NYC's top permanent historical museum exhibitions

We've selected our favorite museum collections that explore cultural and natural history.

  • Photograph: Sphinx of Hatshepsut; Image The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Sphinx of Hatshepsut at the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    The Cloisters

  • Photograph: Courtesy El Museo del Barrio

    Clay Vessel at El Museuo del Barrio

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

  • Photograph: David De Armas

    rubin shrine room 1

    The Rubin Museum

  • "Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of NY" at the Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Wendy Connett

    Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

  • Photograph: David Rosenzweig

    Merchant's House Museum

  • Photograph: Keiko Niwa

    Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Ernest Amoroso

    Assinbone antelope-horn headdress at the National Museum of the American Indian

Photograph: Sphinx of Hatshepsut; Image The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sphinx of Hatshepsut at the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art

Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
These 37 galleries display 30,000 artifacts dating from the Paleolithic era (more than 300,000 years ago) to the 4th century A.D., when Roman Emperor Constantine ushered in the Christian era. Along the way, you'll spy mummies, the sphinx of Hatshepsut (with the female pharaoh's head on a lion's body) and the millennia-old Temple of Dendur, which the government of Egypt gifted to the U.S. in 1965. 1000 Fifth Ave at 82nd St (212-535-7710, Tue--Thu, Sun 9:30am--5:30pm; Fri, Sat 9:30am--9pm. Suggested donation $25, seniors $17, students $12, members and children under 12 free.

The Cloisters
This uptown annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is named for the five medieval European courtyards dating from the 12th to the 15th century, and painstakingly reassembled on the northern tip of Manhattan. These relics, mostly gathered in France and Spain, were shipped in pieces to Fort Tryon Park, where they now overlook the Hudson River. Though the building itself is one of the museum's highlights, the collection also includes furniture, sculptures, altarpieces and the famed Unicorn Tapestries. 99 Margaret Corbin Dr in Fort Tryon Park (212-923-3700, Mar--Oct Tue--Sun 9:30am--5:15pm; Nov--Feb Tue--Sun 9:30am--4:45pm. Suggested donation $25, seniors $17, students $12, children under 12 free.

El Museo del Barrio
The indigenous Americans called the Tano, who inhabited the Caribbean islands from 1200 to 1500 A.D., greeted Christopher Columbus on his expeditions to the New World, then quickly disappeared due to disease and famine. Vestiges of the culture still remain in words like barbecue and culinary dishes that use yucca—and at this institution. Founded to investigate the Puerto Rican diaspora, El Museo has almost 400 examples of Tano art. The artifacts show off the highly developed culture that influenced arts in island nations including Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 1230 Fifth Ave between 104th and 105th Sts (212-831-7272, Tue--Sat 11am--6pm; Sun 1--5pm. Suggested donation $9, seniors and students $5, members and children under 12 free. Every third Saturday free.

"New York Rising" at the New-York Historical Society
The 2011 renovation to the New-York Historical Society added this interactive exhibit on the building's first floor. Curators arranged art and artifacts connected to five Revolutionary War--era New Yorkers (for example, a bust of Alexander Hamilton) on a single gallery wall. Rotating digital touch screens allow the viewer to zero in on the objects—such as a painting or a sword—and learn about them and their owners. 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets (212-873-3400, Tue--Thu, Sat 10am--6pm; Fri 10am--8pm; Sun 11am--5pm; $15, seniors and educators $12, students $10, children 7--13 $5, children under 7 free.

The Rubin Museum
This institution traces the history of Hindu and Buddhist iconography throughout the ages, with such items as a 7th-century pedestal from Pakistan (one of the oldest pieces in the collection) to relatively recent relics from 19th-century Mongolia. Make sure to look for centuries-old textiles as well as a life-size replica of illustrations that were painted on the walls of the Dalai Lama's secret temple in Lhasa. 150 W 17th St at Seventh Ave (212-620-5000, Mon, Thu 11am--5pm; Wed 11am--7pm; Fri 11am--10pm; Sat, Sun 11am--6pm; $10, seniors and students $5, children under 12 free. Fri 6--10pm free

"Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of NY" at the Museum of the City of New York
Actor Stanley Tucci narrates this short film, which was created for the Museum of the City of New York by media company Local Projects and writer James Sanders (who also cowrote Ric Burn's 1999 series New York: A Documentary History). In 22 minutes, visitors see New York transform from the Lenape territory called Mannahatta to the global nexus it is today. It also highlights artifacts from the organization's permanent collection, such as historical photographs, archival prints and animated maps. 1220 Fifth Ave between 103rd and 104th Sts (212-534-1672, Daily 10am--6pm; $10, seniors and students $6, children 12 and under free.

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
The venue is the exhibition at this aircraft carrier turned museum. The USS Intrepid served in World War II and the Vietnam War, before it was retired and named a national landmark. Nowadays, visitors can see how sailors slept, dined and waged combat from the ship's decks. You can also inspect items from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and NASA, including supersonic planes, fighter jets, a submarine and the soon-to-arrive space shuttle Enterprise (which will touch down in the city this summer). Pier 86, Twelfth Ave at 46th St (877-957-7447, Tue--Sun 10am--5pm; Apr 1--Oct 31: Daily 10am--6pm. Last ticket sold one hour prior to closing. $24, seniors $20, veterans $17, children 7--17 $19, children 3--6 $12, children under 3 and retired and active military personnel free.

Merchant's House Museum
This 19th-century row house sheltered Seabury Tredwell and his children—plus a cadre of servants—for nearly 100 years before becoming a museum. The nine-person family represented Manhattan's well-to-do merchant class when Seabury purchased the Federal-style home with its Greek Revival interior in 1835. But as the years passed, the family's wealth diminished (as did the ritziness of its East Village locale). Perhaps due to the Tredwells' changing fortunes, they didn't purchase new trappings, so much of the family's period furniture and belongings, as well as those of their servants, remain on view. (Some say the residents' spirits are still on the premises.). 29 E 4th St between Bowery and Lafayette St (212-777-1089, Thu--Mon noon--5pm. $10, seniors and students $5, members and children under 12 free.

The Tenement Museum
Purchase a ticket to one of the museum's ten tours and you'll get to see what this 19th-century, multistory home looked like at various points in its history. The institution painstakingly re-created the tiny apartment spaces that housed the German Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian Baldizzis in the 1930s, using historically accurate pots, pans, tubs and cabinets. A tour of the building itself delves into how curators were able to piece together its past through scraps of wallpaper and other ephemera residents left behind. 103 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts (212-982-8420, Daily 10am--6pm; $22, seniors and students $17.

"Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian"
More than 700 objects from all over the Americas show the variety of cultures that flourished in the Western Hemisphere before European conquests and smallpox took their toll on indigenous societies. The galleries display items such as Inuit clothing used to keep infants warm near the Arctic Circle, and Chumash baskets made in the California desert. Commentary by scholars also demonstrates how these diverse tribes shared a similar heritage and exchanged ideas before colonization. Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, 1 Bowling Green between State and Whitehall Sts (212-514-3700, Mon--Wed, Fri--Sun 10am--5pm; Thu 10am--8pm; free.

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