On She Goes

For Us, By Us: Museums in NYC

From Chinese in America to the African diaspora, museum hop with this guide.

Kimberly Denise Williams
Kimberly Denise Williams
February 8, 2018
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Museum Mile in New York City is famous for its world-class museums, but you can venture away from the Fifth Avenue path and enjoy an array of other museums in NYC, in the center of neighborhoods that are home to the diverse populations whose art and history the museums celebrate. From the National Museum of the American Indian to the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, NYC doesn’t disappoint if you’re looking for a nice day of museum hopping. Be sure to check the websites for current exhibition information and special events, including dance parties and performances, before heading to one of these NYC institutions.

A life-size representation of the Quecha Danza de Tijeras (Scissor Dance) is just one of the amazing pieces on display at the National Museum of the American Indian.
photo by Kimberly Williams

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
1 Bowling Green

The National Museum of the American Indian has locations in Washington, DC, and NYC, and while the NYC site is smaller and lacks a cafeteria that serves fry bread, nothing is lost in terms of curation. Visitors enter on the second level, where they can explore the Infinity of Nations exhibition with artifacts from North America, Central America, and South America on display. Exhibitions showcase historical and contemporary art and social movements. On the first floor, the Diker Pavilion for Native Arts & Cultures hosts additional exhibits and special performances. Currently, the Circle of Dance exhibition features life-size mannequins costumed in the traditional dance attire of different tribes. The museum’s permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations is not to be missed, with Native wares like headdresses on display alongside creative homages to touchstones of Native life. Look for Maria Hupfield’s Jingle Dress, which replicates a dress using lined notebook paper and features the names of hundreds of indigenous writers.

Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)
215 Centre St

Chinatown is a must-stop for visitors to New York looking for Chinese cuisine and a memorable shopping experience, during which you can actually negotiate prices with street vendors. In the midst of this community is the Museum of Chinese in America, designed by the famed architect Maya Lin. Don’t miss the exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which is a mix of artwork, everyday objects, and the voices of renowned writers, business owners, and other celebrities who tell the story of the Chinese in America. The timeline starts in the 1700s and continues up to today. As part of the exhibit, visitors can take in the cultural impact of historical events like the trafficking of opium as well as view early newspaper advertisements for the first Chinese businesses in America. Learn more about Chinese American history with the comprehensive list of the court cases and laws that have shaped the treatment of the Chinese in this country and the activists who fought for change.

This David Hollier piece, “Beyonce/Run The World (Girls),” was recently auctioned at MoCADA. It is a must stop for art that reminds you, “Disrespect us, no they won’t.”
photo by Kimberly Williams

Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA)
80 Hanson Pl

MoCADA is in Brooklyn and features fun and thought-provoking exhibits from artists across the African diaspora. The space is small, but the impact is huge because of the distinct focus on including representations from across the African diaspora, encouraging new conversations on the impact of geography, government status, and differing histories. The most recent exhibition, A Journery Where There Is No North Star, highlights the work of three artists—each from a different part of the world—who completed a residency in Senegal. The resulting art includes video works, sculptures, painting, and audio recordings that work in concert with each other. Anyone who’s obsessed with current news and popular culture trends will also enjoy the contemporary references on display in artistic form. One work on display for auction this fall incorporated some of Beyoncé’s lyrics, and previous exhibitions have highlighted everything from the spectacle of Black death to artistic expressions of braiding hair. The gift shop is also the perfect place to pick up a new book, jewelry, or a T-shirt. It is easy to spend as much time perusing the offerings there as in the galleries.

Keep in Mind: The following institutions are currently undergoing renovations but are landmarks with culturally relevant programming still available. 

El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Ave

Technically located at the northernmost tip of Museum Mile, El Museo del Barrio features art celebrating the Latinx community. The galleries are closed for renovation until early summer in 2018, but if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by to check out the museum store. Special events are still happening throughout the city and are located on the website. Past events include music performances and a panel discussion with artists. A series of book-club meetings in Spanish are planned to discuss the works of notable Latinx authors including Luis Sepúlveda and Armando Lucas Correa.

The Studio Museum of Harlem
144 West 125th St

Harlem, USA! The Studio Museum is an anchor in NYC’s landscape with a mission to serve as “the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally.” The announcement of a new David Adjaye–designed building has generated even more buzz. While the museum will be closed during construction, check out its website to learn about the “inHarlem” series, where the museum works with community partners in Harlem on projects such as an exhibition featuring the work of artists such as Derrick Adams, or check out a discussion with professors including Aimee Meredith Cox and Romi Crawford.