Exhausting? Yes. Worth it? Also yes.
By Katelyn Cody
On Saturday September 21st, Smithsonian Magazine held their annual National Museum Day in which hundreds of museums and cultural institutions across the country partnered with the magazine to offer free admission. Being the history nerds that we are, my dad and I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and visit as many museums in New York City as we could in five hours. We chose the Museum of the City of New York, the Jewish Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York, and Fraunces Tavern.
We began our journey on the Upper East Side with the Museum of the City of New York, which ended up being my favorite museum. It documents the history of the city from its founding as New Amsterdam in the 1600s to its current status as the backdrop for political change and activism. My favorite part of the museum was how interactive it was. Rather than only walking from gallery to gallery looking at old photographs (they have a great exhibit on display right now of photographs from the aftermath of the Stonewall Riot, I highly recommend), attendees are given the ability to create computer models of plans for future affordable and sustainable housing, to use a switchboard or sewing machine to learn about the labor movement, and even to ride a virtual reality bike to experience what the city would be like with improved bike lanes.
Next, we headed down a couple blocks to the Jewish Museum, a relatively small museum that was nonetheless moving. One artifact on display that caught my eye in particular was a menorah carved out of wood by a man imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I thought this piece truly embodied the theme of perseverance and strength of cultural identity at the museum.
Next, we ended up at the only non-history museum of the day, the Cooper Hewitt. This museum showcases American works of contemporary art and design. The main exhibit on display focused on the intersection of design and nature; including works such as, iridescent ceramic ware from the 1800s and sustainable clothing featured in past fashion week. This was another museum that really tapped into interactive features; there was a room where you could design your own wallpaper, which would then be projected onto the walls in the room.
To round out the day, we traveled all the way downtown to Bowling Green to visit our last two stops. The Museum of the American Indian blew me away with the amount of artistic detail present in each of the works on display. One interesting aspect of this museum was that in its temporary exhibit on the history of Taíno culture the signs documenting the history of indigenous peoples and the cards that explained the artifacts were written in both English and Spanish, something I hadn’t encountered before.
We ended our day at Fraunces Tavern, the one place that my dad, being a U.S. history teacher, was most excited about visiting. This small building on Pearl Street seems like just another old converted home, like many of the buildings in Lower Manhattan. However, the tavern has seen a lot in its 300-year history. Most notably, it was where the Sons of Liberty planned the New York Tea Party (yes, we had one too, suck it Boston) and where George Washington bid farewell to his officers at the official end of the American Revolution.
This experience got me thinking about how important it is to make institutions like these more accessible to the public. If it hadn’t been for an event like this, I most likely would not have visited any of these places because even with a student discount I would be set back about $15 at each museum. Hopefully, the popularity of this event will demonstrate how vital it is to offer free admission more often throughout the year.