New-York Historical Society

Location: Upper W. Side, W. 77th Street & Central Park W. Next door to the Museum of Natural History

Address: 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024

Date of Visit: April 18, 2017

Open Hrs. ADA Accessbility? Admission Phone # Website
  • Galleries, Store:
    Tu.-Th., Sat: 10am-6pm
    F.: 10am-8pm
    Sun.: 11am-5pm
    M.: CLOSED
  • Library:
    Tu.-Sat.: 10am-4:45pm
    Sun., M.: CLOSED
  • Adults: $20
  • Seniors,
    Active Military:
  • Students: $12
  • Kids (5-13 yrs.): $6
  • Kids (<5 yrs.): FREE
  • Pay-as-you-wish.: Fri. 6-8pm
212-873-3400 Website
Front of the museum.
Front of the museum.

New York’s history dates back millions of years. Once upon a time, dinosaurs conquered this land. Hundreds of millennia later, Natives lived here. Then, the Dutch settled, called it “New Amsterdam,” and the British took over in the mid-1700s. Renamed “New York,” the city grew exponentially and is now a major international metropolis. Over in the Upper West Side, and one block away from the Museum of Natural History, the New-York Historical Society condenses New York City’s history to one block in Manhattan.


Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (abbreviated N-YHS) is the city’s oldest museum. Very early on, the museum was burdened by heavy debt, so they organized a bicentennial celebration of Henry Hudson’s arrival, obtained an endowment from the New York State Legislature that would be financed through an 1814 lottery, and then forced to mortgage a chunk of their book collection when the lottery failed massively.

During the 19th Century, the N-YHS jumped from location to location to accommodate their growing collection, but on September 10, 1902, construction for a permanent location finally began. On December 15, 1908, the museum opened to the public. Over the next few decades, as its collection grew, they constructed an extension, which is the latest Beaux-Arts architecture throughout the country. In 1966, NYC made it a landmark.

Undergorund tattoo parlor on display.
Underground tattoo parlor on display.

During the ’70s and ’80s, the N-YHS went through hard times. It was so bad that they had to use endowment invasion to pay for operating costs and salaries; by 1988, they only had enough to pay eighteen months for operation. That year, mildew began to deteriorate hundreds of priceless possessions. In 1995, one year after Betsy Gotbaum became N-YHS president, city and state grants resumed, and since then, the facility continually upgraded, including a renovation that was completed in 2011 with life-size bronze statues of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglas standing on the steps.

Its hyphenation of New York as “New-York” stems from how people spelled the city name back in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite harsh criticism in 1945 and The Council’s attempt to remove it by law, the N-YHS refused to budge and sees its branding as a major badge of honor.

History on Four Floors

The building is consistent of four floors: the main, basement (with the children’s history museum), second floor, and fourth floor. (Third floor is closed to the public.) Each of the exhibits may be small in space, but there’s so much to look at that you could be spending as long as an hour, if not longer, on each floor. And with one half of the fourth undergoing renovations until the end of April, visitors will spend more time exploring each exhibition.

When you arrive in at least one of the exhibits, walk around, pay attention to the level of detail in the displays, and read some of the content from the interactive screens if they’re nearby. The Historical Society puts forth a great deal of their resources into all of their work, and it shows everywhere in the museum, particularly in three of the exhibits.

Orphan child’s letter.
Orphan child's letter.

Tattooed New York (the most adult exhibit currently on display) details how the tattoo culture evolved in New York. Not only is great tattoo art great to look at. They also have many purposes. There are many reasons why some choose to get one, ranging from spiritual to in memoriam to personal. Tattoos have been a part of not just pop culture (the exhibit includes a Closed-Captioning clip of Groucho Marx’s Lydia the Tattooed Lady), but defiance, too. In 1961, New York’s tattoo business dove underground after the city falsely accused it of spreading Hepatitis B in Coney Island and banned the practice altogether. It wasn’t until 1997 when the city lifted it. Every Friday morning, people can watch someone actually get tattooed at the exhibit. This exhibit features New York’s rich history of the tattoo community, from the 18th Century to the present. I don’t intend to get one, but there’s no denying how tattoos are a cultural and powerful fabric of society.

