After three years of extensive renovations, the revamped New York Historical Society reopened to the public last week. There are a lot of new additions at this Upper West Side institution: The landmarked building now has a fantastic grand hall that beautifully juxtaposes the past and present; life-size statues of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass greet visitors at the two entrances; the iconic ceiling from Keith Haring's Pop Shop is on display and there's a new eatery, Caffe Storico.
But the new attraction we're most excited about is the DiMenna Children's History Museum, an interactive, 4,500-square-foot mini-museum that invites kids to explore American history through the eyes of iconic NYC children. No boring memorization of names and dates here; a slew of hands-on activities really engage young visitors. I was impressed with how the stations balance having fun with serious learning. It's a truly groundbreaking achievement, especially since it's one of the few children's history museums in the U.S., and the only one in NYC!
One important thing to note: The DiMenna Children's History Museum is not a typical children's museum. While many of the offerings at CMOM and the Brooklyn Children's Museum skew young, the NY Historical Society's kids' space is best enjoyed by mature elementary, middle and high schoolers. So if you're looking for an Upper West Side spot where your toddler can run amok, this isn't it.
The DiMenna Children’s History Museum is located off the grand hall on the lower level of the NY Historical Society. As you head downstairs, you travel back through time by passing wall illustrations of figures from our country's history. Finally, you end up two floors below next to a Lenape Indian landscape.
Everything in the children’s museum is child-sized: the replica of the building's exterior, the fantastic five borough map rug, the old New York murals and much more. Plus all of the information is presented through the eyes of historically significant New Yorkers... when they were kids. There's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton; James McCune Smith, the son of a slave who became the first African-American doctor; Esteban Bellán, the first Latino to play professional baseball; and Cornelia van Varick, daughter of a 17th century textile worker. There are also sections for less storied children, like the Orphan Train kids, who were shipped away for a better life in the Midwest, and the Newsies, the rough-and-tumble tykes who hawked papers on the street and spurred social change through striking. Visitors can learn about all of these kids and their legacies, and get a sense of the worlds they inhabited.
The museum also explores concepts like democracy, commerce, personal rights and freedom, and pastimes like baseball and needlepoint. In Hamilton's area, kids learn all about the history of American currency. In van Varick's section, children can try their hand at cross-stitching. McClune's area features an old-school doctor's office, and in the Newsies section, kids can play a cool video game, where they have to choose the right street corner, the paper they expect will do best, and then hustle to sell as many as they can.
The Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library, which is part of the museum, evokes Central Park with photo murals of the green space on its walls. This is a great place for families to hunker down and leaf through NYC-themed kid-lit, examine artifacts cleverly housed in the drawers of an old-fashioned card catalog, or explore the historic maps of NYC and the U.S.
I particularly enjoyed the center pavilion (which reminded me of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park) where you can see famous NYC places like the Grand Concourse today, and what they used to look like long ago. The museum gave me a ton of ideas about how to explore NYC in new ways with my son when he starts to learn about U.S. History. (He's almost there!)
The NY Historical Society also hosts lots of family programming, including a weekly Sunday morning story hour, living history days when you can meet actors portraying famous folks like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and family learning labs. You can find the complete schedule on the website.
Although the children's history museum welcomes visitors of all ages, as I said, it's really aimed at older kids. The curators suggest 8 and up, and I have to agree. In order to get the most from the experience, kids need to understand that there was a time before today, and be able to read.
When you visit, make sure you check out the rest of the Historical Society. There's a striking film New York Story that condenses our city's history into 15 minutes (it really makes you proud to be a New Yorker). Also, the new exhibit Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn about the American, French and Haitian Revolutions is great research fodder for schoolwork. On your way through the main hall, look down and you'll see there's an exhibit there, History Under Your Feet, featuring artifacts embedded in the floor like arrowheads, water pipes, a rum bottle and a clock unearthed from the rubble of 9/11. And in the Central Park West entryway, there's a cool digital animation of the painting Pulling Down the Statue of King George III that responds to movement. Stick around until a crowd gathers and you'll be able to help pull down the statue!
The DiMenna Children's History Museum is permanently on view at the New York Historical Society. Free with admission: $19 for adults, $12 for students, $6 for children ages 5-13.