On She Goes

A Living Legacy: Art & History in the Museums of Harlem

Visit for the culture.

Kayla Stewart
Kayla Stewart
November 17, 2017
Story hero image

Endless paintings of everyday African Americans living their best lives, open mic nights, and young teens dragging a boom box blasting the most recent Cardi B single down the street.

This is Harlem. The sounds, sights, and souls of Black folks who have settled in the historic neighborhood are present in just about every aspect of life there. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was a period when the likes of Duke Ellington, Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, and Jacob Lawrence produced some of the most epochal and influential art in American history. Museums, libraries, and research centers in the area work to collect the artwork of folks from the African diaspora going back centuries, and this has culminated in these impressive Harlem museums celebrating history and art for visitors and residents alike.

The Studio Museum is well-known for featuring Black art.
photo by Kayla Stewart

Studio Museum in Harlem
144 W 125th St

Locating this museum is fairly simple: the iconic David Hammons “African-American Flag” inspired by Pan-African red, black, and green serves as a symbol and a guiding landmark. The museum, an idea conceived by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), artists, and Harlem residents in the ’60s, houses contemporary artwork that showcases the diverse experiences of Harlem residents and people from the African diaspora around the world. Jacob Lawrence’s work can always be found there, along with a permanent collection that spans 200 years of history. The museum has hosted exhibitions that showed everything from representations of police brutality, to a loop of a Black woman singing “God Bless America,” to a queer black male sitting at his desk surrounded by Black hair products (olive-oil sheen included). The museum is free on Sundays, and visitors can enjoy an extremely well-curated bookstore with literary texts and African American products galore.

Photo of Black musicians at the National Jazz Museum.
photo by Kayla Stewart

National Jazz Museum in Harlem
58 W 129th St, ground floor

Don’t be deterred by the seemingly small size of this museum—it houses some incredible information and artifacts to boot. The Jazz Museum is among the only of its kind. Instruments that are vital to jazz—such as the piano, trumpet, and flute—are displayed throughout the museum. One of the most incredible of these displays is the piano that Duke Ellington used to compose “In a Sentimental Mood.” The memorabilia there helps visitors connect the dots between the attempted erasure of African Americans from the invention and evolution of jazz, and how that impacts music and other art industries today. In the back of the museum, visitors can check out a robust selection of books on jazz history, music, and African American culture.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Blvd

While this is a research library, it’s also home to an incredible archive of information on people of the African diaspora around the world. The Arts and Artifacts Division contains a number of documents and objects vital to understanding African heritage and identity, while the Photographs and Prints Division holds more than 300,000 images that range from mid-18th-century graphics to contemporary documentary and art photography. It’s also notable for housing Langston Hughes’ ashes beneath a peace memorial in the lobby bearing his name. Literary signs, song lyrics, and text line the terrazzo floor, paying homage to traditional African ritual ground markings. The center plays host to numerous events and programs featuring some of the best artists, scholars, and orators of our time. Pro tip: since this is a library, I find myself in studying and writing in the Research and Reference Division, which remains quiet and allows researchers to get their best work done during the day.

Colorful housing art at the Sugarhill Children’s Museum for Art & Storytelling.
photo by Kayla Stewart

Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling
898 St Nicholas Ave

If you have little siblings, nieces, or nephews in town, or if you’re like me and still love the wonders and magic of childhood, check out the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. There are little downstairs reading nooks for the bookworm in your family, a room filled with wall art in different languages, and several displays of New York City geography. The most compelling exhibit is the group of colorful houses hanging in a corner. Sit back in one of the two comfortable orange chairs in front of it, and enjoy a trip back to simpler times.