NY Museum Update – April 2021

It has been a while. But as things start to look (cautiously) up again, it feels like a good moment to end my Museum Project’s long hiatus, assess where things are, and hopefully point toward an optimistic future for museums.

To start, I took a quantitative look at where the New York museum world stands as of thirteen months after everything hastily shut down. 

The news isn’t great, but it could definitely be worse.

The Numbers, April 2021

  • 106 museums, or 53.5% of all the museums in New York, are currently open.
  • 7 museums are temporarily closed, generally not COVID-related.
  • 2 museums are closed and seeking new spaces. I’m treating these as “permanently closed” though hopefully they’ll be back.
  • 1 museum has permanently closed for non-COVID reasons: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has ended its Met:Breuer experiment.
  • However the Met’s loss is the Frick’s gain, as the Frick Madison counts as a new (albeit temporary) museum.
  • 1 museum, Art in General, has permanently closed due to COVID.
  • That leaves 81 museums, or 40.9%, closed due to the pandemic but, at least theoretically, planning to open again as things improve.
  • One museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, has reorganized, merging with the Brooklyn Public Library to become the Center for Brooklyn History. I’ll be curious to see what it’s like when it reopens.

For those who like pie charts, here’s what the numbers look like:

Pie chart depicting New York museums

Even museums that are open are very different experiences than they were a year ago. The vast majority of New York institutions today require advance reservations or ticket purchases, usually for specific entry times. It’s a challenging moment to just drop into a museum on a whim. Very definitely visit a museum’s website or social media before you attempt to visit the place itself. Still, it’s nice that even some smaller, quirkier gems (welcome back, City Reliquary and Nicholas Roerich Museum) have survived. And we will hopefully see more spaces reopen their doors in the coming weeks and months.

To view a list of all the open museums, visit my database page.

The Museum Emoji Guessing Game

An offhand remark I made in my review of the The Statue of Liberty Museum got me thinking about emoji and museums and museum emoji.  I have mixed feelings about emoji, especially as the character set nears hanzi/kanji numbers. They’re complex, and just as open to misinterpretation as any form of communication. Sometimes an eggplant is just an eggplant. On the other hand, adding a visual component to dry text communication can enrich it.  And they’re fun.

Anyway, I started pondering what some of my favorite New York City museums would be called in emoji.  And I decided, why not make a game of it?  Here’s some museums rendered emojically.  Most are pretty famous, though a couple are obscure.  

See how many you can decode! 🤔🏆 Continue reading “The Museum Emoji Guessing Game”

Nine Future New York Museums

Thinking about “future New York Museums” could inspire a ruminative, speculative essay on how the museum business will evolve over the next decade.  I certainly have some thoughts about that, given my intense museum-going over the past year.

However, I’ll save those thoughts for later.  (My essay on museums and Instagram offers a taste.)

More prosaically, as I near the end of my museum checklist, I have started to wonder about specific, new museums with plans to open somewhere in the city.  

It’s difficult to track “coming attractions.” However, the American Alliance of Museums, the body that accredits institutions for excellence, offers a good place to start.  Several future New York museums are already members there.  And that, combined with recent news coverage (and a few links from friends), leads to the following list.  It probably isn’t comprehensive, but here are 9 — make that ten– future New York museums. Continue reading “Nine Future New York Museums”

New York Museums of Excellence

Museum ButtonsWhen I first compiled my list of New York museums, one of my sources was the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).  Trade associations, I love ‘em. The Alliance accredits worthy institutions.  However, its website describes an AAM Continuum of Excellence rather than a black-and-white, accredited-or-not dialectic.

Indeed, the AAM offers a variety of options for museums short of full accreditation.  The simplest simply being signing a Pledge of, well, Excellence.  AAM maintains a list of museums that have signed the Pledge and/or proceeded further along its Continuum, up to and including full accreditation. Continue reading “New York Museums of Excellence”

New York Museums of African-American History and Culture

Lawdy Mama, 1969, Studio Museum in Harlem
Barkley L. Hendricks, “Lawdy Mama,” 1969, Studio Museum in Harlem

For anyone seeking ways to celebrate Black History Month besides seeing “Black Panther,” I’ve compiled a list of New York City’s African-American museums.  As an aside, I’m not sure seeing “Black Panther” actually counts, but I went today and it was awesome.

