Guest blogger Gena Schwam was born and raised in New York City and grew up in the major museums there. She went on to have a career as a museum professional and earned a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. She has had a decade-long career working as a museum Registrar, Curator and Director. She also spent two years working for the American Museum of Natural History, where she traveled the world installing the museum's traveling exhibitions.
It's not a new concept, but it's often a surprising one for many travelers: It is possible to visit New York City's best museums without forking over their posted sky-high admission fees. Although not widely publicized (or even posted at the museums themselves), the museums listed below will allow you to pay what you feel is appropriate rather than the posted admission price. At some of these museums, you will actually see written in small print “suggested admission”. The vast majority of tourists won't stop to read the small print and will usually end up paying up to $25 per adult to visit these museums.
The concept of suggested admission stems from the idea that it shouldn't have to be a luxury to visit a museum. Museums exist to preserve material culture and scientific specimens in perpetuity. While the primary goal of any museum is to collect and preserve materials, another major goal is to educate the public about specific topics and subjects related to the collections. Education departments at museums have been growing in recent years for this reason; museums want to teach us about the objects they have on display. Education is a right, not a privilege, so the concept of paying what you want to go to a museum makes complete sense.
Rain or shine, from 90-degree heat to freezing cold, museums offer a place to spend a few hours contemplating life outside of the frenzied pace of New York City. They provide a true escape, which, I think we can all agree, is priceless.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters
The Met is the premiere art museum in New York City, if not all of North America. With its gorgeous architecture, grand entry staircase and wide fountains, the museum commands attention from its perch on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue (also known as The Museum Mile). Situated just on the edge of Central Park, it is easy to get to, and get lost in. The various wings house everything from Near-eastern statues of Akkadian bearded beasts to a large display of Impressionist paintings by artists such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne and Monet. One can stroll from an Egyptian temple to the modern wing, to the Medieval armor and instruments section. Pay what you wish to see these marvels of human creativity, and then head uptown to Inwood for a spectacular view of the city after viewing gorgeous tapestries and illuminated manuscripts at The Cloisters (also owned by The Met).
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
You can also pay what you wish at AMNH, which is located on the other side of Central Park from the Met, in Manhattan's Upper West Side. AMNH is a similar architectural marvel, and also includes the celebrated Hayden Planetarium, where you can be transported into celestial realms (for an additional fee) to learn about how our solar system and universe work. AMNH offers exhibits on everything from the forests of North America to the evolution of the human body, to, of course, dinosaurs. There are exhibits which have stood the test of time themselves, and also galleries which have new, changing exhibits. If you can spring for additional ticket fees, you will gain entry to the special exhibits, and you can also walk into a room filled with butterflies and watch as they land on your hands and shoulders. AMNH is a smorgasbord of visual and intellectual stimuli. My personal favorite is the Hall of Oceans, where a life-sized model of a blue whale dominates two floors and hangs over the casual passerby.
The Brooklyn Museum
Hop on the subway or grab a taxi over to the Brooklyn Museum, which houses one of the most impressive art collections in the country. Often overlooked by tourists coming to NYC (because of its outer borough location), this museum offers visitors the opportunity to see a fabulous collection of Egyptian art and artifacts, rivaled only by the British Museum in scale and scope. Also available are permanent exhibitions and rotating special exhibitions of modern American and European art. Suggested donation is $12 but pay what you wish.
A well-kept secret that has spread like wildfire, the Museum of Modern Art's satellite location in an old public school in Queens is now a premiere modern art museum and destination. Visitors can pay what they like to see rotating long and short-term installations by artists such as James Turrell and Richard Serra, as well as emerging and experimental artists. PS1 also hosts many outdoor events and concerts throughout the year.
One of many free museums worth mentioning:
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
Although founded by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the New York branch of NMAI is not to be missed. For no admission fee at all, visitors can travel to the old Customs House on the lower tip of Manhattan, a historic monument itself, to see rotating exhibitions which tell the story of American Indians. From modern art exhibits to installations of horse regalia and tribe-specific ceremonial objects, viewers can spend a few hours learning about indigenous Americans and their history. A bonus: some of the old Customs house is preserved in a central atrium where colonial-era murals remain on the walls and ceiling.