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The DiMenna Children's History Museum opens at the New-York Historical Society

Kids can learn all about New York's history at the new DiMenna Children's History Museum.

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

  • Photograph: Marielle Solan

    DiMenna Children's History Museum

Photograph: Marielle Solan

DiMenna Children's History Museum

There are great history museums and great children's museums, but there are no great children's history museums," say Louise Mirrer, the president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. That will change on November 11 when the venerable institution on the Upper West Side reopens after a $65 million renovation that includes the DiMenna Children's History Museum—the first ever of its kind.

The mini-museum, occupying 4,000 square feet on the society's lower level, is groundbreaking not only because it caters to the youngest visitors but also because it focuses on historical figures when they were children themselves. "We want kids to know that history isn't a bunch of old men," says Diana DiMenna, who, together with her husband Joseph—the parents of two young children—helped fund its construction. DiMenna's own interest in John Quincy Adams sparked the idea for the museum. "Before he was an accomplished adult, he was living an incredibly interesting life as a child, traveling back and forth from the U.S. to Europe," she says. "I was wondering about other children throughout the city's history. What did they experience?"

And so the Historical Society culled through its collection of more than 10 million artifacts to produce seven pavilions dedicated to a diverse group of historical figures. Adams didn't make the cut ("Unfortunately, he was not a New Yorker," says Mirrer), but those who did include Alexander Hamilton—who came to New York from the Caribbean as an orphan—as well as Dr. James McCune Smith, the first black, university-trained doctor in the United States; Esteban Belln, the first Latin American baseball player in the major leagues; and Cornelia van Varick, the daughter of a 17th-century female textile worker. They share space with anonymous children: "newsies," who sold newspapers on city streets for pennies at the turn of the 20th century, and orphans who were sent from New York to live in rural communities throughout the country.

Lee Skolnick, an architect responsible for more than 50 museums around the world, including midtown's Sony Wonder Technology Lab, was brought in to head up the project. He created a dramatic approach: Kids descending the main staircase to the children's center enter a virtual "time machine," where silhouetted figures on the walls represent New York from the present back to the era of precolonization. Once inside, kids can look for their exact street on the museum's floor, which is covered with a map of the entire city, and listen to music from different time periods at two audio stations. While the pavilions are equipped with a ton of interactive games (in one, children can check out Hamilton's "Federalbook" page; he even gets a "poke" from Aaron Burr), it's the decidedly low-tech activities—perfecting penmanship like Dr. McCune Smith or learning Van Varick's cross-stitch technique—that may be even more captivating to kids long accustomed to interactive screens.

Since every New York story is also an American one, half of each pavilion is dedicated to how the individual fits into our country's history and how they achieved success in New York or elsewhere."We want children to see New York as diverse and tolerant of ambition," says Mirrer. "We want them to understand that New York is often the first place people come to from all around the world, but that they could end up anywhere."

 

Once you're in the door, don't miss...

Museum entrance
"The doorway—a miniature version of the Historical Society's—is covered with clues about what kids will find inside," Skolnick says. Little historians can peak through a large keyhole in the front door, check out a roof reinterpreted as the Brooklyn Bridge, and run their fingers over a stone facade made of puzzle pieces.

American Dreamer pavilion
Kids become part of history by snapping their picture in the photo booth, adding the occupation they hope to have when they grow up and watching as their image appears in a gallery of New Yorkers that includes Hillary Clinton, Derek Jeter, Sonia Sotomayor and Vera Wang.

Cornelia van Varick and Alexander Hamilton pavilions
Made to resemble a linen chest, the Cornelia van Varick area has kids calculating the cost of different textiles in wampum, Arabic gold and pine tree shillings, and following the trade routes that connected one Brooklyn store to the rest of the world in the 1700s. Children enter Alexander Hamilton's study to explore the first issue of the Federalist Papers in a document-decoding station, then open drawers to see artifacts from the colonial era, like a tri-cornered hat and quill.

Esteban Belln, Orphan Train and New York Newsie pavilions
Using a baseball card--inspired activity at Esteban Belln's section, young visitors assemble a dream team from among 27 greats, including Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Mariano Rivera. Kids can sit in the Orphan Train, listening to stories of some of the tens of thousands of children who were sent to live with adoptive families out West. A New York street corner, home to "newsies," has little ones playing a game that shows how hard children 100 years ago needed to work to survive.

Barbara K. Lipman Children's History Library
"Because history is about telling stories, the library is an integral part of the new children's museum," Mirrer says. There, kids can check out a digital atlas to see the changing boundaries of New York City and the nation, catch a reading, or pull out a book from the collection and settle into the seating area.

 

The DiMenna Museum opens November 11, 2011.

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