Museum of the City of New York

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 203 minutes across 2 days.  I had a lot I wanted to see.
Best thing I saw or learned On display in “New York at its Core” show is the scrap of paper, literally the back of an envelope, on which Milton Glaser scribbled “I ♥︎NY.”  It’s such a quintessential statement it’s hard to imagine someone had to invent it, but Glaser did, in 1977.  That little idea changed the way generations of visitors think about this crazy place, and it elegantly expresses a sentiment I feel (almost) every day.

The Museum of the City of New York is an absolute treasure.  It occupies a really lovely Georgian/Federal-style building at the northern end of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue.  The Museum started out its life in Gracie Mansion, but as its collection and ambitions grew, and its directors wanted it to be more central, a move seemed prudent. 

I confess I always assumed the building was legitimately old, though on reflection that doesn’t make sense.  Who in the 1800s would build a grand federal style institutional building that far north?  The building was started for the museum in 1929, and it was completed in 1932.

For all that it’s merely fake old, it’s got one of the best staircases of any museum in the city, a super-elegant curve leading up from the ground floor.  Nowadays complemented by a terrific light sculpture. 

It also claims to have the most exciting stairwell in the city, so it’s definitely got a New Yorker’s flair for self-promotion.

Off the top of my head, other great staircases, if you’re a scalaphile or like making a dramatic entrance, can be found at the Neue Gallerie, the Czech Center, the Frick Collection (but you can’t go on it), the Cooper Hewitt, the Rubin, and of course the grand stairs at the Met (both the outside and inside ones).  Come to list them, there are a lot of great staircases in New York City museums.  But City of New York’s is still near the top.

I also have to say a word or two about typography.  Most museums manage signage and wall descriptions okay, but not great. But it matters.  City of New York does its visuals stunningly well.  Legible, fun, brash…  It  makes navigating the museum a pleasure.

The main exhibit on currently is called “New York at its Core,” a look at the full sweep of the city’s history, from the earliest beginnings to the future.  It’s extremely well thought out, covering an immense amount of content economically and judiciously.  It also makes great use of interactive features.  Person-height vertical screens in the middle of the main room feature key historical characters on a rotating basis.  Interact with a character and you get more, potentially much more, about them and their contribution.  And it’s not just human characters, you can find out about players like beavers and oysters, too.  I’m often skeptical of the value of these kinds of things. Too often they are more sizzle than steak.  But this impressed me a lot.

I can’t argue with that…

Other exhibits look at the Gilded Age, protests in New York (no small topic),  photos of Muslim life in the city, and an in-depth look at the city’s zoning laws on the centennial of the original 1916 law.

Let me underscore that.  This museum can make a visually and intellectually interesting show out of the city’s zoning laws.

Graphic showing the number of pages in NYC’s Zoning Laws, 1916-present

Then there’s the Stettheimer dollhouse, with its legit modern art.  And the cafe (great, by the way, and at the top of the grand staircase). 

And the future bit of “New York at its Core” where via touchscreen you can design a building, streetscape or neighborhood and have it rated based on affordability and livability and environmentalism.  Neat, fun, and yet again way better implemented than is typical for that sort of technology.

And finally, as I do wherever I can, I will mention Alexander Hamilton, who is present, larger than life size, on the facade.

Should you go?  Absolutely.  City of New York epitomizes great museuming in my book.  It balances edification and entertainment with great finesse, and tells the story of this place such that both newcomers and lifelong New Yorkers can get something fresh and interesting out of it.

For Reference:

Address 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $18

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