Standing on a half-acre of New York City bog land which encircles a dilapidated 19th-century stone cottage, my mind wandered back to a recent visit to Ireland.
The vegetation and rocks scattered about the site were identical to those I recalled. Then the sight of skyscrapers surrounding the setting, and sound of honking automobile horns rather than bleating of sheep, startled me back to reality.
That was my introduction to the Irish Hunger Memorial, a moving recollection of the Great Irish Potato Famine. Between 1845 and 1852 the famine resulted in nearly a million deaths and forced millions more to emigrate to the United States.
The memorial includes more than 100 moving quotations from letters, poems and songs which recall that history. The two-room cottage was donated by a family whose ancestors had occupied it in County Mayo since 1820.
The Irish Hunger Memorial is but one of many smaller museums that visitors to New York City often overlook. They present chapters of American history which are as varied as they are intriguing.
The lives of other immigrants come to life at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It’s a nondescript, five-story brick building which, from 1863 to 1936, served as home to more than 7,000 people.
Museum hallways are dank and dark, with peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster. Stepping into a tiny 325-square-foot apartment, I learned that when the German-Jewish Gumpertz family lived there in the late 19th century (Natalie, her shoemaker husband and four children), the building lacked heat, running water and bathroom faBy the time Adolfo and Rosario Baldizzi from Palermo, Italy, moved into the building decades later, running cold water and a sink, which doubled as a tub for weekly family baths, must have seemed like a luxury.
The Museum of Chinese in America describes the influx of Chinese into the United States, which coincided with the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many were men who came to help build the transcontinental railroad and toil at other sweat-inducing jobs. Their stories are told through a collection of artifacts, newspapers, photographs and other items, and through oral histories, walking tours and film festivals.
At the National Museum of the American Indian, exhibits present the culture and traditions of native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. Among the more treasured items are an exquisite Olmec jade head believed to have been carved as early as 900 B.C. and a magnificent Crow warrior’s robe
Docked at a pier on the Hudson River, you’ll find the World War II-era aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Intrepid, the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Nearly two dozen aircraft are parked on the flight deck, and interactive exhibits offer opportunities to experience a flight simulator and clamber aboard a helicopter. Most dramatic is the ‘kamikaze” multimedia experience which includes smoke and flame effects that bring to life the day when the Intrepid was struck by two Japanese suicide planes.
At the opposite end of the size scale is a surprisingly compact Skyscraper Museum. Its scale models of the three tallest buildings in the world are impressive beyond their size. Also intriguing are two hand-carved miniature wooden models of downtown and midtown Manhattan. Imagine a 4.7-inch tall Empire State Building and 10 Lilliputian-size city blocks that can fit in the palm of your hand. My conclusion: When it comes to museums in New York, even little things can make a big impression.
IF YOU GO
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum: intrepidmuseum.org
Irish Hunger Memorial: http://bpcparks.org/whats-here/parks/irish-hunger-memorial/
Lower East Side Tenement Museum: tenement.org
National Museum of the American Indian: http://www.nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/
The Museum of Chinese in America: http://www.mocanyc.org/