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Exhibiting greatness: Large and small museums offer a world a fascination in one city


Part of Songs for Sabotage, the fourth Triennial exhbit in The New Museum. This group of sculptures is Senzenina, by Haroon Gunn-Salie of Capetown, South Africa. (Ed Lefkowicz)

It’s easy to tell the real New Yorkers: They have never been to the Statue of Liberty.

Or maybe it’s Ellis Island or the top of the Empire State Building. Still, it’s a jaded crew who can take their city’s attractions for granted, especially its museums. A class trip in childhood, maybe an outing with their own kids, and they’re done.

"111 Museums In New York That You Must Not Miss" is a new book by Wendy Lubovich.
"111 Museums In New York That You Must Not Miss" is a new book by Wendy Lubovich. (Emons)

They don’t know what they’re missing.

And “111 Museums in New York That You Must Not Miss” wants to change that.

A guide to the curated treasures of the five boroughs, it includes all the places New Yorkers think they know – MOMA and the Met, of course, the Frick and the Guggenheim. But author Wendy Lubovich takes a different approach to familiar sites and introduces hidden gems.

For her chapter on the American Museum of Natural History, for example, she skips the dinosaurs to write about the truly amazing live butterfly exhibits. Since the insects rarely live more than a few weeks, the display changes regularly.

And for the grand Morgan Library, Lubovich turns to the intimate study where, during the 1907 financial crisis, the multimillionaire played host to the city’s most prominent bankers. He locked the doors and held them hostage until they pledged their personal fortunes to avert a catastrophe.

Mostly, though, Lubovich zeroes in on lesser-known locations, making the city’s smaller museums, and the quirky collections they honor, come alive.

Judging by her choices, a lot of New Yorkers are fascinated by the printed word. The city’s oldest business is the print shop Bowne and Co., established in 1775, and still there at South Street Seaport. Visitors can watch a working 19th-century letterpress, examine an old Linotype machine or pick up a sheaf of hand-printed stationery.

True bibliophiles can then move on to the Center for Book Arts on West 27th St., where the book is the art. Here, books are more than for reading; they are for viewing. Some pages are translucent, so patrons can see through them. Some pages are pleated and folded in on themselves so that the book itself opens like an accordion.

Other museums celebrate a single, often singular person.

The living room in the Alice Austen house, with an old camera and photographic plates on the table.
The living room in the Alice Austen house, with an old camera and photographic plates on the table. (Ed Lefkowicz)

Imagine, for example, growing up in the Victorian Age on Staten Island as an heiress, pioneering photojournalist and an out lesbian. That was the world of Alice Austen, who spent decades taking the ferry into Manhattan and documenting the lives of immigrants.

Austen lost everything in the Crash of ’29; she died in a poorhouse. But the Staten Island Historical Society bought her 1690 cottage, which with her work, is on display on Hylan Blvd.

Other museums grew out of hobbies, and eventually outgrew their curators’ living rooms. They’re monuments to an obsession.

Dr. Stanley M. Burns, an ophthalmologist, began by collecting photographs of doctors and their work; he now has over a million images. He happily gives private tours of his collection, spread over several floors of his East 38th St. brownstone. Standout items include X-rays of a serial killer’s brain, daguerreotypes of bloody Civil War battlefields and gruesome photos of medical maladies.

Far less disturbing, but just as educational, is the Living Torah Museum, run by a Borough Park rabbi. New York has other museums dedicated to Jewish history, but none is as hands-on as this Brooklyn spot. Dedicated to making scripture come alive, it’s filled with Greek coins, Egyptian jewelry, even stuffed lions and cobras, all intent on bringing the Bible to life.

A different kind of worship takes place at the City Reliquary Museum, owner Dave Herman's Williamsburg salute to the "secular saint" of New York City, the Statue of Liberty. But while he openly carries a torch for her — she's everywhere, in hundreds of items — there are also kitschy tributes to the two New York World’s Fairs and Hoochie Coochie dancer Little Egypt.

A Jim Henson exhibition is seen at the Museum of the Moving Image.
A Jim Henson exhibition is seen at the Museum of the Moving Image. (Thanassi Karageorgiou)

The performing arts loom large at other New York institutions, and not just famous ones like Midtown’s Paley Center for Media, named after broadcasting legend William Paley, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, or the Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria.

For example, the Houdini Museum, just around the corner from Penn Station, is a small but carefully curated memorial to the escape artist, preserving some of the handcuffs, straitjackets and heavily padlocked steamer trunks that failed to hold him. Feel inspired? The surrounding Fantasma Magic Shop has slightly less dangerous tricks for sale.

Meanwhile, the Coney Island Museum on Surf Avenue celebrates the summer pleasures that once awaited overheated New Yorkers. Remnants from old rides, like a brightly painted wooden “Whip Car,” or quieter pleasures like a wicker roller chair, meant for genteel boardwalk excursions, take you back a century. A display of itchy woolen bathing suits completes the flashback.

More sophisticated memories wait in Manhattan, where the National Jazz Museum in Harlem salutes America's most significant contribution to music. Duke Ellington's white baby grand piano is here, as is an entire, recreated uptown living room. But the real treasures in this 129th St. building have to be heard to be believed: a Depression-Era audio archive of pre-recording rehearsals and after-hours jams with Ellington, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday raising the roof.

Still, for all its arts, literature and entertainment, New York is a city of workers, millions of men and women in perpetual motion. And some of the city’s least pretentious museums are dedicated to celebrating their labors.

An elaborate time and combination lock in the John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York.
An elaborate time and combination lock in the John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York. (Ed Lefkowicz)

There’s the Mossman Lock Collection, on West 44th street, a salute to 6,000 years of locksmithing. Another little-known treat is the New York Public Library Map Room on W. 42nd St., where cartographers’ efforts are preserved. Sailors and conductors are the stars at the Red Hook Wooden Barge Museum, in Brooklyn, a floating repository of lanterns, life rafts and buoys. And the New York Transit Museum, on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, displays vintage subway cars with scratchy rattan seats.

New York’s bravest are saluted at the New York City Fire Museum on Spring St., where visitors can try on official FDNY gear or spend a quiet moment in a room dedicated to the 343 members of the department who gave their lives on 9/11.

The city’s shadiest get their own hangout, the Museum of the American Gangster, on St. Mark’s Place, where guests can uncover some of the Prohibition-era secrets of an old speakeasy.

Each of these museums excels because they focus on a single artist, individual or trade, exploring every facet. Sometimes, though, you want the complete picture, an idea of the whole Big Apple itself. And you can find that framed at the Museum of the City of New York on 5th Avenue, where the “At Its Core” exhibition shows how the city became the world capital it is, with everything from prototypes for the Statue of Liberty to a guest list for a Studio 54 party. And in case you were wondering, yes, Liberace was on the list.

Of course, it also holds an exhibit called Future City Lab, which asks what may lie ahead for the five boroughs. Because the city isn’t about to stop for anyone, and neither are curators’ efforts to save just a bit of New York’s and New Yorkers’, history.