As a teacher, the best way to drive me crazy is to plan a field trip.
Field trips are frightening things, even for veterans. If your class manages to behave somewhat in the building, imagine how your darlings will react exposed to the outside world. Also note the myriad logistics involved: the planning with the site, the permission from the administration, the buses (or lack of buses), the permission slips, the money collection, the cajoling of parents to come along, the forcing of parents of problem children to come, etc. All of this, and things still go wrong. The buses come late, the museum/zoo/farm loses our confirmation, no lunches, children hurt themselves, and teachers and parents lose their minds.
In the realm of history, there are many opportunities for field trips. The problem is that in most places, the teachers enjoy it more than the students. Kids just can’t get into huge paintings of massed troops and funny uniforms–not when they can make huge bubbles and work a robot at the science museum. Let’s face it, there is a real dearth of “hands-on” sites about history. What fun it would be to sample real smallpox blankets, or to bury a tomahawk in your classmate’s skull. Even in places that have more interaction, like Colonial Williamsburg, for example, the connection is more passive: you’re watching people in funny clothes churning butter rather than really churning it yourself.
This becomes even more of a problem in New York City, where I work. In a capitalist paradise, nothing “old” is ever around for long. With constant building and demolition, most of our city’s past is the stuff of museums–museums housed in buildings that barely survived the wrecking ball themselves. In such an environment, it can be difficult finding places to visit that both teach and entertain students. Not everything can be “ol’ reliable”, my pet names for both the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History, both gigantic places that offer lots of opportunities for kids to learn and enjoy. Yet for once, maybe your class can try a place where you learn a little something different–and a place where Johnny won’t get lost so easily.
To that end, I’ve compiled a list of places in New York City worth a visit. They are small enough to do as a class, have knowledgeable staff to assist, and are incredibly accomodating to students–big requirements for Mr. D. As usual, the list isn’t exhaustive, so any suggestions from the Neighborhood are more than welcome.
NOTE: Unfortunately, because of administrative restrictions, I can only provide sites in the New York City area. It would be unfair of me to comment on places I have not visited or cannot visit with my class. Those in the Neighborhood from other areas are free to comment with good sites from your locales. It’d be much appreciated.
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
If there was a history museum in New York that was the most kid-friendly, this would be my pick. Their programs are created in conjunction with teachers to provide the most relevant and stimulating experiences possible. Unlike its more noted neighbor across the Park, the NY Historical Society, MCNY is solely focused on New York City’s history, culture and people. For a kick, definitely take the kids to see the toy collection…they’ll love it, but they may drive you nuts trying to get on the bus home.
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Yes, it has a hyphen–New York used to be spelled like that! This is, hands down, my favorite museum in New York. That does NOT mean it’s always the best place for students. N-YHS has an extensive offering of programs for students of all grade levels, and each new exhibition also comes with a teaching program. I strongly advise teachers to NOT go to N-YHS without registering for one of their programs. It is not a place conducive to wandering. One really fun place–the Luce Center of American Culture, an attic for the Society’s permanent collections. Real fun place for random stuff, like chairs, toys, buttons and weapons…even death masks. Plus, you can register for a program right from their website using Ed-Net.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
If you teach English language learners, or simply have lots of immigrant children (or kids of immigrants) this place is great. Although tours start at 108 Orchard, the real gem is 97 Orchard, a tenement built in 1863 and now restored to show life among immigrant New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Programs at the Museum also make connections to today’s immigrants, especially since most kids couldn’t conceive of a coal stove or waiting in line to use the one toilet on the floor. You can also reserve spots here online, a nice touch.
Van Cortlandt House Museum
Broadway & West 246th Street
Bronx, NY 10471
This is NOT Van Cortlandt Manor in Westchester, but the house of Frederick Van Cortlandt, built in the Georgian style in 1748. It is the oldest building in the Bronx, and like its newer cousin, Bartow-Pell, underwent renovations of both the house and its programming. Bronx classrooms would get a kick out of Revolutionary War reenactments here, especially since Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau all used the house during the war. Website is moving, so be patient.
895 Shore Road
Pelham Bay Park
The Bronx, NY 10464
The Pells were among the original landowners of colonial New York–as well as among its largest slaveholders. This mansion underwent a huge renovation, and is now open for school programs about life in New York in the 19th Century. Try to go on a nice day, the grounds are absolutely beautiful. Just make sure to bring lunches as there isn’t much around the area, unless you want to schlep the kids to City Island (please don’t do that).
Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
How could I forget the borough of my birth? Most people forget that before 1898, Brooklyn was its own city, at one point the fourth largest in all the United States. Thanks to a revival of the borough starting in the late 1990s, the Historical Society has also beefed up its collections, while not only adding programs for students, but also materials on its website that help teacher align their standards to Brooklyn themes. Go Dodgers! (Not the LA kind, either).
