By Taylor Smith
If you never made it off the Museum of Ice Cream’s 70,000-person waitlist, look on the bright side: Even if you’d snagged an $18 dollar ticket, you’d have had to deal with a monster of a line before diving into the famed sprinkle pool.
Though it was only open through Sept. 4, the Museum of Ice Cream highlighted some of the main drawbacks that come with many year-round cultural institutions. The NYC museum scene is ample, but all too often the greatest hits are overcrowded, overpriced, or both. As you wait behind a tour group to peer at a Goya from a safe distance, it’s easy to forget the power that museums have not only to educate, but also to engage and inspire.
Like my mom always says, you shouldn’t have to be rich to experience some culture. And like I always say, lines are the worst. So we’ve rounded up a few of the best NYC museums you may have overlooked. Tucked away or under-publicized, these little jewels won’t cost you an hour in line or any more than $10, but may help you connect to those personal stories often lost in the lofty halls of the Met. Or they might just make you laugh at a good old-fashioned pop culture scandal.
319 West 107th Street
Hours: Tuesday – Friday 12 p.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: Free (donations welcome)
Nestled in a sleepy Morningside Heights side street, the Roerich is a must-see. The three-story townhouse features the life’s work of Nicholas Roerich, a 20th-century Russian painter whose subject matter ranged from Himalayan landscapes to Russia’s ancient and mythic past. In addition to a collection of over 200 of Roerich’s richly colored paintings, the museum offers events on Sundays including poetry readings (sometimes offered in both English and Russian) and classical concerts. Best of all? You can build yourself quite the goodie bag: prints are sold for $8 or $20 depending on the size, and if you’re lucky you can grab one on sale for $4.
4 Cortlandt Alley
Hours: Thursday and Friday 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Admission: Free (suggested $5 donation)
At 60 square feet, Mmuseumm holds the distinction of being the smallest museum in New York City. Founded in 2012, the tiny establishment lies hidden in a former freight elevator on Chinatown’s dingy, graffiti-lined Cortlandt Alley, its unmarked doors only open when a docent sits beside them. The quirky assortment of seemingly everyday items highlights the profoundly human in the mundane, from the last-ever text messages from a loved one to the personal affects left behind in the Arizona desert on the way from Mexico to the U.S. The permanent collection contains 23 everyday items, representing a form of curation the founders call “Object Journalism.” Mmuseumm expanded last summer to include Mmuseumm 2 down the street, a storefront window exhibition currently displaying 14-year-old Mohammed Qutaish’s model of a future Aleppo.
144 West 125th Street
Hours: Thursday and Friday 12 p.m. – 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Admission (all prices suggested): Adults $7, Seniors and students $3, Free for members and children under 12, Free for everyone on Sundays
Not a hole in the wall in the traditional sense (if you’re in the vicinity, it’s hard to miss), but in spirit. Harlem isn’t home to many well-known museums, but this one is a treasure. Founded in 1968 at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, the Studio Museum aims to promote contemporary artists of African descent, in part through its artist-in-residence program. Typically offering a dynamic mix of media, one of the museum’s signature efforts is Harlem Postcards, an ongoing series in which artists comment on Harlem as a cultural and artistic hub through their work. The Studio Museum also regularly hosts gallery tours and programming for kids, adults, and seniors, giving this spot a community feel. Current highlights include the Abstract Expressionist works of the late 20th-century painter Alma Thomas, and a collection of Chicago-born sculptor Richard Hunt‘s less widely known pieces.
34-56 107th St
Hours: Tuesday – Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $10, Children, Students, and Seniors $7, Free for children under 4 (and $2 if you live on the block!)
Head up to Corona, Queens to walk the halls of the last place the late jazz dynamo called home. An ideal excursion for jazz aficionados and explorers alike, the modest brick building was home to the renowned jazz musician for the last three decades of his life. And since no one has lived at 34-56 107th St. since Louis and his wife Lucille, the museum preserves his environment in all its original glory, from the silver-foil wallpaper to the turquoise kitchen cabinets and the jewel of the permanent collection, his gold-plated trumpet. Naturally, the Louis Armstrong House Museum experience is at least as auditory as it is visual: highlights include over 1,600 audio clips of everything from trumpet practice to personal conversations over meals, and the recently acquired recording of his famed March 1965 concert in East Berlin. To walk in Satchmo’s shoes you’ll have to join the guided tour: they leave every hour on the hour, and last 40 minutes. Before or after you can explore his Japanese-inspired backyard.
370 Metropolitan Ave
Hours: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Admission: General $5; Students, educators, and seniors $4; Children free
At first glance, you might mistake City Reliquary for an old-school record store. But behind the vaguely Rastafarian color scheme lies a trove of Gotham’s history. The small nonprofit aims to celebrate New York’s past through residents’ personal belongings. The permanent collection boasts founder Dave Herman’s massive collection of Statue of Liberty figurines and postcards, old subway tokens and MetroCards, and Brooklyn Seltzer bottles beneath a shrine of sorts to Jackie Robinson. City Reliquary also welcomes community collections: New Yorker Alex Schneider’s potpourri of obsolete foreign currency is currently on display in the exhibition hall, and you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about displaying your own odds and ends. In the meantime, check out the exhibit on the New York State Pavilion opening next week, which asks visitors to consider modern ruins and the merits of restoring them.
Williamsburg (address undisclosed)
Hours: By appointment
Simply amazing. Comedians and roommates Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen used the gloriously bad Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan documentary The Price of Gold (currently streaming on Netflix) as the jumping off point for this willful indulgence in pop culture. Plus, you have to call in to visit the exhibit at their apartment, giving it that exclusive feel that always seems to work in New York (see East Village favorite Please Don’t Tell). Inside, patriotic decorations and walls dedicated to each half of the greatest figure skating scandal ever await. THNK 1994 is a permanent “collection,” but Harkins and Olen set up temporary installations as well. These days the duo is slowing down on the Tonya and Nancy front to focus on other exhibits in the fall. They most recently ran “The Olsen Twins Hiding from the Paparazzi” for two weeks in an abandoned doctor’s office, so stay tuned.
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