The DiMenna Children’s History Museum by Andrea Santo Felcone


Saturday, December 9th, 2017, was a day of firsts. The first snowfall of the season—beautiful. The first time our family visited the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at The New-York Historical Society in New York City—also beautiful. And, our first brush with “SantaCon.” “SantaCon” is not a convention of mall “Santas” meeting to exchange tips, but an annual pub crawl of boisterous folks dressed in Santa suits. (Not really the setting for the wholesome family trip I’d planned.) We had counted 27 and a ¼ “Santas” (the “quarter” as my youngest son was wearing a Santa hat) by the time we arrived at our destination. Thankfully, the New-York Historical Society, elegant against a backdrop of gorgeous brownstones, was full of holiday cheer–minus the crazed revelers.

As we approached the New-York Historical Society entrance, I was reminded once again of just how stunning New York City can be, as this gem of a museum is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Upon entering, we were drawn to the Holiday Express exhibit, featuring hundreds of toy trains, figurines, and miniature models from the renowned Jerni Collection. The experience is immersive—trains travel on tracks near the ceiling above you, as well as in displays in a more traditional set-up. There is a section where children can crawl under the trains and pop-up inside a plastic bubble which gives them a unique vantage point. Fun for all, and especially the train-enthusiast, this exhibit will be on view until February 25, 2018.

NYHistoricalDiMennaMuseum

(c) Photo Credit: Leska Stupak

Making history accessible to children is clearly the mission of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum—located on the lower level of the New-York Historical Society. This museum-within-a-museum provides a hands-on interactive experience for children. Created for children ages 8 – 13, the DiMenna presents 300 years of New York and American history through character-based pavilions, interactive exhibits, and digital games.

My children (ages 7 and 14) both enjoyed the museum and in particular the “Newsie” exhibit. In a touch-screen game, you select your “Newsie” character and sell newspapers. In the end, the game calculates how much money was earned and asks how you would like to spend your earnings. The choices (stale bread, a hard bed, etc.) really hammer home how difficult life was. (My older son chose to purchase the next day’s newspapers, while the youngest wanted to splurge on a digital donut.) What a smart idea to present history through the eyes of children of the past, making it relatable in that way.

NYHistDiMennaLibraryOther games held lessons on early American baseball, treasury/tax collection, historical figures, etc. In the back, the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library boasts an impressive collection of children’s history books. My favorite part was the library’s card catalog, with pull-out drawers filled with interesting historical objects—a Victorian “Virtual Reality” viewfinder, “Alice in Wonderland” objects, and a drawer dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Using objects to tell a story is another fascinating way to engage children.

It is obvious much thought and care went into the creation of the DiMenna’s exhibits and that family participation is encouraged. We were so interested in exploring the exhibits; I regret we didn’t get to try a “History Detective Briefcase”. Families use the materials in the case to discover the past through games, sketching, and activities in the fourth-floor galleries. The briefcases are available to borrow on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and New York public school vacation weeks, from 1 – 4 p.m. We will definitely be back to try this intriguing interactive component.

NYHistMarchwiththeSuffragistsThere are many on-going programs for children of all ages. “Little New-Yorkers” (3 – 5 year olds) can listen to songs and stories and create crafts.  Every Sunday, three to seven-year-olds can learn about New York City and its people. On scheduled days, costumed “Living Historians” present programs and answer questions. Most programs are free with admission. The DiMenna has an activity calendar you can search by month or by child’s age, for the details on when these programs are held: http://www.nyhistory.org/childrens-museum/calendar-programs.

After you have participated in all the hands-on fun of the DiMenna, there is still much to see on the other levels of the New-York Historical Society. We spent time in the “Vietnam War 1945-1975” exhibit. It was very well-curated. The theme of objects telling stories was repeated here as personal letters from soldiers are on display, as well as clothing, bunks, photographs, political cartoons, records, etc. I had chills reading some of the heartbreaking letters from soldiers.

Our last stop was the fourth floor. This floor features 100 illuminated Tiffany lamps—and is regarded as one of the world’s largest Tiffany lamp collections. The lamps are spectacular, but there was a clever feature near the center of the room—an interactive Tiffany lamp shade. You can press buttons that will illuminate the shade using any combination of colors you choose. We eventually had to drag the kids away, but it was so smart to have that feature as part of the exhibit.

We could have stayed much longer and we’ll definitely return as there are interesting exhibits we didn’t get to see, a women’s history gallery, for one. This place is a TREASURE. The size is perfect for a day’s outing. There are films to see and guided tours to take as well. My one repetitive thought was how much care went into their exhibits and how lovingly curated they were. This museum would be a great destination for the upcoming holiday break. We are going to return in the near future–and for next year’s Harry Potter exhibit!

Address: The New-York Historical Society: 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street); Telephone (212) 873-3400, (212) 873-7489 (TTY)

General Admission prices: Adults: $21; Seniors/Educators/Active Military: $16; Students: $13;

Kids (5–13 years old): $6; Kids 4 and under: FREE;

Admission is pay-as-you-wish from 6-8 pm on Fridays

For more information to plan your visit:

http://nyhistory.org/childrens-museum

“Harry Potter, The History of Magic” comes to the New-York Historical Museum in October 2018:

http://nyhistory.org/exhibitions/harry-potter-history-magic

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