9 Cross-Cultural Museums in Manhattan

For many New York metro parents, it might seem like kids are already getting an education in diversity just by living in (and near) one of the most diverse cities in the world. But it takes proper guidance to help kids understand the world around them. Luckily, Manhattan is host to a slew of cross-cultural museums, offering programs that educate families about the various cultures in America.

Ellis Island Gallery and Immigration Museum

Check website for boat times and to purchase tickets 

While this museum isn’t on the island of Manhattan, it is accessible by ferry from the island and the historical location played a crucial role in shaping American culture. Even today, an estimated 100 million Americans can trace their lineage back to at least one ancestor who entered the country through Ellis Island. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration displays artifacts from and photographs of the immigrants who came through those halls. Kids can start to understand where they come from, or at least where many of their fellow Americans come from.

Museum of Chinese in America

215 Centre St., Little Italy
855-955-MOCA (6622)
Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 11am-6pm; Thursday, 11am-9pm
$10; seniors, and students with ID, and children ages 2 and older: $5 

The museum is compact, but it’s a powerful experience. The permanent exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, chronicles the Chinese-American immigrant story. This museum doesn’t contain any hands-on activities, so it isn’t so preschool friendly—but MOCA does hold a number of family programs and numerous family festivals near Chinese holidays. It hosts an annual Lunar New Year Family Festival in mid-February. Past festivals have included zodiac themed crafts, festive music and dance performances, and storytelling. 

El Museo del Barrio

1230 Fifth Ave., East Harlem
Las Galerias: Closed until Summer 2018. La Tienda: Wednesday-Thursday, 12-4pm; Fridday: 9am-5pm.
$9; $5 students and seniors; free for children ages 12 and younger and members

Often known simply as El Museo, this gallery is located toward the northern end of the Museum Mile. El Museuo specializes in Latin-American and Caribbean art, with an emphasis on works form Puerto Rico. The museum hosts a number of day and after-school workshops for kids, such as the Coquí club for children ages 1-4 and their caregivers, which is a bilingual program that includes play, storytelling, museum walks, and art making. And in early January every year, families can enjoy the museum’s Annual Three Kings Day Parade, which boasts live camels, colorful puppets, music, and dancing.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

103 Orchard St., Lower East Side
Check website for tour times and prices.

This five-story brick tenement building was home to an estimated 7,000 people from more than 20 nations from 1863-1935. The museum, which includes a visitor’s center down the street, promotes tolerance and historical perspective on immigration. Guided tours offer visitors a look at what immigrant life used to look like as well as insights into current debates about immigration and public health. The experience is really interactive and kid-friendly. In many of the tours, a guide dressed in period costume tells his or her character’s immigrant story and answers visitors’ questions. The artifacts aren’t behind glass; kids can even wander around the room and touch some of the displayed objects.

George Gustav Heyes Center, National Museum of the American Indian

1 Bowling Green, Financial District
Daily, 10am-5pm; open until 8pm on Thursdays

While teaching children about the many different immigration populations that make up this nation, it’s vital not to forget the Native-Americans. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, so admission is always free. The center features contemporary and historical exhibits of art and artifacts by and about Native-Americans. Displaying more than 700 items, the museum straddles the line between ethnology and art. Check out its website for family events, including live, hands-on demonstrations with experts in native cultures.

Studio Museum in Harlem

144 W. 125th St., Harlem
Thursday-Friday, 12-9pm; Saturday, 10am-6pm; Sunday, 12-6pm
$7; $3 students and seniors; free for children ages 12 and younger and members

The Studio Museum in Harlem is devoted to the works of African-American artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum hosts a number of free programs for families. During Target Free Sundays, admission is free and the museum organizes free programs and events. Books, Authors & Kids, a 1-hour program dedicated to storytelling, literacy, and visual art, provides families an opportunity to engage with some of their favorite children’s book authors and illustrators. Lil’ Studio invites preschool aged children to enjoy story time and art making.  

Museum of the City of New York

1220 Fifth Ave., at 103rd Street, East Harlem
Daily, 10am-6pm 
$18; students and seniors: $12; free for children ages 19 and younger and members

This unique treasure is both a history and an art museum; its mission is to preserve and present the history of New York City and its people. Parents can utilize this museum to teach kids about every type of New Yorker there is since the exhibits and programs are always changing. In the past, the museum has presented exhibits or programming on Native-Americans, Hindu festivals, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. Check its website for event dates and information.

American Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins and Cultural Halls

Central Park West, at 79th Street, Upper West Side
Daily, 10am-5:45pm
General admission: $23; $18 seniors and students; $13 children ages 2-12

While the entire museum is spectacular, the Human Origins and Cultural Halls are especially educational on cross-cultural themes. The Human Origins Hall uses fossil records and DNA research to present the history of human evolution as well as explore what is in store for our species in the future. The Cultural Halls examine the cultures of Asia, Africa, North and South Americas, and the Pacific. With thousands of artifacts on display, families might even want to visit here more than once. The museum also recently announced a major renovation of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians set to be completed by 2020, the museum’s 150th anniversary. Additionally, the museum hosts a number of family-friendly cultural events, including a program called Celebrate Culture!, which attracts thousands of visitors for day-long, free programs such as live performances, hall tours, hands-on activities, and film screenings. 

Museum of Jewish Heritage

36 Battery Place, Financial District
Sunday-Tuesday, 10am-6pm; Wednesday-Thursday: 10am-8pm; Friday, 10am-5pm
$12; $10 seniors; $7 students; free for children ages 12 and younger and members

New York City is home to more than 1 million Jews, and it’s important for kids to try to learn about such a large section of the population living around them. The museum’s building itself is a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. At the front desk, visitors can receive a free family guide to the museum’s first floor containing engaging activities to help children of all backgrounds learn how to use artifacts to explore their own family’s heritage and traditions. Note that some parts of this museum, such as the second floor of the Core Exhibition, The War Against the Jews, contain sensitive material and the museum recommends deciding in advance whether children are prepared to encounter content of this nature. The museum hosts a number of family programs such as children’s book readings by Jewish authors. 

Main image: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers interactive, kid-friendly programs in which guides dressed in period costumes tell an immigrant’s story.
Courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum