Weird Science

by Staff

New York City is a cultural powerhouse, known the world over for iconic museums that help make the City an unrivaled destination for art lovers, historians and scholars. You're no doubt familiar with institutions like The Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but how many of the new or off-the-beaten-path museums in our slideshow have you visited? Just ahead: NYC museums and galleries dedicated to scent, elevators, insects, math and other curious subjects. Read on for more.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

The Elevator Historical Society
21-03 44th Ave., Suite 206, 917-748-2328, Long Island City, Queens
In a city that could not exist without elevators, it's ironic that you reach the only elevator museum in the United States by climbing a flight of stairs. The Elevator Historical Society can be found in the second-floor office of Pat Carrajat, now retired from a long career in elevator maintenance and repair. Carrajat opened the tiny museum in 2011 in Long Island City (the heart of the City's elevator industry), where his collection of elevator ID plaques, car ceilings, button plates, industry tools and more comes largely from a lifetime of collecting. As word of the museum has spread, however, donations from other vertical-travel professionals have rolled in. The museum is open by appointment only. And don't worry—should you need it, the museum is accessible by elevator, but you'll need to mention that when you call.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Underpenny Plane and Cast Iron Museum
10-13 50th Ave., 917-517-1492, Long Island City, Queens
It may look like an antiques store—and indeed it is—until you express interest in one of the hundreds of cast-iron objects that line the wall behind the counter on the right side of the store. At that point, Underpenny owner and curator Sung Park will tell you that the piece you had your eye on—a sturdy black trivet, a horse-and-carriage toy, an ornate penny bank—is not for sale. The meticulously arranged display, which also includes a collection of hand planes, is the result of more than 15 years of collecting and represents only a portion of Park's total treasure trove. If you truly have your heart set on taking home some cast iron, however, the items on the left side of the shop are for sale.

Courtesy, Museum of Mathematics

Museum of Mathematics
11 E. 26th St., 212-542-0566, Flatiron District, Manhattan
Set to hold its opening ceremony on December 12 of this year (12/12/12, natch), the Museum of Math aims to dispel the notion that math is boring. The only institution of its kind in the United States, the musuem will go by the nickname "MoMath," and is set to feature interactive exhibits demonstrating the connections between math and such everyday subjects as music, sports and even soap bubbles The message is that math is constantly around us, even if we're not thinking about it all the time—and, yes, it can be exciting and fun. (It will be hard for even the most deeply math-averse to resist the opportunity to ride a tricycle with square wheels, that's for sure). MoMath, mo' problems? Literally, that's indisputable. But the museum's creators also hope to inspire mo' appreciation for the science of numbers.

Chandler Burr. Courtesy, The Museum of Arts & Design

The Art of Scent, 1889–2012, at the Museum of Arts and Design
2 Columbus Circle, 212-299-7777, Midtown West, Manhattan
The Museum of Arts and Design's press release for this upcoming exhibition (opening on November 20) says, "'Untitled (2010)' is an ingenious neo-brutalist work that references nature both violently and abstractly." Such language isn't unusual when it comes to art, but is novel when the subject is a scent. That's the motivation behind this exhibit: MAD feels that scent hasn't been explored to the same extent as other arts. Former New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr—whose olfactory qualifications are beyond reproach—has put together a series of fragrances spanning more than a century (including, for example, Chanel No. 5), as well as supporting materials explaining the creativity and chemistry that went into creating them. Guests at the exhibition can smell the scents at the installation in an environment relatively free from visual stimulation. The idea for this exhibition may be a bit funky, but it's bound to encourage attendees to think more about the artistry that goes into the scents that make their way to store shelves.

Photo: Milo Hess

Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge
290 Conover St., 718-624-4719, Red Hook, Brooklyn
The USS Intrepid isn't the only watercraft that's been converted into a New York City museum. The 1914 Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, in Red Hook, is home to the Waterfront Museum. It's open for tours only during select hours (Thursdays from 4 to 8pm and Saturdays from 1 to 5pm), but admission is free. At these times, visitors can learn how the ship's crew worked, see where the captain lived on board and more. Groups can make appointments to visit at other times as well. The barge also hosts a rotating cast of exhibitions—including, through October 27, Life on the Water, a series of oil paintings by Odd Anderson—and is the site of numerous music, dance and theatrical performances. The vessel is still seaworthy and sometimes departs on tug and barge tours and destination cruises.

