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Great Museums of New York City

Great Museums of New York City

New York, one of the world’s great cities, theatre, architecture, galleries, museums and urban life crammed into one location. This article summarises some of the great museums of the city to explore. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

Great New York City Museums, United States

By Marco Stojanovik

New Yorkers are obsessed with their museums. And why wouldn’t they? The city has arguably the richest and best museum culture in the world, with the utter number of museums and cultural institutions absolutely mind-blowing. In addition to an impressive number of classic institutions, there is also a plethora of hidden exhibitions out there to discover, as well as many tiny, one-room galleries filled with art, objects, and ideas. With New York museums and exhibitions focusing on a wide range of topics, from the broad – history, natural history, art, music – to the specific – jazz, world explorations, the era of American gangsters, Jewish heritage – and much, much more, there’s bound to be something on offer no matter your interests.

To help you decide where you’ll visit, we’ve compiled a guide to some of the great NYC museums – much of the information here drawn from Wendy Lubovich’s 111 Museums in New York That You Must Not Miss. This guide is intended especially as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 10-day New York small group tour. This tour for mature and senior travellers focuses on the museums and art galleries of the city, and also includes four performances or concerts, as well as an overnight stay out of New York State in Florida to visit the incredible Dali Museum. So, grab your New York citypass and start exploring with the help of our comprehensive museum guide!

New York City

Explorers Club

On the Upper East Side, behind the grand, heavy doors and stained-glass windows of a six-story Jacobean-style townhouse, lies our first great New York City museum – the Explorers Club’s headquarters. Inside is an impressive library, map room, and extensive collection of artefacts gathered from more than a century of exploration.

Founded in 1904, this private club is where the world’s top explorers have gathered to trade tales. Past members Robert Peary and Matthew Henson were the first to reach the North Pole in 1909. Member Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person to summit Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, also members, reached the moon in 1969.

Their treasures and memorabilia fill the floors. Some examples include two enormous elephant tusks that flank the fireplace in the red Member’s Lounge; a massive, antique globe which was actually used to plan historic expeditions; and thick mittens from the 1909 North Pole expedition. Taxidermical wonders also lurk the floors, such as a giant stuffed polar bear named Percy, an Antarctic penguin, and a cheetah from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 African expedition. Flags used on various expeditions are displayed on the second floor’s Clark room, while the research archives contain an impressive collection of 13,000 books, 1,000 museum objects, 5,000 maps, and 500 films.

Fireplace on the first floor of the Explorers Club / Rhododendrites (Wikipedia Commons) / CC BY-SA 4.0

Any visit to the club culminates on the top floor, the ultimate hideout with soaring ceilings, leather couches, and handsome oil paintings. Here, you are surrounded by taxidermy from all over the world: a walrus, a rhinoceros, a lion, and more. There are also objects from the world’s far-flung corners, including a woolly mammoth tusk, a narwhal tusk, and the infamous yeti scalp.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Known colloquially as “the Met”, this New York City museum is the largest art museum in the Americas. Its enormous catalogue of over two million paintings, sculptures, drawing, photographs, and artefacts fills a building taking up 11.5 acres within Central Park along Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile. The museum is divided among 17 curatorial departments, presenting over 5,000 years of art from around the world. This includes permanent collections of Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman, Assyrian, East Asian and Middle Eastern, pre-Columbian, New Guinean, Islamic, and American art and artefacts.

The famous and extensive collection of European paintings are certainly one of the top highlights. Amongst the 2,500 plus gorgeous artworks from the 13th to the 19th centuries are those by the Spanish artists Goya and El Greco, 17th century Dutch art by Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, and French paintings by Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas.

Another highlight is the amazing collection of Egyptian artworks and exhibits. Many of the artefacts here were collected via Met-sponsored archaeological expeditions to Egypt in the early 1900s. All over, they include paintings, limestone sculptures, statues, jewellery, coffins and even a temple carefully rebuilt from its original stones and blocks!

The museum also hosts encyclopaedic collections of world-wide costumes, accessories, musical instruments, and antique weapons and armour.  Plus its Rooftop Garden offers stunning views of Central park and the Midtown skyline!

People at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Museum of the American Gangster

The two-roomed Museum of the American Gangster, located above a former speakeasy on a sleepy East Village street, contains the intertwined tales of prohibition and organized crime. The lives and heists of mafia members are here on exhibit, displayed through photographs, newspapers, and other original documents, as well as their weapons and other objects.

The colourful, enthusiastic, guided tour makes these two simple rooms come alive. You’ll find the bullet that killed gangster Pretty Boyd Floyd, along with the shell casting from the Bonnie and Clyde car in which Clyde Barrow was killed. Two plaster, ivory-coloured death masks of John Dilliger, the bank robber who was killed by FBI agents in 1934, also sit side by side in a glass case. Then in the backroom, you’ll see an unwieldy, Appalachian copper still used to make moonshine. It sits alongside a Thompson submachine gun and a doctor’s prescription for alcohol.

The histories come alive when you make your way to the former 1920s speakeasy below, also open for tour. Now a theatre, flappers and bootleggers once danced here to the sounds of jazz bands. Chicago gangster Al Capone was said to visit here along with politicians and police officials.

