produce.  But I reckon the Queens County Farm Museum offers a fascinating and eye-opening experience for city kids.  And New York has nothing else quite like it.

Queens County Farm Museum

For Reference:

Address 73-50 Little Neck Parkway, Floral Park, Queens
Website queensfarm.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free
Other Relevant Links

 

Children’s Museum of the Arts

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 140 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned “Home Decoration Confusion,” by Ellen Harvey.  A spare modernist dollhouse crammed with fancy wallpapers and chandeliers and such, from the ornamentation exhibit. 

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan

Children's Museum of the Arts, ManhattanThe Children’s Museum of the Arts is my first review of a New York children’s museum. While I like to think I’m unusually immature for my age, I feel I should have an actual member of the intended audience help calibrate my impressions of these places. And so I enlisted the aid of an eight-year-old friend, whom I’ll call “Zed,” and his mom, who kindly visited with me.  Thanks!

Located near Tribeca, the Children’s Museum of the Arts consists of a set of activity spaces arranged around a central open area. Kids have a wide choice of art projects, some of which require signing up in advance, others you can just walk in and do. On the day we visited the art options included:

  • Making miniature clay figures
  • Fun with sound and audio recording
  • Bending wire into words or shapes and then making prints from it
  • Painting wintry scenes
  • Creating stop-motion animation

Helpers for all the activities we did were terrific — patient and engaged and full of fun and helpful ideas when needed.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
The Popular Clay Bar

In addition, there’s a specialized studio just for very young folks, where kids and their caregivers can collaborate.

The museum also has a neat mezzanine space with big windows onto the lobby and facing outside, filled with giant blue foam blocks of all shapes and sizes, where kids can build and destroy and generally rampage to their hearts’ content. I didn’t get the purpose of that at first, except to ensure the mixing of kid germs as much as possible.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Blocky Chaos

However, Zed observed that he found it valuable. After concentrating on making a lengthy stop-motion video, he needed a place to blow off some steam before he was ready to engage in something else that required focus. So, good job on the museum to have thought of that. However, Zed also pointed out that he thought some kids would spend their whole visit just playing in there, not doing any of the art stuff.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Space for a Time Out

And finally there are some private rooms where you can book art parties, as well as a “quiet room” with a few picture books, presumably for time outs.

Ornaments (Not the Christmas Kind)

Ornament is Crime, Children's Museum of the ArtsThis place is primarily an activity center; I’m almost a little skeptical of calling it a “museum.” But it does have some art installations. Indeed, the open connector space between the various activity studios housed an exhibit on called “Ornamentation and Other Refrigerator Magnets” by Ellen Harvey. I found it quite clever, although I think it’s a little more to a grown-up’s taste than a kid’s. For example, there’s a witty display of books riffing on modernist architect Adolph Loos’s lecture on “ornament and crime,” perched on the fanciest shelves imaginable.

Children's Museum of the Arts, ManhattanI’d wager that most kids who visit this place don’t give the art a look at all.  But engaging a kid in a conversation about stuff that’s fancy versus stripped down, and why some things are very decorated versus not so much, probably works well. It’s straightforward, and most kids will have some experience of that contrast, and possibly even an opinion about it.

Moreover, I respect the museum for (a) placing the wall texts down at kid-eye-level, (b) not oversimplifying the descriptions too much while (c) including a mini-glossary with each wall caption. Terms explained on various wall texts included “dictator,” “chic,” “hermitage,” “naturalistic,” and “stylized.” It was really well done, and again demonstrates the Children’s Museum curators considering their audience.

Another art installation featured a hallway full of flowers and plants and other organic forms all cut out of denim by British artist Ian Berry. I’m not sure I get it; why denim? But it was rather pretty just the same.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Denim Art

A Zed’s Eye View of the Children’s Museum of the Arts

Zed and I discussed his impression of the museum afterwards. He really liked it, and said he both learned stuff (like how tedious it is to make a stop-motion animation) and had fun (particularly in the room of soft bricks).

Zed made several things, including a pastel drawing of a “spider-mobile.” I would’ve thought that as a New Yorker Spider-Man would just take a Lyft or Via where he needs to go, or the subway. But Zed disagrees.  He singled out the art studio as his favorite part, because he liked having a broad choice of materials to work with, and the freedom to create what he wanted to create.

Spider Mobile
“Zed,” “Spider-Mobile Worldwide,” 2018, pastel on paper

His one caveat in terms of recommending the place was that he thought it best for “friends who don’t act like they have ADHD.” An interesting (and deliberate) choice of phrasing, but it conveys his point, and I agree. The CMA demands some focus and concentration from its young visitors, so those who are challenged by that may not find it fun. For most kids, though, it’s a good place to spend an afternoon experimenting with different artistic types and techniques.