Downstairs is the DiMenna Children’s History Museum. The minute you arrive in the corridor, you’re met with a display of dozens of children’s toys before you, and behind you are cases of ancient New York City, from life-sized bronze fists of Abraham Lincoln to symbolize racial equality to a larger toy train engine. That hallway alone is full of New York history.

Inside is the most interactive exhibit of the entire museum. Kids and adults alike can spend a good deal of time being taught New York history, from life in the colonial period to the lack of a centralized currency in the early days of America to the evolution of neighborhoods from the turn of the 20th Century to the present. The two pavilions I like, though, are the Orphan Train Riders and New York Newsies. Both of them summarize and show the major hardships New York children faced both in and out of the city. When you sit in one of the train booths in Orphaned Train Riders, read the letters from the orphaned children and listen to the dramatization from the speakers above. Some from the Orphan Trains (organized by the Children’s Aid Society) have happy endings, but not all do. New York Newsies describes how children working for either the New York World or New York Journal sold papers to people and were forced to work in vile conditions while being poorly paid. Some newspaper clippings detailed the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike, which lasted from July 21 to August 2 and was responsible for eventual child labor laws and practices.

The fourth floor is only accessed by elevator, but inside is a current exhibition dedicated to women’s rights. The one currently open, Saving Washington, is centered on First Lady Dolley Madison, who was perhaps the most important female figure during the early American years. This section is loaded with history of not just the United States while she was alive, but also Dolley’s impact, including helping construct the White House. Over 100 pieces are located in this exhibit, and parts of them include interactivity by touching the screens or hiding/revealing panels. Saving Washington is varied and a major treasure of historic Americana.

Over on the second floor, there are several exhibitions, including Big Bird (a tribute to compare and contrast life-size watercolor paintings of birds by John James Audubon and other European artists), a tribute to President Thomas Jefferson, and painting collections in the huge Dexter Hall. On this floor, I dedicated my time gawking and analyzing the gorgeous oil paintings in Dexter Hall. The most eye-popping painting there is Pablo Picasso’s “Le Tricorne,” a massive floor-to-ceiling curtain and his first ever work.

Priceless artifacts from Saving Washington.
Priceless artifacts from Saving Washington.

Outside of Tattooed, the lobby has many other galleries. The Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery has several interactive screens explaining to the viewer several treasures in the displays and along the walls. In the back, the West Gallery features several famous TIME and Life magazine covers over the past century. In front of the amphitheater is “We The People,” a display where people coming in can write their own messages on stickies. Inside the amphitheater is “New York Story,” an 18-minute-long biographical summary of New York City that resets every half-hour. On the day I went, I watched the 4-o’clock airing, the last one of the day. If you plan to stay there all day, you’ll perhaps spend at least one hour in the Smith Gallery for the same reasons as the other galleries.


New York City is eclectic with so much ancient and current history. Today, New York is the most famous and populous in the United States, but it was never that way. Dinosaurs lived here first, followed by Natives several millennia later. After the Dutch settled into the area and named it New Amsterdam, several centuries of important moments and eras transformed it, from the English taking control and renaming it New York to 9/11 long afterwards. Every artifact in the New-York Historical Society reminds us of not only New York City’s history, but importance, too. The N-YHS’s endless pursuit and dedication to educating New York City to the masses is priceless, and it earns a visit.

Best Directions:

  • By subway, take the B/C train along Central Park West to W. 81st Street. Exit at the southernmost exit to 79th Street and walk two blocks south.

    By bus, take the M10 via Central Park W. to W. 77th Street.

Visitation Tips:

  • The museum is completely ADA-accessible, and wheelchairs are free. Several exhibitions are also altered for those who are deaf or blind. For more information, click here.
  • Outside food and drink forbidden inside the museum. Sealed bottle water is permitted.
  • If you’re paying your ticket as a student, bring a valid Student ID with you.
  • Photography is permitted throughout the exhibit except inside the ampitheater when the movie is being played. Tripods, flash, and selfie sticks are prohibited.
  • Floor plans are available online and at the museum. Here is the floor plan in English.
  • Most exhibitions are only open for a specific amount of time. They're replaced every few months at least. At the time I wrote this review, Tattooed New York is only open until the end of the month.
  • There’s limited parking available, but due to New York’s congestion, it's best to take public transportation (preferably the subway) instead.