Courtesy, Staten Island Museum

Staten Island Museum
75 Stuyvesant Place, 718-727-1135, St. George, Staten Island
At first glance, the Staten Island Museum delivers what one would expect from an institution showcasing the borough's history and people: artifacts, archives, photography and a historical look at the Staten Island Ferry. But look a little closer (particularly in the direction of the Natural Science Collection) and you may be in for a surprise. Feast your eyes on 500,000 insect specimens, including 35,000 cicadas, 75,000 beetles and 2,500 butterflies and moths—some dating back as far as the late 19th century. If these critters don't rank high enough on the "awesomely weird" scale, perhaps 100 preserved fish specimens will do the trick. You'll also find frogs, turtles, snakes and crocodilians in jars and an extensive collection of taxidermy birds that once called Staten Island and the greater northeast area home.

Photo: Jay Chen/Friends of the City Reliquary, Inc.

City Reliquary
370 Metropolitan Ave., 718-782-4842, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
City Reliquary's status as a "weird" museum was fated from the start: once a first-floor Williamsburg apartment, a button on the outside of the building prompted a recording narrating the story of the dentures, window chains and figurines visible through the front window. Three years went by, and in 2006, the oddities made their way to a storefront and grew from there. Now, curious eyes make their way to Metropolitan Avenue for this unconventional and thorough tribute to New York City. Find subway paint chips, terra-cotta building fragments and more outlandish odes to the City inside the eclectic space. Rotating exhibits and community-curated collections assure there's always something new to see.

"The New York Earth Room" (1977), by Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett. © Dia Art Foundation

Walter De Maria: The New York Earth Room
141 Wooster St., 212-473-8072, SoHo, Manhattan
Square-footage-wise, SoHo is now one of the planet's most expensive neighborhoods, which only makes artist Walter De Maria's long-term installation seem more extraordinary. Ring a nondescript buzzer and ascend far above the streets to a quiet, meditative room filled entirely with dirt. Here, 3,600 square feet of floor space is covered with 280,000 pounds of earth. One of only three of De Maria's Earth Rooms still in existence, the installation has been open to the public, for free, since 1980, commissioned and maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. (SoHo real estate wasn't quite as chichi back in the day. Times have changed—a lot.) Bill Dilworth, the room's caretaker for the past three decades, waters and rakes the dirt once a week, stirring the distinct and sharp loamy scent that fills the silent loft. Occasionally, he says, a mushroom or two sprouts from the ground.

Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Photo: Alex Lopez

Coney Island Museum
1208 Surf Ave., 718-372-5159, Coney Island, Brooklyn
Coney Island Circus Sideshow
Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, 718-372-5159, Coney Island, Brooklyn
Five bucks don't usually go far these days, but here they'll buy a worthwhile peek into Coney Island's rich amusement heritage. The ever-changing exhibition—reopening in April 2013 following renovations—includes a hand-carved Steeplechase Man figure, The Cosmorama of the Great Dreamland Fire (a huge cyclorama, or panoramic painting, commemorating that park's burning in 1911) and The Great Coney Island Spectacularium (an exhibit revolving around 1800s Coney Island attractions). The museum also hosts a full slate of lectures and film screenings, and as noted on, serves as a visitor center to boot. The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, meanwhile, transports visitors to the old-time Coney Island of odd delights, freakish talents and "human curiosities." Also known as Sideshows by the Seashore, the performance season runs annually from April through mid-September. Audiences are treated to a 45-minute-long set featuring 10 shows for $10 ($5 for children under 12). The rotating cast includes such tattooed and apparently nerve-ending-free stars as Insectavora Angelica, Serpentina and The Great Fredini; acts include fire-breathing, contortionism, sword-swallowing, a guy who hammers nails into his face, electrocution and, of course, magic. Bring an open mind—and a cast-iron stomach.