It’s easy to overlook the New-York Historical Society as a place to visit, with the massive Museum of Natural History looming over it, right across the street. Sometimes, though, the smaller museums produce just as much interest, without the exhaustion. I like the MNH, but it’s a lot to take in.
Founded in 1804, it was the first museum in New York City, but it’s not at all stuffy. Evidence for that is the current exhibition, “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” the story of Jewish Delis in New York. (The museum is missing a big fundraising opportunity by not selling pastrami sandwiches on the spot!) It tells how the delicatessens started with the Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Delis served foods that reminded them of home that was not only tasty, but affordable. As one of the longtime deli owners explained in a video, in the early days the customers were almost exclusively Jewish, but in succeeding generations, tastes widened. They didn’t visit delis as often, and at the same time the food became more widely popular. Now, he guesses, about 40 percent of his customers are non-Jews. There’s also a reel of clips from movies and sit-coms that have filmed in delis, including that unforgettable scene from When Harry Met Sally, filmed at Katz’s delicatessen.
The variety of exhibits, some small, some large appeals to a wide variety of interests. Like politics? You can see the working documents of Lyndon Johnson chronicler Robert A. Caro. Like fine art? There’s an exhibit of paintings of New York scenes, from Keith Haring to Norman Rockwell—including the theater curtain Picasso painted for Le Tricorne that originally graced the Four Seasons restaurant. Black history? You can see the stoneware of free Black potter Thomas W. Commeraw and an exhibit on Frederick Douglass’s vision for America. Decorative arts? An unexpected treat is a gallery of 100 Tiffany lamps. I didn’t expect to be so thrilled by this last exhibit, but the museum has done such a fine job of displaying these works that it’s truly magical.
Where: on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets.
When: 11 am to 5 pm