Beyond the Met: New York’s offbeat and quirky museums

by Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler on September 21, 2010

NY Transit Museum

New York Transit Museum

Together, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim possess some of the world’s most stunning (and priciest) works: Monet landscapes, hooded figures by Rodin, nightscapes by van Gogh, a plethora of Picassos — the list of art worth seeing goes on and on.

But none of these illustrious museums has salt-and-pepper shakers resembling condoms. To see that, you have to go to the Museum of Sex. And if you want to see a hilarious send-up of modern mores by Roz Chast, you need to stop into the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. In other words, what the offbeat and unique museums listed below lack in canonical paintings, they make up for in charm and coolness.

The City Reliquary

This miniscule museum in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, initially appears to be just another store along a block that boasts bodegas and hair salons. Inside the City Reliquary, however, are various ancient artifacts from the five boroughs, such as coasters from long-gone bars, matchbooks from the 1940 World’s Fair, naked lady pens, jelly molds, and postcards of the Statue of Liberty — the kind of stuff that gets tossed into a drawer or buried in a basement. Taken out and lovingly showcased, the musty objects form a monument to New York kitsch. Open Thursdays, 7–10 pm, and Saturday–Sunday, 12–6 pm. The museum is located at 370 Metropolitan Avenue. Stay at the Cooper Square Hotel in Manhattan, close to the L train that will take you to Brooklyn.

Hall of Fame for Great Americans

As the name implies, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is dedicated to those individuals who helped shape the nation, including Eli Whitney, Daniel Boone, and Jane Addams. Busts and plaques abound. Designed by Stanford White, the airy, hagiographic hall features a striking neoclassical arc, with views of the Harlem River peeking out from between the marble columns and bronze heads. It’s located on the Bronx Community College campus, at 2155 University Avenue. Call 718.289.5161 or 718.289.5877 for more information or to schedule a tour. Stay at the Broadway Hotel & Hostel, close to the 1 train that will take you uptown.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of the thousands of immigrants who settled in the neighborhood one their way into the U.S. Apartments have been painstakingly re-created to show what life was like in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In many cases, the curators interviewed the descendants of those who lived there long ago; listening to their recollections gives the tour a poignant touch. Tours of the different apartments depart daily, from 10.30 am–5 pm, at 108 Orchard Street. Hotel 91 is nearby.

Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art

Dedicated to all things drawn or colored, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art offers rotating exhibits in a small gallery on such topics as the “Incredulous Anthropology” of Dr. Seuss and the “Doomed Affairs” of Spiderman. But the atmosphere feels playfully geeky rather than seriously nerdy. The museum, in a nondescript building at 594 Broadway in Soho, is open Tuesday­–Sunday, 12–5 pm, with special lectures and events held most Thursday evenings. The Crosby Street Hotel is close.

Museum of Sex

While we’re not sure we’d like to hang out here with our parents, the Museum of Sex is actually less titillating and more informative than you might imagine. And we don’t mean that in a ninth-grade-health-class-way, either: exhibits about the sex lives of animals or of robots provide insights into human sexuality in its complicated, multifaceted glory. Looking at the vibrating chair and watching pornos from the olden days are fun to do, too, as is strolling around the gift shop. The museum is located at 233 Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron neighborhood, and is open Sunday­–Thursday, 10 am­–8 pm, and Saturday, 10 am–9 pm. The Hotel Giraffe is within easy walking distance.

New York Transit Museum

Located in a disused subway station, the New York Transit Museum pays tribute to the extensive system of public transportation that crisscrosses the city. You can see models of trolleys, move through old turnstiles, and marvel at metal slugs used in lieu of 5-cent tokens. Plus, you can walk through actual subway cars of yesteryear, complete with old advertisements and maps. Judging from the height of the wicker seats and metal fans, people really were smaller back then. The museum, at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights, is open Tuesday–Friday, 10 am–4 pm, and Saturday–Sunday, 12–5 pm. Stay at the Duane Street Hotel, close to the A train which will take you into Brooklyn.

–Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler of We Heart New York

[Photo credit: Flickr/gsz (Garrett Ziegler)]

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