Offbeat New York

Small Gems: Offbeat New York City Museums

by Victor Block

Natalie Gumpertz, Ellen O’Grady and Mary Phelps-Jacobs would seem to have little in common.

Natalie was the matriarch of a German Jewish immigrant family that, in 1878, moved to the Lower East Side of New York City.

Four decades later, Ellen became the first woman appointed deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department.

Mary also staked her claim to fame in the early 20th century. Rejecting her “ proper” upbringing as a debutante, and the restrictive corsets of that time, she tied together two silk scarves, attached pink ribbons to serve as straps – and created the model for what evolved into the modern brassiere.

What connects these pacesetters is that their stories are told at three small, very different, yet intriguing museums in New York City. Amid the world-class collections that many visitors to The Big Apple place on their “must-see” list, dozens of much smaller museums wait in near anonymity for the relative trickle of people who seek them out. Those who do are rewarded with exhibits that range from fun and funky to educational and erudite.

New York City Police Museum

I encountered Ellen O’Grady at The New York City Police Museum. Her story was among those recounted in an exhibit about women in policing which, in an ironic twist, had the somewhat politically incorrect title, From Corsets to Holsters.

Other presentations, if less surprising, are equally intriguing. Stories of Notorious Criminals include introductions to colorfully named rogues like George “Mad Bomber” Metesky and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Elsewhere, visitors learn that when Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt introduced a Bicycle Squad in 1895, his idea was derided – until uniformed pedal-pushers proved adept at catching the slow-moving cars of the time.

My attention became riveted by videos of police officers describing what to them are everyday activities. One shows a barbershop and a fake American Legion Post that housed illegal gambling operations. Another takes visitors inside a surveillance van, where a periscope provides 360 degree scrutiny of the surroundings.

As with most of the museums, there’s a display devoted to the September 11th World Trade Center attack. Viewers of a video relive the horrifying crash of planes into the Twin Towers, and items recovered from the site provide a poignant memorial to the 23 police officers who died on that fateful day.

New York City Fire Museum

This museum combines its 9/11 tribute to the 343 firefighters who lost their lives with much older exhibits. Housed in a renovated firehouse built in 1904, its collection of paraphernalia dates from when New York was still a colony. Equipment ranges from a hand pumper built about 1790 and a “gooseneck” engine (circa 1812) to a hand-drawn sidestroke pumper that required 40 men to operate.

Equally interesting is the evolution of firefighters’ clothing and equipment. Stovepipe helmets, adopted after the Revolution and used until the 1870s, resemble headwear that Abraham Lincoln might have worn. Early 20th century breathing gear looks like a deep sea diver’s helmet attached to a “breathing bag” worn on the chest.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Perhaps one of the buildings saved from destruction by firemen was the narrow five-story brick structure where Natalie Gumpertz lived for a time. She is among several real-life immigrants whose tales are recounted at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Between 1863 and 1935, over 7,000 immigrants to New York City called the building their home. More than any statistics, introductions to their everyday lives dramatize and humanize the flood of people that transformed the United States into the world’s “melting pot.”

Getting By, one of several guided tours and presentations, provides very personal glimpses into the lives of several families that crowded into 325-square-foot apartments, which originally lacked heat, running water and bathroom facilities. Strolling through dark hallways and minuscule rooms, with peeling wallpaper and the stained, original tile floors, it’s easy to imagine Natalie, her shoemaker husband and their four children going about their everyday tasks in their rundown, crowded quarters.

By the time Adolfo and Rosario Baldizzi from Palermo, Italy, moved into the building a half-century later, they benefited from the addition of running cold water and a sink, which doubled as a tub for weekly family baths. Hearing a tape by their daughter Josephine of recollections of growing up added to my sense of knowing the Baldizzis as a family through sharing their most intimate stories.

Climbing stairs to the second floor of another aged structure, a century-old former school building, I heard familiar sounds behind a door marked United East Athletics Association. Entering, I encountered two men from Hong Kong engaging in a spirited game of ping pong.

Museum of the Chinese in the Americas

That was a fitting introduction to the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, just down the hall. It recounts the story of the influx of Chinese, which coincided with the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The “Asian invasion” consisted mostly of men who came to the United States to help build the transcontinental railroad and toil at other sweat-inducing jobs, sending most of their meager earnings to their families back home.

Theirs is part of the past that springs to life in the diverse array of artifacts that fills two small rooms. A colorful Chinese opera costume is logically displayed adjacent to ancient musical instruments. Paper dragon heads peer down menacingly, if incongruously, near an antique Chinese laundry sign. A letter penned a century ago by a woman to her husband in this country is as eloquent as a love poem written by a Chinese-American soldier during World War II.

An almost unbelievably tiny embroidered slipper meaningfully demonstrates the intermingling of two cultures. Upon landing on these shores from China, its wearer was free for the first time to unbind her feet.

National Museum of the American Indian

Other miniature footwear, bead-decorated baby moccasins, is on display at the National Museum of the American Indian. It is appropriate that its location, in the century-old Alexander Hamilton Custom House, adjoins an open space that during colonial times was the site of an Indian trading area.

The museum’s emphasis on art currently highlights a collection of more than 100 works by George Catlin. He was a painter who, during 1830-1836, crisscrossed the West seeking, as he said, to document the lives of “those noble fellows.” Portraits of Indians in full regalia share wall space with scenics and views of tribal life. A personal favorite is a painting of hunters under animal skins sneaking up on a herd of buffalo, a tactic used before they got horses in the 18th century.

More interesting to a group of middle-school students sharing my time at the museum were stories of Indian artifacts, including the use of animal intestines and bladders to contain liquids. “Yuck” and “gross” were among the more polite reactions to the explanation.

Museum of Sex

Visitor reaction at another stop also was as telling to me as the exhibits themselves. Mere mention of The Museum of Sex often elicits knowing winks and nods. But in fact, collections like clips from historic “blue movies” and early “pinup” photographs share space with scholarly examinations of topics like how to define “obscenity,” and the history of efforts to restrict it.

Seldom have I observed museum-goers of virtually every age group and other demographic so intrigued. Elderly couples holding hands peered at posters and postcards from scant inches away. A twenties-something man wearing special glasses was gazing at a three-dimensional slide show when I entered that gallery, and continued to do so 30 minutes later when I passed through again. A well-dressed gray-haired gentleman in the gift shop nonchalantly thumbed through books with names like Talk Dirty to Me and The Illustrated Book of Orgies.

This, I reminded myself, is not a scene that would be encountered at the major world-famous museums of New York City.

Some collections described in this story are associated with Museums of Lower Manhattan at

Photo credits -- NY Convention & Visitors Bureau

Victor Block is an award-winning travel journalist who lives in Washington, D.C., and -- in his quest for destinations about which to write -- has traveled throughout the United States and to more than 60 other countries. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Times, Maine Sunday Telegram, and Lowell (MA) Sun; travel columnist for Senior Digest, and frequent writes travel features for several online magazines. His stories are distributed to newspapers nationwide by Copley News Service, and he freelances to a number of other papers. For years he was a regional editor of Fodor's Travel Guides, and he is co-author of the Pelican Guide to Maryland. He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalists Association, and Travel Journalists Guild.
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