If you want to learn about the history of New York, there are a lot of great places to visit, but none offer a wider or better understanding of the history of the state than the New York State Museum in Albany.
The New York State Museum is located in the heart of downtown Albany at the southwestern end of the Empire State Plaza, near Corning Tower with its free observation deck. It is on the opposite end of the plaza from the New York Capitol building in the Cultural Education Building. This 10-story building is also home to the state’s archives and library.
The New York State Museum was first organized in 1836, making it the oldest state museum in the country. It’s been in its current location since 1976 and is the largest state museum in the country, as well. In recent years, the entire museum has been refurbished, which is quite evident by the quality of the displays.
However, despite this refurbishment, the New York State Museum is still free to visit (though they do have a box for donations at the entrance should you choose to contribute).
Wanting to learn more about the history of New York, I visited the museum of a beautiful day in late 2021.
The majority of the museum is located on the first floor of the building, and the display areas here are quite large. In fact, even a quick visit here is sure to take a couple of hours as there is just so much to see within the New York State Museum.
The museum area is divided into three main gallery areas focusing on the natural beauty of New York, New York City, and the pre-European history of the state.
I started my visit in the West Gallary, which is to to the right if your back is to the front doors of the building.
My first stop was in the Beneath the City exhibit, which is really the only portion of the museum that specifically covers Albany. This exhibit area shows some really interesting ruins uncovered under the modern city of Albany, including pieces of a distillery and even parts of Fort Orange, the original 17th-century Dutch fort that the city was built around.
Throughout both the West Gallery and the adjoining East Gallery, display areas are scattered in various spots. While these displays are all incredibly well done, there is no clear path through the spaces. That makes it easy to miss parts of the museum. For example, I finished this large gallery, and then realized I had entirely missed the large (and quite nice) gemstones and minerals exhibit in the middle of the space.
It’s a good idea to check the gallery maps that are placed throughout the space to make sure that you don’t miss any areas that you want to see.
The largest area within the West Gallery highlights in the Adirondack Park in northern New York. I found it a bit strange that the New York State Museum devotes so much space to this portion of the state, while largely overlooking the incredible natural treasures of New York found elsewhere, including, but not limited to the Catskill Park, St. Lawrence River, and the waterfalls of the Finger Lakes.
Nevertheless, the portion of the museum that highlights the Adirondacks is very thorough, quite interesting, and really well done. The topics covered include the region’s industrial past, the flora and fauna of the region, and the many great things that you can do there.
While the overview isn’t quite as in-depth as what you’d find at spots in the Adirondacks like the Wild Center and the Adirondack Experience, it really does give visitors a fantastic taste for the region and what makes it so special.
Also in this space, you’ll find the World Trade Center Family Trailer. This small trailer was placed next to the debris field for the towers after they collapsed on September 11, 2001 for families to watch the recovery work.
While you can only view it from the exterior, it’s both fascinating and very sobering to look into the trailer and see the missing signs and the mementos that were left there honoring those that died in the attacks.
Between the West Gallery and the East Gallery, there are several other galleries of interest to be seen.
The most interesting to me was the First Peoples exhibit, which showcases what life was like for Native Americans that lived in New York, with the primary focus seeming to be on life before the arrival of Europeans.
Included in this area, you’ll find some excellent dioramas, artifacts, and even the recreation of a longhouse, that is similar to the one at Ganondagon State Historic Site near Rochester. There is also a large mastodon fossil that was found in nearby Cohoes, New York that is on display in this portion of the museum.
Adjacent to the First Peoples exhibit, there is an area that showcases nearly 200 different species of birds from New York. These birds represent current species in the state, as well as species that historically lived in the state, including some that are now extinct.
The second large gallery, known as the East Gallery, is largely devoted to the story of New York City. This story is covered from a wide variety of angles ranging from the city’s skyscrapers to the seaport and the people who lived in and immigrated to the city.
Certainly the most memorable (for lack of a better word) portion of the museum showcases items collected from the site of the World Trade Center after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The focal point of this display is a fire truck that responded to the attacks and was crushed by the falling debris. It is a sobering reminder of the sacrifices that hundreds of first responders, including the crew of this truck, made that day.
There are also many other artifacts and videos in this area that showcase the story of this tragic day. However, this area is done in a way that is, in my opinion, safe for kids to experience while still providing quality information for older audiences.
On a less sobering note, this portion of the museum also features a recreated set from the show Sesame Street, which is really cool to see in person. There’s even an Oscar the Grouch puppet on display.
A large portion of the East Gallery is dedicated to showcasing the different areas of New York City and telling the story of those that lived in them. These areas include places like the city’s historic slums, Chinatown, and Millionaires Row.
I especially enjoyed the section on Harlem, which focused heavily on the history and impact of African Americans in this part of the city and how those that lived there impacted the country and the world.
Just like in the rest of the museum, the displays in the East Gallery are visually striking and some of the most unique and interesting that I’ve seen at any museums in New York. However, if I had one criticism of the space, it would be that this gallery focuses almost solely on New York City.
When you combine this with the fact that the West Gallery focuses heavily on the Adirondacks, the museum almost completely overlooks a very large portion of the state.
Obviously, you can only cover so much, even in a museum as large as this one, and the overviews of those two regions of the state are very well done. However, it would have been nice to have had a chance to learn more about other aspects of New York’s history and culture.
In fact, even incredibly important historical spots, like the Erie Canal, garner little mention. Obviously, you can learn about these other pieces of New York history at other museums throughout the state (such as at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse), but it would have been nice to have had a broader overview at the state’s official museum.
Despite this, the New York State Museum is definitely a great spot to visit if you are exploring Albany. Not only is it incredibly well done and provides a neat overview of at least portions of New York’s history and culture, but given that it’s totally free to visit, there is literally no reason not to check out this fantastic museum.
New York State Museum
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 9:30a-5p
Address: 222 Madison Avenue
See map below for other area attractions.