Of course, many of the city’s general arts and cultural institutions feature African-Americans as part of their permanent collections and in temporary exhibitions.  For example you could pay homage to the Obamas, Beyoncé, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others at Madame Tussaud’s.  Or visit Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for its tour visiting Duke Ellington and other great African-American “residents.”

New York has nine museums devoted to African-American culture, art, and history. I reckon that seven are well worth a visit, whatever month you happen to read this.

I’ve also included an addendum of two non-African-American places and a “maybe.”  These are less appropriate but may still merit visits to ponder black history.

Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona, Queens
Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s Home in Queens

I Recommend

African Burial Ground National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument

African Burial Ground National Monument, Lower Manhattan. A solemn and dignified memorial to the pre-Revolutionary War black experience in New York City.

Lewis Latimer House, Flushing, Queens — A tribute to a largely forgotten African-American inventor, musician, poet, and general Renaissance guy, who worked with Edison perfecting the light bulb and became an important executive at GE.

Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona, Queens.  One of the city’s best house museums and a tribute to a truly singular, titanic genius of music history, and the modest life he and his wife led in Queens.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem. An essential resource for black history, literature, and the arts. Leverages the New York Public Library’s supreme skill at curating shows that use primary documents to bring history to life.

Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem. A fantastic collection and great space make this a must-visit institution for African-American art in New York City.

Weeksville Heritage Center, Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Historic houses and a sleek, modern visitor’s center commemorate Weeksville, an African American community started in the 1830s.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
From Black Power!, Exhibition at the Schomburg Center, March, 2017

I Don’t Recommend

National Jazz Museum, Harlem.  An institution with grand ambitions hampered by limitations of space and capability. Jazz may just not work well in the confines of a museum.

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), in Downtown Brooklyn, has a great name, but a small space that doesn’t suit its mission statement or its ambitions. So I can’t recommend it.

Sandy Ground Historical Society, Staten Island. Sandy Ground was an early African-American community. I tried, unsuccessfully, to visit this place this week. It’s a huge trek to get somewhere not reliably open during its ostensible open hours. Check out Weeksville in Brooklyn instead.  Sandy Ground’s website is here.

Addendum:  One “Maybe,” Two “Others”

Fraunces Tavern Museum, Lower Manhattan.  This is my “maybe.” Some reckon that Samuel Fraunces, saloonkeeper, spy, and aide to Washington, was black. Mainly because his nickname was “Black Sam.” However, there’s little solid evidence for this claimed racial background, and most historians seriously doubt it. Still, ‘maybe.’

General Grant National Memorial, Morningside Heights, Manhattan.  Obviously Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t an African-American, but in an era when some parts of this country still can’t seem to get rid of Confederate monuments, why not visit one of New York’s greatest monuments to the victors in the Civil War?

King Manor Museum, Jamaica, Queens. Rufus King was not an African-American either, but he was an early, persistent voice against the compromises that the framers of the Constitution made allowing slavery in the infant United States. His historic home today serves as a monument to an early abolitionist.

Bonus Museum

Okay, I’ve got one more, but it’s not a physical place.  I feel compelled to add the Museum of UnCut Funk, a virtual institution that co-presented the Finance Museum’s great exhibit on blacks on U.S. currency.  As surely the funkiest museum in the world, I highly recommend visiting it online, even if it’s not technically in New York.

A Museum Year in Review

Happy New Year

I’m getting a bit of a late start in 2018. I blame the insanely cold East Coast weather.  Still, here’s an obligatory year-in-review post to wrap my adventures in 2017.

Since starting this expedition last March, I’ve reviewed 144 museums. Overall averages continue to be right around, well the average.  Across all the museums I’ve visited, the average education score was 3.06, entertainment 3.09, and “should you go?” rating 3.22 (on a scale from 1 to 5).

