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Photograph: Michael KirbyMuseum of Modern ArtAfter a two-year redesign by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, MoMA reopened in 2004 with almost double the space to display some of the most impressive artworks from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Outside, the Philip Johnson–designed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, which holds works by Calder, Rodin and Moore, overlooks the Modern, a sleek, high-end restaurant and bar run by Danny Meyer. The Museum of Modern Art has a great deal of free family programming for all ages. 11 W 53rd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-708-9400, moma.org)
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtOccupying 13 acres of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in 1880, is impressive in terms of both quality and scale. The neoclassical facade, added in 1895 by McKim, Mead and White, is daunting. In the ground floor’s north wing sits the collection of Egyptian art and the glass-walled atrium housing the Temple of Dendur, moved en masse from its original Nile-side setting and now overlooking a reflective pool. Rounding out the ground-floor highlights is the American Wing on the northwest corner. Its Engelhard Court reopened in spring 2009 as part of the wing’s current revamp. Now more a sculpture court than an interior garden, it houses large-scale 19th-century works in bronze and marble—and one of its three fountains is by Tiffany. 1000 Fifth Ave at 82nd St (212-535-7710, metmuseum.org)
American Museum of Natural HistoryNo matter which wing you wander through or where your curiosities lie (dinosaurs, gems or something else entirely), it’s hard to explore this Upper West Side fixture without being awestruck. You’ll immediately spot the rotunda’s hulking Barosaurus skeleton replica, but delving further into the museum’s collection, you’ll find actual specimens, such as Deinonychus, in the fourth-floor fossil halls. When you tire of dinos, head to the human origins and culture halls to learn more about our evolutionary history, or gawk at the famed 94-foot-long blue whale model in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Central Park West at 79th St (212-769-5100, amnh.org)
Photograph: Wendy ConnettIntrepid Sea, Air & Space MuseumThis educational museum is located on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid and docked at Pier 86. Highlights include a restored fleet of jets, including some new additions (like a helicopter flown in World War II), a mess hall decorated to look as it would have in 1969 and interactive exhibits. Pier 86, Twelfth Ave at 46th St (877-957-7447, intrepidmuseum.org)
Photograph: Caroline Voagen NelsonMuseum of the Moving ImageOnly 15 minutes from midtown, the Museum of the Moving Image is one of the city’s most dynamic institutions. Rubbing elbows with Kaufman Astoria Studios, it includes a three-story extension that features a state-of-the-art 264-seat cinema and expanded gallery spaces. Meanwhile, the museum’s “Behind the Screen” exhibit examines every step of the filmmaking process, with artifacts from more than 1,000 different productions and 14 classic (playable!) video games, including Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man and Space Invaders. 36-01 35th Ave at 37th St, Astoria, Queens (718-777-6888, movingimage.us)
Photograph: David ShankboneMuseum of SexSituated in the former Tenderloin district, which bumped-and-ground with dance halls and brothels in the 1800s, MoSex explores the subject within a cultural context—but that doesn’t mean some content won’t shock the more buttoned-up visitor. On the ground floor, “Action!,” which screens around 220 clips from more than 150 years of sex on film, includes explicit scenes from such (literally) seminal porn flicks as Deep Throat. Upstairs, highlights of the permanent collection range from the tastefully erotic to the outlandish. The spacious gift shop is stocked with books and arty sex toys, and aphrodisiac elixirs are served in a new café. 233 Fifth Ave at 27th St (212-689-6337, museumofsex.com)
Photograph: Virginia RollisonBrooklyn MuseumOne of Kings County’s preeminent cultural institutions, this 560,000-square-foot venue made history as the first American museum to exhibit African objects as artwork. In addition to the more than 4,000 items in the Egyptian holdings, museumgoers can scope pieces by masters such as Cézanne, Monet and Degas, plus an entire center devoted to feminist art. (The venue is the permanent home of Judy Chicago’s massive installation The Dinner Party.) Beyond its physical acquisitions, the spot draws crowds with its BrooklyNites Jazz music series and the perennially popular free Target First Saturdays. 200 Eastern Pkwy at Washington Ave, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org)
Photograph: Alex StradaNew-York Historical SocietyInstead of the niche perspective on NYC’s past that some of our favorite attractions offer, this institution gives a comprehensive look at the New York of yesteryear. Exhibits here are wide-ranging, covering all aspects of city life; in the past year alone, the society has staged shows on New York’s former beer-brewing prowess, the smallpox vaccination’s effect on the city and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop. And the museum’s permanent holdings—many of which are on view in the open-storage galleries on its fourth floor—offer a glimpse into quotidian urban living, with items such as vintage toys, furniture and clothing on display. A massive renovation, completed in 2011, made exhibits more compelling and interactive, helping visitors gain a clearer, deeper understanding of the city. 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th Sts (212-873-3400, nyhistory.org)
Solomon R. Guggenheim MuseumFrank Lloyd Wright’s concrete edifice became the home of the eponymous philanthropist’s collection in 1959; today, the iconic spiral is considered as much a work of art as the paintings it houses. In addition to pieces by masters such as Manet, Picasso and Chagall, the institution holds the most Kandinskys in the U.S., as well as one of the largest collections of Mapplethorpes in the world. And yes, there is a right way to see the exhibits: as Wright intended, beginning at the bottom and moseying around to the top. 1071 Fifth Ave at 89th St (212-423-3500, guggenheim.org)
Whitney MuseumLike the Guggenheim, the Whitney is distinguished by its unique architecture: a Marcel Breuer–designed gray granite cube. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and art patron, opened the museum in 1931, she dedicated it to living American artists. Today, the Whitney holds about 19,000 pieces by nearly 2,900 artists, including Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Still, the museum’s reputation rests mainly on its temporary shows, particularly the Whitney Biennial. Held in even-numbered years, the Biennial is among the most prestigious (and controversial) assessments of contemporary art in America. In 2015, the museum will move to a new Renzo Piano–designed edifice near the High Line and lease its Madison Avenue home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 945 Madison Ave at 75th St (212-570-3600, whitney.org)
Self-improvement guide 2013: Ten museums to visit
These are the museums to visit if you need some cultural self-improvement in 2013. Set aside an afternoon, grab a friend and get ready to see art in a new way.
The sheer array of museums is one of the best things about NYC. You may think you’re already well-informed if you know the secrets of the big three, have been to the best museum parties or have explored beyond Museum Mile, but there’s always more to see. Here’s what you need to experience to attain cultural self-improvement in the New Year.