Thanks to a 2016 overhaul, this nearly-century old museum (it was founded in 1923) is finally making good on the promise of its name. Today, it offers visitors a textured, dramatic, suavely-interactive look at the improbable tale of a tiny, obscure Dutch colony that blossomed—and burned, and conned, and fought—into a world capital. Start your visit in the basement, for the absorbing 30-minute film (narrated by Stanley Tucci) that outlines the story. Next stop should be the ground floor gallery which traces Gotham’s history from the Native American days through 1900’s, displaying artifacts of all sorts, but also featuring electronic panels that offer biographies of New Yorkers, both well-known and obscure—everyone from Alexander Hamilton to a murdered prostitute—that illuminate different strands of the story. The panels, with their interactive maps, reproduced paintings and drawings, newspaper clippings of the time, graphs, and more, are hugely absorbing (on my last visit I looked up, and an hour had passed). Its twin gallery traces the yarn from 1901 through today with the same panache. Also on this floor: the Future City Lab, an exhibit that allows visitors to try to solve the city’s problems with sustainability, population density, et cetera, on individual tablets that are later screened for all to see (kids will love this room). Upstairs are changing exhibits, a famed dollhouse, galleries with Gilded Age frippery, and an excellent permanent exhibition on activism in NYC.
- Pauline Frommer