Non-Art Museums

Butterflies and Bombers

New York's museums offer far more than mere painting and sculpture: The town fairly bursts with historic homes, tributes to everything from finance to firefighting, and even a scholarly investigation into that favorite three-letter word, sex.


AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORYCentral Park West and 79th Street, 212-769-5100, amnh.org Both monumental and eclectic, this New York landmark is home to stationary tableaux of elk, interactive techno, deep-voiced cosmology lessons, and hundreds of fluttering butterflies. While famous for its dinosaur bones and enormous whale, it also offers infinite new mini-discoveries.

MUSEUM OF SEX233 Fifth Avenue, 212-689-6337, museumofsex.com The self-satisfied kitschy audio guide promises to "educate as it titillates" by contextualizing a maze of vitrines full of sex artifacts—chorus girl costumes, black market condoms, erotic stereoscopes—and by tracing the history of sex legislation from the time of the Comstock laws through the AIDS struggle.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN1 Bowling Green, 212-514-3700, americanindian.si.edu In the former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, an inner atrium frescoed with Western mercantile scenes sits adjacent to an exhibit on native basketry. Works by contemporary Native American artists draw attention to some of these colonialist contradictions.

INTREPID SEA-AIR-SPACE MUSEUMWest 46th Street and Twelfth Avenue, 212-245-0072, intrepidmuseum.com A naval ship turned recruiting center for rowdy kids who want to take a "special forces challenge," ride on jet simulators, purchase fake dog tags, gaze at catapult machinery and torpedo bombers, get digital photos taken in space suits, and basically prepare to "defend our future."

NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUMBoerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, 718-694-1600, mta.info Between the documentation of the brutal working conditions faced by immigrants who built the subway station and the 12 variations of turnstile, it's easy to overload on MTA history and bits of obsolete machinery here. Nevertheless, it's kind of cool to walk through every subway car design from 1904 to the present.

LOWER EAST SIDE TENEMENT MUSEUM90 Orchard Street, 212-431-0233, tenement.org This "museum" is actually a walking tour through a model tenement that teaches you about the Great Depression-era immigrant horrors of overcrowding and tuberculosis as you pick through tiny rooms strewn with dressmaker detritus and family memorabilia and gaze at modern-day sweatshop smoke.

MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK1220 Fifth Avenue, 212-534-1672, mcny.org. A bit of a free-for-all, this museum's current showcases feature New York stuff including objects as disparate as cast-iron Harlem balusters, studded Macbeth kilts, gold-framed girandoles, a larger-than-life Andrew Jackson, and a doll crafted to look like Marcel Duchamp, each part of a different exhibition.

NEW YORK CITY FIRE MUSEUM278 Spring Street, 212-691-1303, nycfiremuseum.org If you are interested in outdated topographical maps of the city or reading a brief history of New York water, then this little patriotic preservation of fireman accessories is a must-see. The highlight is a taxidermied rescue dog who received a diploma of honor in 1936. And naturally there is an impressive homage to 9-11 and its aftermath.

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT MUSEUM12 Fulton Street, 212-748-8600, southstseaport.org Stand around on docked decommissioned boats and wander through exhibits on sea topics ranging from the history of longitude to the transatlantic slave trade. Though the Seaport touts its status as a former leading port, it's unclear whether this museum is an attempt to transcend or enhance its Disney-meets-Baltimore quality.

MERCHANT'S HOUSE MUSEUM29 East 4th Street, 212-777-1089, merchantshouse.com Enter the only preserved 19th-century New York home, that of merchantman Seabury Tredwell and his eight kids. With its red silk damask draperies and old-fashioned opulence, the Merchant's House can seem musty with forced nostalgia for a time when the East Village was "the city's first suburb."

MUSEUM OF JEWISH HERITAGE36 Battery Place, 646-437-4200, mjhnyc.org Carefully cataloging the evolution of the Holocaust through artifacts ranging from old-world bar mitzvah invitations to Heinrich Himmler's copy of Mein Kampf to a Yiddish socialist songbook, this museum's collection is alternatingly absorbing and horrific.

 
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