Museums Off the Beaten Path

In the mood for something different? These quirky and unusual museums offer unique exhibits you won’t find everywhere else.

For residents who’ve hit all the major cultural highlights or visitors in the mood for something a bit more unusual than standard-issue art and history, the city offers an entire world of off-the-beaten path — and just plain oddball — museums to explore. From gangster memorabilia and animal-sex exhibits to showboat history and tours of former tenements, these spots offer something different for everyone.

 

Houdini Museum of New York Houdini Museum of New York

Housed inside Fantasma Magic, this private collection of “Houdiniana” includes publicity posters, handcuffs, secret escape tools, photographs and magic props—most of which had never been on display before the museum opened in late 2012. The exhibit also encourages participation: a Houdini animatronic “escapes” from a straitjacket dangling from the ceiling every 15 minutes, and “Rambo the live bunny” is ready for petting and other gentle attention. (Mon–Sat 11am–6pm; Sun 11am–5pm; free; 421 Seventh Ave., 3rd floor, at 33rd St.; A, C, E, 1, 2, 3 to 34th St./Penn Station; B, D, F, M to 34th St./Herald Square; houdinimuseumny.org)

 

Museum of the American Gangster Museum of the American Gangster

With a collection that ranges from John Dillinger’s death mask to bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the shooting of Pretty Boy Floyd, the Museum of the American Gangster was founded to preserve memorabilia from the Prohibition Era. The two-room collection, situated above a former speakeasy (which visitors can also tour), opened in 2010, and in addition to on-site information about all things gangster, the museum’s website includes stories from gangster history. (Daily, 1–6pm; adults $15, students & seniors $12; 80 St. Marks Place, between First and Second; N, R to 8th St.; 6 to Astor Place; F to 2nd Ave./Houston; L to 1st Ave.; museumoftheamericangangster.org)

 

Museum of Sex Museum of Sex

Not for the prurient or prude, the Museum of Sex highlights the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality, although a recent exhibit brings non-human animal sexual behavior into the mix, too. An aphrodisiac-themed café and a calendar filled with sex-themed classes add to the whimsical nature of the museum. And though it should go without saying, this isn’t the place to bring your kids; admission is for the 18-and-over crowd only. (Sun–Thu 10am–8pm, Fri–Sat, 10am–9pm; 233 Fifth Ave. at 27th St.; R, 1, 6 to 28th St.; museum.museumofsex.com)

 

Center for Thanatology

Yep, a museum devoted to thanatology (the study of mortality). The center includes more than 2,000 books and artifacts related to death and dying as well as a small shop that sells books and gravestone rubbing materials. (By appointment only, call 718-858-3026; free; 391 Atlantic Ave. at Bond St., Brooklyn; A, C, G to Hoyt/Schermerhorn; thanatology.org)

Tenement Museum

 

Tenement Museum

Growing in popularity, the Tenement Museum takes an interactive approach, offering themed tours that bring visitors into the actual spaces Lower East Side residents inhabited during the early 20th century. Tours come in three varieties: walking the neighborhood, touring the building (including restored tenement apartments) and “meeting” residents, who are played by costumed interpreters. (Daily, 10am–6pm; adults $22–$45, students & seniors $17–$40, members free–$22; 103 Orchard St. at Delancey; B, D to Grand St.; F to Delancey St.; J, M, Z to Essex St.; tenement.org)

 

Museum of Postal History (Wally Gobetz/Flickr) James A Farley Post Office Museum of Postal History

Tucked away in the north wing of the main post office in Manhattan—a beautiful Beaux Arts building—is the tiny Museum of Postal History, which includes mail on display from as far back as the Civil War, envelopes made out of unusual materials, letters from WWII internment camps and canceled stamps from various times in American history. (Mon–Fri 7am–10pm; Sat 9am–9pm; Sun 11am–7pm; 421 Eighth Ave. between 31st St. and 33rd St.; 1, 2, 3, A, C, E to 34th St./Penn Station)

 

City Reliquary

For those interested in the odd and fascinating minutiae of city life, it doesn’t get any better (or broader) than the City Reliquary. Its collections include items on loan from everyday people, ranging from sports memorabilia and salvaged building materials to old construction equipment and random glassware. (Thu–Sun 12–6pm; 370 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn; G, L to Metropolital/Lorimer; cityreliquary.org)

Waterfront Museum


Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge

A Brooklyn family found a barge filled with two tons of mud, purchased it for $1, then cleaned it up and turned it into their home (on the lower level) and a museum dedicated to the history of showboats and showboat performers (on the upper level). A kinetic Rube Goldberg device is on hand, and during the summer the museum hosts Circus Sundays, a variety of matinee performances for $15. (Thu 4–8pm, Sat 1–5pm; pay what you wish; 290 Conover St., Pier 44, Brooklyn; Take the B61 bus from A, C, F to Jay St./Metrotech or 2, 3, 4, 5, R to Borough Hall; waterfrontmuseum.org)

 

Weeksville Heritage Center Hunterfly Road Houses

Weeksville Heritage Center Hunterfly Road Houses Weeksville, which was long ago absorbed by Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was settled in 1838 by African-Americans looking to create a land-owning community. The three remaining houses, which date to the 19th century, have been decorated to portray Weeksville during the eras of the 1860s, 1900s and 1930s. (Walk-in tours Tue–Fri, 3pm, Sat 11am–2pm; $4, kids under 12 free; 1698 Bergen St. at Buffalo, Brooklyn; A, C to Utica Ave.; weeksvillesociety.org)

 

Reverend Jen’s Lower East Side Troll Museum

It doesn’t get much stranger (or more old-school Lower East Side) than this by-appointment-only pay-what-you-wish collection of troll dolls. Collected by local Reverend Jen, who is a self-described Gidget meets Henry Miller, the dolls are likely the largest troll collection open to the public. (By appointment only, call 212-777-2875; pay what you wish; 122-24 Orchard St. at Delancey; F, M, J, Z to Delancey/Essex; revjen.com)

 

El Museo del Barrio

El Museo del Barrio

Founded in the 1960s as an outgrowth of the Nuyorican and Civil Rights movements, El Museo del Barrio features more than 6,500 pieces in four distinct categories: modern and contemporary art; graphics, including Puerto Rican, Nuyorican and Chicano fine prints; Taino/pre-Columbian; and popular traditions, including masks and objects related to the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.  The museum also sponsors festivals and educational programs throughout the year, including the colorful Three Kings Day parade. (Tue–Sat, 11am–6pm, Sun 1–5pm; adults $9, students & seniors $5, members & kids under 12 free, seniors free on Wed; 1230 Fifth Ave. at 104th St; 6 to 103rd St.; 2, 3 to 100th St.; elmuseo.org)