My average time spent per museum works out to about 1 hour and 3 minutes, for a cumulative total of 6 days and 6 hours and 58 minutes spent at museums I’ve reviewed this past year.

Cumulatively I’ve spent $364 on museum admissions for my 2016 reviews, or an average admission price of $2.53.  I’m sure that will increase as I’ve saved some high-cost museums for the latter part of the project.

Wyckoff House Christmas Tree
Wyckoff House Christmas Tree

By Borough

Borough Museums Visited Percent of Total Average Edification Average Entertain-ment Go?
Brooklyn 14 61% 2.71 3.21 3.21
Bronx 15 100% 3.33 3.20 3.33
Manhattan 89 77% 3.14 3.02 3.26
Queens 19 82% 2.84 3.32 3.00
Staten Island 8 67% 2.88 2.88 3.13

At this point, Bronx museums slightly outscore those of the other boroughs.  I’m surprised by that, but then again, the Bronx today quietly punches above its weight in many ways.

Wave Hill, Bronx, New York
Fall foliage at Wave Hill, a standout among the Bronx’s surprisingly great museums

Points for Randomness

While I could focus on the greatest hits, I think it’s more fun to review the things that were most unexpected — the places I never would’ve gone except my list made me, which surprised me the most.

Truth be told, the randomest museum I’ve been to this year is one I didn’t review. While in Idaho for August’s total solar eclipse, I made a detour to the Idaho Potato Museum. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that such a place exists, giant fiberglas spud and all. But I was a little surprised that I actually liked it. I’d give it a 3 for edification, a 4 for entertainment, and a 3 for “should you go?” Assuming you ever find yourself in Blackfoot.

Idaho Potato Museum, Blackfoot, Idaho
We’re not in Gotham anymore…

Of the museums I’ve reviewed, I would say my top five for peak randomness would be:

I highly recommend visiting four of them.

What is a Museum, Anyway?

During 2017, I’ve had ample time to consider the concept of “museum.” I took a liberal definition of museum when I created my list. I continue to believe historic houses are indisputably museums. However, I don’t think it’s fair to judge botanical gardens by the same yardsticks as museums. And yet, I do think the historic cemeteries merit consideration as museums.

I had a conversation with my younger sister about the definition of museums, and how my thinking has evolved with the experience of visiting them all, big and small, mainstream and quirky. We kicked around various notions, starting from my initial idea that museums should both educate and entertain. I offered the idea that maybe they should “amuse” you.

From there I suggested that maybe they should be judged as places that cause you to muse on things.

And that in turn got us thinking (thanks, liberal arts education) about the Muses, the nine Greek divinities in charge of the arts. People talk about the Muses in the sense of having one, or of the Muse being upon them when they have a burst of creativity.

So perhaps museums shouldn’t just educate and entertain or amuse or make you think. Additionally, they should inspire. Something about that feels very right to me. I think of the people I’ve seen sketching at the Met, or those taking the Grolier Club’s life drawing and drinking class. Or myself, walking through say the Van Cortlandt House dutifully taking notes and seeking inspiration to frame a story about the place.

I briefly considered whether I should retroactively rate the places I’ve visited in terms of their inspiration levels. Fortunately, I have realized that even though it wasn’t an explicit criterion, inspiration correlates very strongly with how much I recommend visiting a museum.

The Shape of Museums to Come

It’s hard to believe I fewer then 50 museums to go in my Pokemon-esque effort to catch ‘em all. Barring something unforeseen, I should finish my last review just about a year from starting the project. I’ve deliberately left some of the biggest and most famous museums for late in this project — I have yet to write about MoMA or the American Museum of Natural History, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of those.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Met: Still To Come

If there’s one category of museum I’ve not done justice to thus far, it’s children’s museums. I worry that I’ll seem a little creepy if I go to a children’s museum sans kid. And additionally I want a young person’s perspective to inform my own reactions to how well the childrens’ museums fulfill their mandates. So I will have to borrow or rent some kids in the next few weeks to rectify that.

Anyway, happy new year, thanks for reading, and here’s to another two score and five museum reviews before I’m done.


