Lured by the relative proximity to my apartment and my desire to do something cultural without being overwhelmed by loud, sweaty tourists on a beautiful summer day, I embarked on a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll to 5th Avenue and 91st Street, otherwise known as the address of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
About Cooper Hewitt
Reopened in 2014 after extensive renovations, Cooper Hewitt is housed in the 5th Avenue Andrew Carnegie Mansion and is the only museum in the U.S. devoted to historical and contemporary design. Visitors embark on an interactive history of design, using their digital pens to save their favorite works and draw on the interactive tables (accessible at home through the code on your ticket).
It took me a little over a year to make it to this intriguing museum (and now I’m kicking myself for not going sooner!) that houses everything from LED wallpaper and collapsible bikes to architectural models and old furniture. I gathered my pen and meandered along the rooms of the ground floor, brainstorming how to improve the world, wishing I had the courage to ride a bike in NYC, and admiring the stained glass above the doorway.
Making my way up the opulent dream staircase to the second floor, I made my way to two little rooms. One housing architectural models, the other filled with dozens of little art deco luxury items, a little preview of what was to come.
The second floor held a few more treasures for me: birdcages in a makeshift room I would love to be my own and beautiful china in a quiet, dark room where I found no one else competing for viewing space.
Intrigued by the jazz music wafting down from the top floor, I was then drawn upstairs, transported back in time to the 1920s. My digital pen, used to select my favorite works, was little more than a tool to design my dream life in 1920s America. As I wandered from case to case and from room to room, I found myself identifying with the character Owen Wilson played in Midnight in Paris, who thinks life would have been better for him had he lived in the 1920s.
It seems other visitors were just as transported back in time as I was—an elderly couple swayed to the jazz music; a young couple talked about what it would have been like to wear the ’20s fashions; a group of older women stood watching the silent television in the back corner, transfixed by the comedy playing on-screen. While some used their phones to record every note of cheerful music, many (including myself, after I snapped an obligatory photo) stood in place, their heads nodding to the upbeat rhythm, watching as two skilled men helped them time travel several decades.
What conversations had these ordinary objects witnessed in their prime? What conversations do they take part in now?
A good museum shows you prized objects. A great museum transports you to a different time or place, making you forget your present, and bringing you closer to the works of art. The Cooper Hewitt, at least on the day I visited, does just that.
Thoroughly content with my visit (and resisting the temptation to buy everything at the bookstore), I headed to the solarium for a quick sit before heading outside to the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden, enjoying the quiet refuge of nature alongside dozens of others before venturing back onto the streets of the Upper East Side.
Visiting Cooper Hewitt
- Cooper Hewitt is open Sunday-Friday from 10AM-6PM and Saturday from 10AM-9PM.
- Tickets, $2 cheaper if you book in advance online, are $18 for adults, $12 for seniors and $9 for students.
- The museum is located at 2 E 91st Street, between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenues, accessible by the 4-5-6 train at 86th Street or the 6 train at 96th Street.
- There is a cafe, bookstore, and beautiful garden that are open to the public without having to pay admission
Clearly, I am a fan of this museum. If you find yourself in NYC in search of a great museum without the crowds of the Met or MoMA, then Cooper Hewitt is the place for you. Don’t have time to explore the museum? Sit outside in the quiet garden to escape the crowds from the street.
Looking for another NYC museum on the Upper East Side? Check out the Guggenheim, Met, The Frick, Neue Gallery, Met Brueur or the Jewish Museum.
Have you visited Cooper Hewitt in NYC before?