Think of New York City’s art and culture scene and world-famous institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art (also known as The Met), the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA for short) will likely spring to mind. However, the Big Apple is also home to a slew of lesser-known – but no less intriguing – museums, many of which celebrate unusual themes such as immigration and the human condition. Skip the queues at the larger museums and head to these smaller, more intimate New York City venues instead.
1. The Tenement Museum
What does it truly mean to be American? Set across two preserved tenement buildings – which once housed more than 15,000 immigrants in extremely cramped quarters – The Tenement Museum shines a spotlight on hard-hitting themes such as home, identity and belonging. Take a guided tour of one of the historically recreated apartments – including that of an Eastern European Jewish family who were in the garment trade – to get a glimpse of life as a working-class immigrant in 19th- and 20th-century New York City. Alternatively, sign up for a neighbourhood walking tour to discover how the Lower East Side’s immigrant population has shaped the area’s rich heritage – and helped build America as a nation.
2. The Morgan Library & Museum
Once the personal collection of multimillionaire financier and cultural benefactor Pierpont Morgan, The Morgan Library & Museum opened its doors to the public in 1924 and now welcomes more than 250,000 visitors every year. The 151,000ft2 space – which includes a modern steel-and-glass expansion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano – houses an impressive array of drawings, prints and artefacts, as well as several incredibly rare manuscripts (including Mozart’s handwritten score of the Haffner Symphony and the only extant manuscript of Paradise Lost by John Milton). Plus, with its gloriously ornate ceiling frescoes, the venue is in itself a precious work of art.
Housed in an abandoned freight elevator shaft in a nondescript alley between Tribeca and Chinatown, Mmusseumm undoubtedly ranks among the smallest museums in New York and the world – indeed, it measures all of 36ft2. But despite its diminutive size, it’s worth a visit for its unique take on what founder Alex Kalman calls “the stories of our generation”. Here, you’ll find seemingly random everyday artefacts – ranging from a box of corn flakes to used shampoo bottles and even a single shoe – which together speak volumes about the world we live in today. Note that the museum is only open to the public from 11am to 6pm on Fridays and Saturdays; private tours are available by appointment.
4. El Museo del Barrio
Founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican artists disgruntled about the lack of representation in mainstream museums, El Museo del Barrio in the Upper East Side is dedicated to Latino, Caribbean and Latin American art – spanning more than 800 years from pre-Columbian times to the modern day. Spend an afternoon browsing its 8,000-strong collection of paintings, prints, sculptures and artefacts, and keep your eyes peeled for the Santos de Palo – hand-carved wooden saints that are a form of religious folk art in Puerto Rico. The museum also hosts regular film screenings, concerts, cultural celebrations and family-friendly educational programmes. For a charming souvenir, swing by the on-site gift shop, La Tienda, for handmade crafts and postcards.
5. The Noguchi Museum
As the name suggests, The Noguchi Museum in Queens celebrates the life and work of the late Japanese-American sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, who was renowned for his Akari light sculptures – geometric lamps fashioned out of washi paper and bamboo. Dreamt up by the man himself, this 24,000ft2 venue showcases an array of sculptures, architectural models, furniture and more, rendered in his trademark biomorphic style. Take a stroll around the peaceful ivy-strewn garden and admire the elegant stone monoliths dotting the grounds. Do also check out the on-site bookshop, where you can pick up an original paper lamp for yourself.
6. Museum of the Moving Image
Also situated in Queens, the Museum of the Moving Image pays homage to all things film, television and video. Visitors will discover more than 130,000 artefacts on display – ranging from vintage arcade games to an animatronic Yoda puppet and even the chariot featured in 1959’s Ben-Hur. Keen to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes? Head up to the third floor of the museum to explore technical equipment such as lights, mics and cameras. There are regular temporary exhibitions too – currently on show is “Living With The Walking Dead” (through 1 January 2023), which explores the origins, production and fandom surrounding the immensely popular TV series.