I made about 5 seconds of this video (the bit starting at 0:35):

One final note: the Children’s Museum of the Arts lacks a cafe — be sure to bring some juice boxes or a snack or something. Alternately, if your kid, like Zed, is both sufficiently mature and obsessed with cars, there’s a very nearby Joe Coffee located inside the Cadillac showroom. So kids (or grown-ups, even) can ogle some extremely fancy cars while enjoying a post-museum snack.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan

For Reference:

Address 103 Charlton Street, Manhattan
Website cmany.org
Cost  General Admission:  $12
Other Relevant Links

 

Lefferts Historic House

 

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 29 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Lefferts Historic House
Wormwood!

Leffert’s House has a scraggly little wormwood plant growing in its garden.  Artisanal Brooklyn absinthe, anyone?

 

Lefferts Historic HouseLeffert Pieterson, a Dutch farmer, obtained a tract of land in the village of Flatbush in 1687, and built himself a house there.  That original Lefferts homestead was burned by the Americans just before the Battle of Brooklyn, to prevent the British from seizing and using it.  However, Pieter Lefferts, in the fourth generation of a family that as some point reversed names, rebuilt a fine farmhouse for himself and his family in 1783. Continue reading “Lefferts Historic House”

New York Hall of Science

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 135 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Hall of Science boats a small outdoor rocket garden, with a Gemini Titan 2, a Mercury-Atlas D, and a reproduction Saturn V engine.  

Mercury Atlas D Rocket, New York Hall of Science
Fly me to the moon…or at least orbit

Very big science, and a reminder that we sent the first astronauts to space strapped to the top of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

New York Hall of ScienceFlushing Meadows Corona Park is strewn with relics from New York’s two great World’s Fairs, in 1939 and 1964.  While the Queens Museum is the last building still around from 1939, the nearby New York Hall of Science is a notable survivor from 1964. Today, the Hall of Science is sort of a patchwork of old-school science museum and hip, modern, interactive experience.  To wit, it kinda wants to be called “Ny-Sci,” though I don’t want to call it that.  Its home is a similar patchwork–at times I couldn’t figure out what parts of it are midcentury versus later additions.  

World's Fair at New York Hall of Science, Queens
1964 World’s Fair Display

Continue reading “New York Hall of Science”

Waterfront Museum

Edification value 2/5 
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 28 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I perused an article on the Waterfront Museum in “Hidden Places Magazine.” A bit of googling suggests it only published a single issue, consisting of the glossiest, most fashionable Red Hook promotional material ever created.

Waterfront Museum, BrooklynDavid Sharps is an adventurer, circus performer, and raconteur and seems like a very nice man. He’s certainly brave. He and his family have lived in a wooden barge, currently docked in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, since the 1980s.

It’s a life I find hard to imagine, and one that definitely affords a unique perspective on New York Harbor.

The barge itself is adorable — painted red, emblazoned with its name, “Lehigh Valley No. 79.” It dates to 1914, when longshoremen used thousands of craft like it to ferry cargo from large, deep-water ships in the harbor to railroad cars on the shallow New Jersey side of the Hudson.

Sharps discovered the dilapidated barge mired in the mud in New Jersey. Reportedly the very last of its kind, he got the Lehigh Valley floating again, and he’s been fixing it up ever since, docking in various places around the harbor. He launched the museum in 1986. Continue reading “Waterfront Museum”

New York Botanical Garden

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 176 minutes (including lunch) — I could easily spend a whole day
Best thing I saw or learned The display of plant carnivores:  flytraps, sundews, pitcher plants.  My favorite members of the floral kingdom.

Carnivorous Plants, New York Botanical Garden
Chomp!

New York Botanical GardenBoth New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike tend to think of the Bronx as entirely, unremittingly gray: paved urban overdevelopment at its very worst. In reality, the Bronx features large expanses of green.

  • Pelham Bay Park (home to the Barstow-Pell Mansion) is the largest of the city’s parks.
  • Van Cortlandt Park (home to the eponymous house) is also sizable.
  • Wave Hill and the other verdant bits of Riverdale along the Hudson are beautiful.
  • Woodlawn Cemetery recently got certified as an arboretum.
  • And let’s not forget the Zoo.

But of all the many green spaces the Bronx has to offer, the most beautiful must surely be the New York Botanical Garden.

Chihuly at New York Botanical Garden
Herbarium and Library, Fountain, Glass Art

The New York Botanical Garden dates to 1891 and sprawls across 250 acres. (Don’t worry, there’s a tram.) Its vast holdings include a spectacular neoclassical Herbarium & Library, and an even more spectacular glass conservatory. Calvert Vaux and the Olmstead Brothers had hands in the Garden’s design, and of course it’s hard to beat them for this sort of thing. Continue reading “New York Botanical Garden”