The Upper East Side has Museum Mile, but its counterpart neighborhood on the other side of Central Park has worthy museums of its own. It is on the Upper West Side, not the UES, where you will find a mastodon skeleton, 18th-century quilts, a camp bed from Valley Forge, and paintings by an artist who was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Two Lincoln Square (Columbus Avenue at 66th Street)
For many, “folk art” conjures up images of handmade quilts and weathervanes. While the American Folk Art Museum does have those on display, its collection of more than 7,000 works includes much more as well. The museum views folk art as synonymous with self-taught art, and its paintings, furniture, pottery, and dolls created by folk artists date back to the 1700s. In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts numerous temporary exhibitions. Running through February 24, 2019, are “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return,” wooden architectural models by Ghanaian artist Joe of buildings that were way stations for Africans sold into slavery, and “John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night,” the first exhibit of paintings and sculptures by Dunkley outside of his native Jamaica.
Central Park West at 79th Street
Thanks in large part to its dinosaur skeletons, the American Museum of Natural History is a favorite with kids. But not all of its 5 million annual visitors are children, of course, or even parents tagging along with their kids. Among the museum’s 45 permanent exhibit halls spanning more than 46 acres and its collection of more than 33 million items are fossils and meteorites, dioramas featuring 10-feet-long Komodo dragons and 7-feet-high ostriches, tools used by Neanderthals and jewelry worn by Aztecs. Highlights of the collection include the 563-carat Star of India, the world’s largest gem-quality blue star sapphire; the 63-feet-long Grand Canoe, adorned with paintings and carvings by Haida artists and now hanging from the ceiling of the Grand Gallery; and the Cosmic Pathway near the Hayden Planetarium.
18 West 86th Street (between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue)
The Bard Graduate Center is a research institute of Bard College focusing on decorative arts as well as the design of utilitarian objects. The center’s gallery, located in a handsome six-story town house, hosts an ever-evolving assortment of exhibits. On display through January 6, 2019, is “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place,” consisting of more than 300 paintings, sculptures, offerings, and objects from around the world, with some dating back to 2000 B.C. Three shows will debut on February 14: “Jan Tschichold and the New Typography,” focusing on the German graphic designer’s work between the World Wars; “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt, and the Making of Anthropology,” featuring artifacts from the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia; and “A View from the Jeweler’s Bench,” showcasing how contemporary jewelry artists are further developing the art form while referencing the works of centuries past.
170 Central Park West (at 77th Street)
The hyphen in “New-York” is the only thing fusty about the New-York Historical Society. Its eclectic collections are displayed in bright, airy halls and really do offer something for everyone. The Roy J. Zuckerberg Silver Gallery gleams with tableware, jewelry, and artworks, including
a teapot from 1695 and the controller handle used by Mayor George McClellan to drive the inaugural journey of the New York subway in 1904; the Henry Luce III Center includes the world’s largest collection of Tiffany lamps; and the Center for Women’s History looks at both exceptional women throughout the city’s history and the life of ordinary women during the past few centuries. Drawings by John James Audubon and John Singer Sargent, a Civil War draft wheel, woodworking tools owned by Duncan Phyfe, and a wedding dress from the early 18th century are among the collection highlights. The museum’s temporary exhibits are just as varied. Running through January 27, 2019, are “Billie Jean King: The Road to 75,” photos of the groundbreaking athlete curated in honor of her 75th birthday, and “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which presents books and artifacts from as far back as the Middle Ages alongside original Harry Potter artwork, including drawings by author J.K. Rowling. “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” which uses photographs, paintings, and artifacts to look at the lives of African Americans from Reconstruction through the end of World War I, runs through March 3.
319 West 107th Street (between Broadway and Riverside Drive)
Russia-born artist, writer, and philosopher Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) is little-remembered today, but this museum is determined to change that. More than 150 of his paintings, in which his passions for architecture, the Central Asian landscape, Eastern religions, and spiritualism are on full display, make up the backbone of the collection. Also on display, however, are photographs and artifacts documenting his life, as well as information about the Roerich Pact—formally the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments—a pan-American treaty that Roerich helped spearhead that declares cultural objects neutral during wars, in the same way that hospitals are meant to be considered neutral and safe from attack.