New York Transit Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 113 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Transit Museum could rebrand itself as a museum of advertising.  Not only have they lovingly preserved subway cars from the past century, they have kept the ads intact as well.  Each constitutes a hilarious Madison Avenue time capsule.  Remember when wine cost 98c per quart?  I sure don’t.

The Transit Museum is one of only a few New York City museums not housed in a building.  Instead, the city established it in a disused subway station in downtown Brooklyn.

Along with its satellite location in Grand Central Station, this museum features a series of exhibits covering the construction of the subway system, how the transit system responds to disasters, the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and above-ground transport in New York, from horse trolleys to modern buses.

Lunch pails, New York Transit Museum
Workers’ Lunch Pails and Canteens, from the building of the subway


But the real heart of the Transit Museum resides downstairs on the subway platform.  There, you can visit lovingly restored El and subway cars from every era of the transit system’s evolution.  Marvel at these steel boxes, with their incandescent lights, exposed fans, rattan seats, and hanging hold-straps.  About the only historic subway feature not documented is the graffiti. I suppose not enough time has passed… The MTA can’t wax nostalgic about tagged trains, at least not yet. And it certainly doesn’t want to encourage anyone.

Vintage Subway Car, Transit Museum
BMT Q Car, 1908, rebuilt 1938

If you have ever felt curiosity about the history of the turnstile, this museum can scratch that itch. It features examples ranging from the manually operated days through modern, automated, swipe-your-metrocard marvels.  Most interesting to me was the large size, un-jump-able rotating cage, affectionately(?) referred to as an “Iron Maiden.” Apparently people sometimes got trapped in those things — horrors!

Turnstiles, New York Transit Museum

A history of the subway token half-tells the story of Silvester Dubosz, the city comptroller who in the 1980s surreptitiously had his initials carved into the token design.  Unlike City Reliquary, where I first heard that story, the Transit Museum doesn’t mention he got sacked for his ego. They also display a whole board of slugs and counterfeit tokens.

The Downside:  Kids Galore

The Transit Museum stands as one of the noisiest museums I’ve visited so far, packed with kids (including a whole birthday party) on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Can’t hold that against it; I’ve never known a kid who doesn’t love trains, and the museum caters to that audience. Though as for modern parents’ inability to keep their kids under control and well-behaved in public…well, that’s a subject for another blog.  Still, if you’re kidless, you might consider visiting on a weekday.

More than History

The Transit Museum tells the story of the city’s circulatory system — New York literally could not exist without it.  I appreciate that they focus not just on the building of the system and nostalgic old trains, but also on what it will require to keep it functioning in a world of really bad weather and really bad people. The crisis exhibit looked in turn at rebuilding after 9/11, Irene, and Sandy, as well as the blackout of 2003.

Crisis Exhibit at Transit Museum, NYC
“Bringing Back the City: Transit Responds to Crisis” Exhibit

Despite the challenges of modern times, the Transit Museum nonetheless also makes me thankful that I live today.  While paying 98c for a quart of wine appeals to me,  I can’t imagine commuting in one of those incredibly smelly, sweaty, pre-AC subway cars, dressed in a three-piece suit, with only whirring fans to move the muggy air around.  I sometimes think the “Greatest Generation” gets overly lauded, but commuters back then were made of sterner stuff than I, for sure.

A Frustrated Reviewer

The Transit Museum fulfills its mission extremely well.  It covers the things you’d expect a transit museum to, but holds surprises as well.  Although kid-oriented and very kid-friendly, it also presents topics for grown-ups to delve into as well. As I re-read this entry, I feel frustrated because I want to write so much more.  Some highlights:

  • The story of Granville Woods.  As the inventor of the “third rail” power system, he birthed a metaphor. 
  • As a trivia buff, I loved learning that on December 23, 1946, 8,872,244 people used the subway and elevated trains– a record that stands to this day. 
  • I also love Mayor Lindsay’s 1972 quote about the Second Avenue Subway line (proposed in 1919, it finally opened at the end of 2016):  “We know that whatever is said about this project in the years to come, certainly no one can say that the city acted rashly or without due deliberation.”
  • And there’s the wall of trolleys at the Dr. George T. F. Rahilly Trolley and Bus Study Center.
Trolley Models, Transit Museum
New York City Model Trolley Collection

Like the treasures of the Fire Museum, the Transit Museum presents and interprets artifacts no other institution can replicate. Anyone with kids in the city should take them.  And anyone who cares about New York history, or transportation and transit, should consider this Brooklyn hole in the ground a must-visit museum.

Historic Photo, NYC Transit Museum
Building the subway, NYC Transit Museum

For Reference:

Address Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Streets, Underground, Brooklyn
Cost  General Admission:  $10


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