Museum of Modern Art

Established in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was the first museum devoted to collecting modern and contemporary art. Today, it is still one of the largest modern art museums globally, with an impressive collection of mostly American and European art, ranging from innovative paintings and sculptures from the 1880s to today’s film, design, and performance art.

This collection of modern Western masterpieces is considered by many to be the best in the world. It includes over 150,000 individual artworks, including paintings, sculptures, graphic art, industrial design objects, architectural models, drawings, and photography. It also includes approximately 22,000 motion pictures and four million film stills. Plus, its Library and Archives holds over 300,000 books and periodicals, as well as more than 40,000 files on individual artists and groups.

Brimming with heart-stopping works by titans of the art world, MoMA is a museum where you may not know where to begin. Highlights include Van Gogh’s  “The Starry Night”, Claude Monet’s “Water Lillies”, and Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. There are also especially extensive holdings of other Cubist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist paintings, as well as more recent works by Elizabeth Murray, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and many others.

“Starry Night” by Van Gogh at the Museum of Modern Art

The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection is housed in Henry Clay Frick’s former Gilded-Age mansion, spanning an entire city block along Fifth Avenue. On display across 15 galleries, filling nearly every inch of the building, are outstanding examples of European old master paintings, as well as sculptures and decorative arts.

The impressive collection of paintings, largely amassed by the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, include works by the likes of Bellini, Rembrandt, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Vermeer, and more. Displayed in the elegant living spaces of the former residence, they’re complemented by brilliant sculptures, antique furniture, Chinese porcelain, Persian rugs, and other decorative arts spanning from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century.

Frick Collection / Joyofmuseums (Wikipedia Commons) / CC BY-SA 4.0

The museum’s best-known works belong in the Fragonard Room, which may just be the most romantic room in the city. Here, are Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series of wall painting, originally painted for Comtesse du Barry, the lover of French King Louis XV, depicting the stages of love. Although they are exceedingly romantic, the Comtesse wasn’t pleased and refused the paintings, returning them to Fragonard. Years later, the artist installed them in his cousin’s villa in southern France, where they remained for some 100 years until the American banker J. P. Morgan purchased the paintings for his London townhouse.

When Morgan died, Frick saw an opportunity, buying the entire suite and reconfiguring his drawing room to make room for the paintings. Special wood panelling, or boiserie, was made in France to frame the paintings perfectly. Textiles from an iconic French fabric maker adorn the windows. Even exquisite hardware graces the door. Surrounded by exquisite furniture and porcelain, the room is a bold tribute to love and opportunity.

National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Immerse yourself in local jazz history and the music scene of today at this American museum located in the heart of Harlem. Dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Harlem’s jazz history, it includes a great collection of artefacts from jazz legends who either emerged from or visited the neighbourhood over the years.

Front and centre is the museum’s highlight, Duke Ellington‘s baby grand piano. Painted a warm white, the piano was purchased by the rising bandleader in the 1920s during the heyday of the Cotton Club. Ellington went on to compose iconic works on these keys, including, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t got that Swing’ and ‘Sophisticated Lady’. The piano currently sites in a recreated 1940s Harlem living room, the frequent gathering place to socialise and hear music.

You’ll also see a saxophone played by Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, who earned his nickname because of the firm lock his jaws had on the mouthpiece. Nearby are cases filled with jazz-related ephemera, like a poster for a Sunday afternoon bebop concert with Dinah Washington. There are also early art-deco-styled jazz catalogues from Columbia Records. And for a dose of style, there is the double-breasted wool coat worn by Benny Carter on the night his band reopened the Apollo Theatre in 1934 and established the venue as a Harlem hotspot.

There’s music too of course. Here, you’re invited to pull up a chair and listen to a rare sound archive on a pair of headphones. Meticulously recorded by Bill Savory in the 1930s, the collection contains private rehearsals and sessions by Ellington, Goodman, and Holiday recorded in the nearby buildings and streets.

The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum

The 1959 Solomon R Guggenheim Museum building is a bit of a shock, a sharp contrast to the ornate Beaux Arts buildings it stands amidst on the Upper East Side. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, this is a radical departure from traditional museums – a modern building for modern art.

Upon entering, you are delivered into a soaring, cathedral-like rotunda. Around the perimeter of the rotunda, a helical ramp spirals upwards six stories, continuously growing wider as it does. All the way at the top, supported by stainless steel, a glorious glass ceiling crowns the space.

Guggenheim Museum in New York City

Art works are visible across the rotunda, below and above, in an immersive, 360-degree experience. Climb up the ramp to view them up close, many “floating” from the inclined outer wall on concealed metal arms. These include one of the largest collections of Kandinsky‘s paintings in the world, as well as rich holdings by Cezanne, Gaugin, Monet, Picasso, and Miró, among other modern masters. There is also a strong representation of modern sculpture.

Wright was actually criticized initially, the building dismissed as a “washing machine” and a “giant toilet bowl”. Avant-garde artists even decried the design as competing with the art. Wright disagreed, responding confidently, “On the contrary, it was to make the building and the painting a beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of art before.”

