New York City Police Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 20 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned New York City Police MuseumFrom the 1940s until the 1970s, policewomen in New York received these combination makeup and weapon holsters.  So practical!

New York City Police MuseumThe Police Museum is currently in flux.  Formerly housed near City Hall, it’s been homeless since Sandy.  For the moment, it’s found space on Governor’s Island, where a scaled-down version tells a few selected stories of Gotham’s police force.

It’s in Pershing Hall, a beautiful, well-preserved, historic building, with two odd flags outside.

  • The green, white, and blue one is the flag of the NYC Police Department — five stripes for the five boroughs, and 24 stars for the 23 towns and villages that make up NYC, plus one for the city as a whole.  I’m not making that up.
  • The other flag (a black and white U.S. flag with one blue stripe) is the “thin blue line” representing police pride nationally.  That’s a fraught topic these days, given the uneasy relations between many communities and their police forces.

New York City Police MuseumThe building interior is great.  The museum’s rooms are well preserved, featuring pretty molding.  And the hallways hold interesting 1930s-era murals depicting American military heroism, including a dashing Theodore Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.

Theodore Roosevelt on San Juan Hill, Mural at NYC Police Museum

What’s on View

New York City Police MuseumThe Police Museum’s small space focuses on a few main stories.  There’s an interesting exhibit on the history of women on the New York City police force.  It’s a somewhat funny look at how attitudes towards women as police officers have changed over time, mercifully mostly for the better and less sexist.

“Use your gun as you would your lipstick — use it only when you need it and use it intelligently.  Don’t overdo either one.”  Mayor La Guardia, speaking to the City’s Policewomen in 1943, on issuing the first combo gun and make-up holder.

NYC Police Museum
Switchblades in hollow book, ca. 1930

There’s also a sort of overview/greatest hits history of New York’s police force, featuring mainly text and images, with a few assorted artifacts.  And a poster on the evolution of police vehicles that doesn’t do much except make you wish the museum had capacity and resources to display real ones, beyond the single, 1940s-looking van out front.

New York City Police Museum
Old Time-y Paddy Wagon — Wait, that’s racist, isn’t it…

Inevitably, there’s an exhibit on September 11.  The Police Museum shows photos from a number of AP photographers who were there, along with interviews with them.  That makes it a surprisingly un-police-centric telling of the story.  A small case in the middle of the room holds some artifacts from the police responders on the day.

NYC Police Museum
9/11 Photography

Should You Visit the Police Museum?

I was surprised to discover the Police Museum up and running on Governor’s Island. I hadn’t realized it was in operation at all.  Despite the nice spaces and some interesting stories to tell, the current incarnation feels extremely limited. While I’m sure the museum’s collection has tons of objects and artifacts, the displays here consist mainly of science-fair-style wall text and photos.  In exhausting abundance.

If you happen to visit Governor’s Island, by all means go.  And if you’re interested in or involved with law enforcement, it’s worth your time to make a special trip.

Although I’m happy to see the museum open in any form, the Police Museum is not currently operating up to its potential. It therefore doesn’t merit most folks going out of their way to see it.  

There’s a separate, larger issue. The history, heritage, pageantry, and heroism of the Police Department justify something on the order of the impressive Fire Museum.  And yet, inevitably, the police aren’t viewed the same way as fire and rescue are.  Corruption, racism, and brutality are sadly all parts of the police legacy in New York City, too.

Those problems — and efforts to combat them — are not a story that the Police Museum tells, at least not in its current incarnation.  Hopefully, if and when it returns to its full-sized space in Manhattan, it will.

For Reference:

Address Pershing Hall, Building 125, Governor’s Island
Cost Free (donation)
Other Relevant Links
  • USA Today on the “thin blue line” flag during the Charlottesville white supremacist march