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”

Staten Island Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 94 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I had completely forgotten about New York’s state fossil, until the Staten Island Museum reminded me.  It’s a sea scorpion or eurypterid, which I would absolutely not want to meet on a Jurassic beach.

Staten Island Museum
The State Fossil!

The Staten Island Museum started as a private pooling of personal natural history collections in 1881, opening to the public in 1908.  Currently it claims to be New York’s only truly encyclopedic museum, embracing science, history, and art.  And so it does, albeit in small doses of each.

The museum formerly resided in a classical building in St. George, near the Staten Island Ferry, until last year, when it moved to Snug Harbor.  It’s a bus or car ride from the ferry terminal, but at least the architecture is still appropriately museum-y.

Staten Island Museum

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center is Staten Island’s Mall of Enlightenment.  A Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a Children’s Museum, the fantastic Noble Maritime Collection, the hit-or-miss Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Staten Island Museum all reside within its more-or-less renovated, beautiful, Greek revival grounds and buildings. Continue reading “Staten Island Museum”

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”

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”

Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 150 minutes, including 26 queued to get in. I could easily have spent more (inside, that is).
Best thing I saw or learned Concorde, Intrepid Museum, New York

For all those who think technology progresses in only one direction, Intrepid offers a few counterfactuals, but none better than Concorde.  From 1976 until 2003, people (very few, and very rich to be sure) jetted across the Atlantic in under 3.5 hours.  I hope we see supersonic travel again in my lifetime.  But I doubt it.

Intrepid Air Sea Space Museum New YorkDriving up the west side of Manhattan helps New Yorkers exercise our jadedness.  Here’s my routine with out-of-towners. 

  • Oh, the Renzo Piano Whitney building.  I was just there the other day. 
  • Hmph, High Line.  Too crowded with tourists. 
  • Frank Gehry’s IAC Building is really showing its age, isn’t it?
  • I can sometimes be bothered to look up from my smartphone at midtown’s forest of skyscrapers.
  • Hudson Yards, a whole new city within the city, is an inconvenient and messy construction zone. 
  • And that over there?  Oh, that’s just our aircraft carrier.

I can act the part. But, oh, the Intrepid. I’m still a kid at heart. I love boats and planes and exploding things. And the Intrepid has all of that, including a Concorde, a nuclear submarine, and even a (sort of) space shuttle. I love that we’ve got an aircraft carrier, just parked next to Manhattan like its crew dropped by to see a show or go shopping on Canal Street.

As I’ve observed, New York has a glut of art museums and far too few science museums.  Intrepid is one of the latter, with a good dose of history to boot.  Partly due to supply and demand, then, there can be long lines. And it gets away with charging a hefty entrance fee.  Still, it’s worth it. Continue reading “Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum”

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 80 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The BBG’s amazing tulip collection was going full-force the day I visited. This time of year always makes me think that the Dutch 17th century tulip-mania wasn’t entirely irrational.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) is one of the two great arboretums (arboreta?) in the city.  It’s sibling/rival is the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, and there are a number of other botanic gardens of note, to say nothing of the great parks.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is also a bit problematic for me:  it was on the original list of all the museums in NYC, and even back in February I can remember thinking, “but is a botanic garden really a kind of museum?”

At best the answer is “sort of.”  I think of botanic gardens as zoos for plants, more than museums of plants.  What’s the difference?  A zoo and a museum can both be places of edification and entertainment. But I had trouble ranking BBG on the scale I’m using for this project–it didn’t turn out well, not because it’s a bad place, but because the museum yardstick doesn’t really work for it.

The great bits of the BBG are:

  • The Japanese Hill and Pond Garden
  • The Shakespeare Garden
  • The lilac hill
  • The rose garden (at its best in late spring through summer)
  • An estimable collection of bonsai
  • A fantastic cherry collection

The annual Sakura Matsuri, or Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, is a bonkers mix of cosplay and traditional dance and music. Packed with people but worth it.

Admissions line to the BBG, random spring Saturday

About the only downside of the BBG is that it can be immensely crowded.  Not the whole place of course, and not every day.  But on a nice weekend day in springtime, the picturesque parts of the gardens are packed with hipsters and others, out for an Instagrammable moment in the sun.  To the point where I wonder if it’s really worth paying $15 for an experience you could closely replicate right next door in Prospect Park for free.

I guess that’s my big point of hesitation with any botanic garden:  if you’re looking for a quiet tree under which to read a book, or spring blossoms to admire, or a place for a picnic with friends, all those things are available other, freer places, which might even be less crowded than the garden is.

Of course the garden is educational and beautiful.  

There are some art pieces by Shayne Dark installed currently (hit or miss, though I do like the faceted steel boulders), and you can definitely learn about going greener, or about desert or rainforest ecosystems in the small greenhouse the BBG maintains.  And it has a children’s garden and other educational areas as well.

Whether I’d advise going to the BBG…in some ways, of course.  It’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon outdoors. But I can’t give it an unadulterated, unhesitating “go!” recommendation, on two counts.

First, the aforementioned over-crowdedness.  The garden is at its peak of beauty in springtime, but it’s also at its peak of annoyingness.  Any other season, on a day with nice weather, I’d say it’s worth it.  But in springtime, I’d regretfully advise avoiding it on weekends. Or at least go forewarned.

Second, if you only have time or desire to visit one botanic garden in New York City, go to the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx instead.  It is much bigger, usually less crowded, the greenhouse environments are larger and prettier, and the spring flowers are more spectacular.  It can’t match Brooklyn on cherries, but it has a whole hill of crab apples that this time of year are magnificent.  It’s got the last patch of old-growth forest inside the city limits.  It’s got a waterfall.

So BBG, with its convenience both a blessing and a curse, should be your second botanic garden visit.

For Reference:

Address 990 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn (convenient entrance on Eastern Parkway near the Brooklyn Museum)
Website bbg.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15
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