Museums in the Age of Instagram

When I started this project I decided I’d rate museums based on standards of edification and entertainment.  That is, how much I felt educated or improved by a place, and how fun the place was. I then added a third rating based on how much I think people should visit (or not).

But in our modern social, digital age, I’ve arguably missed a vital yardstick in the assessment of museum quality: how share-able an institution makes the experience.

Continue reading “Museums in the Age of Instagram”

100 New York City Museums: Milestone Post

So. 100 New York City museums in the past 160 days.  Hitting the century mark is extremely satisfying.  Places keep surprising me, and largely for the better.  I’m not doing so well as I hoped in terms of time, but I’m doing far better than I expected in terms of money.  I’ve seen a lot of art, and a lot of maritime, um, paraphernalia, and recently much Judaica.  The Asia Society made me grumpy, while Louis Armstrong’s house filled me with delight.

Museums Visited ChartWhile it feels great to be 53 percent of my way done (tally of currently open museums:  189), there’s still a long 47 percent of the way to go.  Hopefully, like a roller coaster, now that I’ve crested the top of the hill, momentum will help carry me the rest of the way.

Let’s talk stats for a moment, shall we? Continue reading “100 New York City Museums: Milestone Post”

A Guide to Hamilton in New York City Museums

Hamilton Bobblehead, Hamilton Grange National Memorial

Alexander Hamilton.  Bastard.  Orphan.  Son of a whore and a Scotsman.  New York’s immigrant Founding Father.  The ten dollar hero and scholar. From the Caribbean island of Nevis originally, came to New York to attend King’s College (now Columbia University).  Died too young.  Never president, but who wants to be president anyway? 

As another man of humble, tropical island origins who escaped to New York–to A.Ham’s alma mater no less– I’ve always found him relatable.  Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insanely great Broadway musical, many others now do too. Continue reading “A Guide to Hamilton in New York City Museums”

Some Thoughts on Museum-Speak

Museum SpeakHaving passed the milestone of fifty museums reviewed a few weeks back, I’m beginning to have a sense of some general patterns and tendencies, both in museums themselves and in what I like (or dislike) about them. One thing that I’ve become increasingly conscious of is the peculiar language of museum-speak: the way curators write descriptions of art or artifacts.

The Tyranny of the Text

Wall texts are (almost) inescapable in modern museums.  That’s good and bad.  It’s indisputably valuable to get filled in on what you’re looking at, and much contemporary art is incomprehensible without an explanation of some sort.  And yet, sometimes I feel I’d be freer and happier without the inescapable words on the wall.  

One of the things I love about the Frick is the lack of wall texts in the permanent collection (they do succumb to using them for temporary shows).  Visitors see the art with no more than the artist and title of the work discreetly on the frame. You have to spring for a book or pick up a free audio guide if you want descriptions and context. It’s refreshing.

Exceptional cases like that aside, virtually any museum visit involves reading the walls. And art people use a standardized and specialized language that is erudite, sometimes to the point of pretentiousness, and makes significant assumptions of the reader’s baseline knowledge.

As a highly educated, privileged person, that works fine for me.  Generally museum-speak is not badly written, but frequently verbose and annoyingly stilted.  But in visiting populist museums like BRIC, El Museo del Barrio, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts (places I think of as “starter museums”), I’ve noticed that even while they are trying to reach a different audience, they usually adhere to museum-speak, a language that may not be terribly welcoming or useful to their target audiences.


Along with taking notes, I’ve been snapping pictures of wall texts as an aide-mémoire (I can be pretentious too).  That provides a bunch of text from which to draw examples.  The following, chosen pretty much at random, are pretty typical.
From El Museo:  Catalina Chervin, Songs 16 from the portfolio Canto

Inspired by artists driven by emotions like the post-impressionists, Catalina Chervin found a way of conveying this through expressionist prints.  In her own words, her work is a “manner of thinking that involves the emotions.  It is the most truthful part of my inner self.   It is like walking round the ‘edge’ of the universe that I can find only when I am working.”  The Canto portfolio is a group of images that serve as illustration for Canta! by the Jewish poet, playwright, and Auschwitz victim Itzhak Katzenelson.  The images are a mix of hard and soft ground etching, with Chervin’s signature abstract style rendered with a powerful, expressive line.