United Nations Art Collection

The UN headquarters is a soaring slab of a skyscraper that perfectly embodies the international style of architecture: bold, assertive, and unapologetically modern. But what many people don’t know is that it houses one of the finest art collections in New York city, consisting of artworks, historic objects, and architectural components officially donated as gifts to the UN. This represents a diversity of cultures across time periods and regions, each tied together by epitomizing the ideals, significance, and values of the UN, with themes of peace, wonder, and the unity of humankind.

Here the impressive Non-Violence bronze gun sculpture takes place of honour. This oversized .357 Magnum revolver, with a knotted muzzle aiming upwards, is by Swedish artist Carl Reutersward. It was originally made in 1984 as a tribute to John Lennon. Located nearby is Sphere Within Sphere, a bronze sculpture depicting two interlocked spheres. completed in 1993 by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. One of many versions around the world, it is a reflective poem about the earth’s fragility.

Non-violence sculpture in front of UN Headquarters / Zheng Zhou (Wikipedia Commons) / CC BY-SA 3.0

Inside the soaring, light-filled lobby, mere humans are dwarfed in scale. Suspended above is a replica of a Soviet Sputnik, the world’s first satellite and a thrilling gift from the then Soviet Union. So too is the cobalt blue stained-glass window by Marc Chagall. This 15 ft long masterpiece commemorates former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in a plane crash in 1961 while on the way to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo. With depictions of both the struggle for peace and a peaceful world itself, it represents a place of quiet contemplation. With several other pieces too, the art inside this iconic space is an inspiring as the UN’s own mission.

Museum of Arts and Design

Based in Manhattan, the Museum of Arts and Design is all about the idea of making things, with showcases from sculpture to furniture, textiles, jewelleries, ceramics, tableware, tapestries, and more. There’s always an atmosphere of discovery within this bright contemporary space, with exhibitions and educational programs celebrating the creative process of materials and crafts enhancing modern life.

Drop by one of the open Artist Studios, where you can see artists and designers at work. Whether a ceramic artist, a jewellery maker, or a textile designer, you can meet the artists, watch them work, and ask them questions or discuss ideas. It’s much like visiting an artist friend in their private studio.

Elsewhere in the museum, four floors offer rotating exhibitions with a fresh perspective on people, process, and materials. You may see a collection of lapel pins by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; the digitally designed furniture by American master Wendell Castle; or the embroidery and tie-dyes of 1960s flower children.

Make sure to visit the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewellery Gallery, which is the only space in the country devoted exclusively to modern and contemporary art jewellery. Sparkling glass cases hold convertible pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. Then check out the secret Study Storage Collection against the wall, where you can pull out stacks of draws filled with jewelled treasures.

If you’re in for a treat, take the elevator to the museum’s top-floor restaurant, Robert. With its floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, you will be hovering over Central Park and Columbus Circle with some of the best views in the city.

The Whitney Museum

In 2014 the Whitney relocated to an expanded new museum headquarters in the Meatpacking District, complete with shimmering views of the Hudson River. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, this is an eight-story glass-covered building, with 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces. There’s also a theatre, a library and reading rooms, a restaurant, and a top-floor bar. Outdoor terraces hover the High Line walking paths, while inside the feel is modern-industrial, with its pine floors, broad windows, and expansive galleries.

Whitney Museum of American Art / Ajay Suresh / CC BY 2.0

The focus here is on American art, with 20th century and contemporary offerings. This includes a permanent collection of some 23,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, prints, films, videos, and installations. Many of the country’s most renowned artists are represented here, including the world’s largest collection of Edward Hopper paintings, as well as works by Jean-Michell Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, and more.

There has always been a special focus on living American artists, and stalwarts like Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Cindy Sherman had their first museum retrospectives at the Whitney. Even today, curators seek out artists before they are well known, often purchasing works the very year they are created.

Many of these little known or emerging artists have their works shown side by side throughout the museum at the legendary Whitney Biennial exhibition. Started in 1973, this serves as a powerful recognition for artists, and in the past has helped bring artists like Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons to prominence.

Tour of New York Museums

You can visit New York City as part of Odyssey Traveller’s New York small group tour for mature and senior travellers. Though this 10-day program based in midtown Manhattan, you’ll get to explore the New York’s museums and art galleries, as well as attending shows on Broadway.

Your guides assist this small group, limited to 12 people with exploring or re-acquainting yourselves with Manhattan. Even if it has been sometime between visits the city continues to evolve through its Architecture, museums and people. Each day the group spends time indifferent parts of the city, exploring and learning from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, and off-Broadway shows are also selected to give an insight into contemporary New York.

As this program focuses on some of the work’s greatest artworks, we have also included an overnight trip to the Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida. Here there are over 70 works by the Catalonian features. After Dali and St Petersburg, there is a day to catch your breath before taking to the Empire State building at sunset and a further 4 days of exploring Manhattan as part of the small group tour.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Lower Manhattan, New York

Articles about the Americas published by Odyssey Traveller

External articles to assist you on your visit to New York

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