When you're making a list of New York City museums to visit on your next trip, you might settle on the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. There's another tribute to art and history in the city that you're forgetting, and it's one that is dedicated specifically to the City: The New-York Historical Society Museumand Library. Look no further than the hyphen in "New-York" in the museum's name for evidence that the place is serious about the history of its city.
The Historical Society, founded in 1804, is, in fact, the oldest museum in the city. It sits right next to the American Museum of Natural History between 76th and 77th Street and Central Park West. Its reach extends beyond the history of the city, focusing, according to its website, on "issues surrounding the making and meaning of history." Or, in the fictional words of one of the subjects of a past exhibit at the museum, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story."
With over 1.6 million pieces in its art holdings, including paintings, documents, sculptures, furniture and other artifacts, the Historical Society presents a vast, personal exploration of the history of its city.
Toy trains as part of the holiday exhibit.
Abraham Lincoln greets visitors in statue form on the outside stairs before they enter the rectangular lobby. For the holiday season, the museum is showcasing its wonderful collection of toys and, especially, trains from early years of the industrial revolution. The lobby is also the visual introduction to the museum's mission: to explore history, in general, through the history of New York. On the walls are paintings of the Revolutionary War and in a glass case are handwritten notes and letters from Frederick Douglass.
The other exhibit currently on display on the first floor tells the story of Vietnam, its effects on New York City and New York City's effects on the war. Let a guide take you through, borrow an audio guide or explore the halls of the exhibit yourself and witness hundreds of images, media, documents and artifacts from the war (including a military Jeep in the lobby).
The children's museum on the lower level.
Downstairs is the children's museum, a whole floor dedicated to touchable, interactive and video pieces that encourage kids to be "history detectives."
The second floor contains the Luman Reed Galleries and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. In the Reed Galleries you'll find many American landscapes and other paintings, like George Henry Boughton's Pilgrims Going To Church from 1867. Also in the galleries is one of the Historical Society's most exciting pieces: Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire.
Thomas Cole's 'Course of Empire' in the Reed Galleries.
Course of Empire is a series of five huge paintings, done between 1833 and 1836 and commissioned by the gallery's namesake. The landscape paintings depict five stages in the rise and fall of civilization: Savage, Pastoral, Consummation, Destruction and Desolation. A Native American hunts a deer while dark clouds consume the mountain in the background that is the central visual connection between the paintings. Next a small village sits near the lake and a man thinks under a tree. In the series' centerpiece, the "Consummation," a grand city borders the river and thousands of people celebrate in the bright, colorful public spaces. Then smoke darkens the landscape as the city burns and soldiers fight beneath the marble statues. In the final painting, the sun is almost set and green weeds crawl over the ruins of the city beneath a peaceful sky. The series is a stunning look at the beauty of progress and the dangers of indulgence, all while showing the death and return of nature. It's incredible and a must-see in-person at the museum.
Tiffany lamps on display on the fourth floor.
Skip the third floor (office rooms) and head to the new fourth floor. Open since April 2017, it currently hosts an exhibit on artists' workshops and the stories behind certain objects, several on women's history and a beautiful "Gallery of Tiffany Lamps".
A visit to the New-York Historical Society is a visit to the American past, where people can learn about the choices that made history and the consequences of those choices on our lives, today. The museum Tuesday–Sunday and admission costs $21 for adults, $13 for students and $6 for kids 5–13. The free daily tours are at 2 PM and 3:30 PM.