|Empire Express by Raúl Colón 2001|
MUSEUM: New York Transit Museum
TIME: 1 hr
COST: $5 each
At most museums, exhibits are behind velvet ropes or glass, out of reach, untouchable and completely off limits. I remember visiting museums as a kid and being told, “put your hands in your pockets and keep them there.” The hands-off attitude can make museums feel stifling, and sometimes even adults want to experience something with more than one of our five senses. However, today we found a museum where visitors are welcome to touch everything, and exhibits are meant to be pushed, poked, sat on and messed with. This is great for kids of course, but surprisingly today’s museum is not a kid’s museum. It’s the New York Transit Museum.
The New York Transit Museum is run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the public corporation with the monumental task of coordinating most public transit in and around New York City, including tunnels, bridges, buses, commuter railways and subways. Considered the largest transportation provider in the Western hemisphere, the MTA has a ridership of 12 million people per day. It seems inevitable that an operation this enormous would sprout a museum. As is fitting for a museum run by the same operation as the subway, the New York Transit Museum is a bit worn in spots and could use a good cleaning, but it delivers a good product for a low price, and does it with a certain gritty New York panache.
|Entrance to New York Transit Museum|
Right from the beginning you can tell that this is not your average museum. The Transit Museum is located within a decommissioned subway station in Brooklyn Heights, and is thus entirely below ground. The museum kept the traditional no frills entrance of a NY subway station, and two long flights of stairs lead down below the sidewalk into a tiled room with turnstiles, metal bars and an old token booth. (One word of warning: at the moment, the stairs are the only entrance and this museum is not wheelchair accessible. It looks like a difficult climb for strollers as well.)
There are several levels to the old station, packed to the gills with exhibits that examine public transportation from all angles: historical, mechanical, nostalgic, and even artistic. Much of the top level is taken up by a mock tunnel containing the exhibit “Steel, Stone, and Backbone,” with stories and fun facts on the building of New York City's 100 year-old subway system. The tunnel is framed with burlap and rough wood beams, with wheelbarrows full of rocks to lift, so you can heft what early tunnelers were carrying. The exhibit is full of pictures, films and stories of the people who built the old tunnels during the early 1900’s, detailing the backbreaking, dangerous work, particularly in the tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers.
This floor also has a fun section on turnstiles and fare collection with a large collection of historic turnstiles that you can actually push through. This was one of our favorite sections of the museum and Paul and I jumped through the turnstiles with gusto, comparing the action of early turnstiles with modern ones. The opposing wall has a display on the 50-year history of the NY subway token, displaying every token type ever used and why, with cool sidebars on “slugs” and other ways people beat the fare before the current electronic cards.
The next floor down focuses on surface transportation, with the exhibit “On the Streets: New York's Trolleys and Buses.” This floor houses actual buses and a horse drawn trolley (sans horse), plus a recreation of an intersection with “Don’t Walk” signs, fire hydrants and parking meters. Much of this floor was set up for children, and there were several having a good time driving and refueling the buses, but there were also exhibits for adults. We marveled over the insanely detailed models of every trolley that ever ran in Brooklyn (over 50 models) built by Dr. George T.F. Rahilly, and enjoyed the story of Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1830 – 1901), an African-American schoolteacher who won a landmark legal decision determining that people of color could ride any public conveyance on New York City's streets, 100 years before Rosa Parks.
|Catch a Ride, by Greg Ruth, 2010|
The lowest floor of the museum is the “platform level” of the old station. Nineteen antique subway cars line up on either side of the platform, including the first subway car ever built for NYC (called the R1), with wicker seats, hanging lamps and brass fixtures. (Can you imagine how long that would last on a modern subway?) All cars are open for exploration, and many have period advertising. We particularly liked the very 50’s R11 train, with green interior, stainless steel trim and circular windows. Stepping through the shiny doors and grabbing the white leather ceiling strap felt like a trip back in time.
|Historic subway cars, from the exhibit "Moving the Millions." The R1 car is on the far left.|
For an even better time travel experience (pun intended), the museum runs “Nostalgia Tours” a few times a year, taking its antique fleet of subway cars out for spins to popular spots. Occasionally, the museum also gives tours of decommissioned subway stations like the old Brooklyn City Hall Station. This posh 1904 subway station has chandeliers, leaded skylights and a vaulted Guastavino ceiling, but has been closed since 1945.
In summary, the NY Transit Museum was larger, more varied and more exciting than we ever imagined a transit museum could be, and we both strongly recommend it. This museum is popular with kids, particularly the bus and trolley section, but even adults will have a good time pushing century old turnstiles and sitting in (sometimes riding in) subway cars from nearly every decade of the 19th century. We loved being able to physically interact with pieces of our history and it was great to marvel over 100 year old engineering projects that still look impossible today.
|Endurance, by Bascove 2007|