From Brooklyn:  James Hamilton, The Last Days of Pompeii

The devastation of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. was an object of popular fascination in the mid-eighteenth century.  At that time the volcano began a sustained period of renewed activity.  Simultaneously, archaeologists began excavations of the ancient buried city. The theme appealed greatly to Romantic painters on both sides of the Atlantic.  European by birth, James Hamilton had a taste for the philosophical concept of the Sublime and an obsession with the cyclical nature of societies and civilizations.  He applied these interests to the Roman Empire in The Last Days of Pompeii.”

From the Bronx, Rocio Garcia, La Nieve (The Snow), “The paintings of Rocio

Garcia employs a cinematographic sensibility to narratives tinged with sexuality, violence and eroticism.  After returning to Havana from her studies at the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia in the 1980s, Garcia embarked on a series of works that focuses on challenging the stereotyped options of womanhood and the female figure, as well as masculinity and homosexuality.  [more description omitted]

None of these is terrible writing (though equally none of them is great).  But all could be rewritten to be more active, more concise.  Caption writers could help someone who doesn’t know what “expressionist” means or who the post-impressionists were, who might find it easier to understand “the volcano started erupting regularly” as opposed to “sustained period of renewed activity,” or who would get “like the movies” but might have trouble saying, much less understanding, “cinematographic.”

Improving Museum-Speak

I have some concrete suggestions for how to make this better, and one thing to avoid.

The thing not to do is deploy multiple wall texts.  It’s condescending and unhelpful to have a high-falutin’ text and an “average person” text.  To say nothing of taking up too much space on the wall. Though sometimes separate kids’ captions are a good idea.  

Electronic screens would change this. I haven’t reviewed the Museum of Math yet, but their exhibits are all accompanied by onscreen descriptions, and a visitor can choose basic, intermediate, or math-genius levels of detail.  That’s impractical for many museums, but still an instructive example of a way to serve different audiences well.

Starter museums in particular should aim squarely at the average person with the text on the wall.  Make a cognoscenti version available in an app, or an audio guide, or some other, unobtrusive place.

Anyone writing museum wall texts should own a copy of Strunk & White, but also Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, in which he describes complex concepts using a vocabulary limited to the 1,000 most commonly used English words.  It’s a sure antidote to stilted text.  I’m not saying limit museum captions to that vocabulary; they’d sound ridiculous.  But it does concretely show that it’s possible to express complex ideas in even the simplest language.

I also think wall texts should deploy bullets and questions to succinctly make points and engage the reader.  All professional writing is going in that direction, and while some writers use those techniques badly or lazily, that doesn’t make it wrong.

Some places write captions pretty well.  Brooklyn’s Egyptian installation focuses partially around topics, both sacred and mundane.  Here’s a sample: 

The Ancient Egyptians believed that personal grooming was an essential part of good health and sexual attractiveness.  Men and women shaved their body hair and cut the hair on their heads very short or shaved it completely as a precaution against lice.  They donned voluminous wigs to signal heightened sexual interest.  Eye makeup such as kohl not only protected against sun glare–much like the lampblack used by modern football players–but also emphasized the eyes’ size, shape, and natural allure…

You get the main point right away, and you learn something about the ancient Egyptians as human beings, relatable to both running backs and drag queens.  

Although I like that phrasing even better.

All museums, even the high-end ones, would benefit from using more everyday language on their walls. As I’ve read a lot of wall text the past two months, I know I’d find it refreshing.

In addition to broader U.S. audiences, international visitors would benefit as well. I recently experienced that in reverse. I studied Japanese as an undergrad and lived there for a year.  My language skills are currently rusty to say the least.  But when I visited last fall, I discovered that I could pretty much read the kid-level museum captions. They were a great help when I visited places that didn’t feature a lot of English explanation.

Avoiding museum-speak might seem a small thing among all the other things museums are doing to attract broader audiences. But I believe it would have an outsized impact as museums preach and practice greater inclusiveness.