South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
Exhibitions and artifacts are one thing–and this museum has a lot of them, for sure. In fact, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the historic harbor district. But what really sets this place apart are its ships: the 1911 barQue Peking and the 1885 schooner Pioneer. The museum offers programs that integrate marine themes and science into history. I highly suggest a cruise aboard the Pioneer: you’ll see New York harbor the same way Henry Hudson saw it in 1609. Simply breathtaking.
Not much time on the calendar to plan, but definitely take the time to go on at least on trip. At the very least, it’ll get the kids banned from yet another public building.
The NEW AND IMPROVED South Street Seaport Museum
Entrance to the South Street Seaport Museum
Rarely am I impressed at any institution that plies me with food and alcohol.
This Tuesday, however, was a rare exception.
It may have been the salmon wraps…the booze…the gentle rolls of the floorboards (more on that later)…or a combination of the three. In any case, the new and improved South Street Seaport Museum is definitely worth a visit—both by your class and on your own.
“New and Improved?” you may ask. “But Mr. D, didn’t you toot SSSM’s horn way back when covering places for field trips?”
Well, things have changed since our last jaunt down to the waterfront.
Built in 1967 in an early 19th century building with musty smells and buckling floorboards (the floors alone gave you seasickness), the South Street Seaport Museum has been, at least in museum terms, something of a Mom-and-Pop operation. It focused mainly on maritime history and New York’s seaport life, and its one dank floor of exhibits brought mostly seafaring enthusiasts and wandering tourists enjoying a summer day at the corner of Fulton and South Streets.
Like the proverbial working girl on the docks, this museum has had a hard life. Apart from the odd school field trip, SSSM’s fairly seasonal clientele could not sustain the place financially. By last year, the museum was in so much debt that a third of the board resigned and half the staff were let go. When the New York Times uses the word “beleaguered” multiple times in describing its status, it can’t be good.
Enter the Museum of the City of New York.
MCNY has risen in recent decades to become one of the preeminent cultural institutions in New York. In my mind, no other museum connects with historians, educators, students, tourists and casual observers quite like it. So it made perfect sense that MCNY took over operations at South Street in the fall of 2011.
The folks uptown gave SSSM the royal treatment, taking charge of the building as well as the fleet of aging schooners, tugboats and barques sitting in the East River. Upon arrival on Tuesday for an Educator Open House (the free food and booze sealed the deal), I was floored at the finished product.
A one-floor dankhole has been expanded to three floors chock-full of exhibits and classroom space. Sixteen galleries now highlight different aspects of the city and the waterfront through a combination of artifacts, photographs, video and multimedia exhibits.
(By the way, the floorboards still buckle—it is an 1812 building after all.)
Some highlights include old Seaport favorites like model ships, old tools and seafaring paraphernalia that survived the overhaul. Other additions include an impressive photo exhibit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, exhibits covering products made in New York, and the highlights of MCNY’s Manahatta exhibit (it’s great that the light-up interactive map of Manhattan made its way downtown).
For school groups, MCNY installed two spacious classroom spaces, with plenty of primary artifacts, text sources and activities that connect students to New York’s maritime past. Furthermore, a number of school programs are available, including a New Amsterdam Walking Tour that used to be offered up at MCNY—guess it just makes more sense to base it here.
Finally, never fear…the Pioneer is still there! I had the pleasure of sailing on this 1885 schooner around New York harbor and even help hoist one of the sails (it inadvertently got me into a short sailing craze which future Mrs. D regrets). The old rust bucket is still there, and still available for tours of the harbor, focusing on history, ecology, commerce and navigation.
Yet all is not well on Schermerhorn Row.
The MCNY experiment is brief, and there is a real danger that the South Street Seaport Museum may not survive once its on its own again. They really need membership (there’s those financial problems again) and a steady stream of visitors to keep the place afloat.
Like it or not, New York’s history is tied intrinsically to the waterfront. We’re blessed not only to have a historic district like South Street, but also a museum that showcases New York’s deep connection to the sea. As commercial and crass as it is, the South Street Seaport offers the only glimpse of what New York looked like before the age of skyscrapers and subways, and the South Street Seaport Museum provides an important educational service in connecting New York’s past and present.
Make sure you give South Street a look, and not just during good weather. Bundle up and get your butt over to Fulton Street—either on your own, or with your class. If you can contribute to becoming a member, great…but come down even if you can’t.
And as always, since we crave attention as much as the aforementioned harbor chick, do tell them the Neighborhood sent you.
South Street Seaport Museum (phone # 212-748-8600) is located at 12 Fulton St., between Water St. and South St.
Take the 2,3, 4, 5, A, C, J,M or Z to Fulton Street Station, then walk down Fulton Street until you see the tall ships. It’s the marine-colored entrance on the right-hand side.
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Tagged as American History, Comedy, Commentary, East River, Education, History, Humor, Humour, Manhattan, MCNY, Museum, Museum of the City of New York, New York, New York City, New York History, Occupy Wall Street, Opinion, Social studies, South Street Seaport, South Street Seaport Museum, Teachers, Teaching, U.S. History, United States