NEW YORK — As my camera hit the marble floor of the American Museum of Natural History, I thought this is a bad start.
It was the first leg of my carefully planned museum march in Manhattan, and my camera was kaput. But it takes more than that to daunt a dedicated museum-goer. I checked the charge on my iPhone, and rearmed with its photo apparatus, I marched onward into the museum.
This educational (and slightly obsessive) campaign came about because I had just a few vacation days built around a fellowship at Columbia University. I'd never been to New York, and I didn't know when I'd return. I love museums and my trip was a chance to visit a city full of great ones.
But you can't just waltz into these behemoths without a plan. A visitor could easily spend an entire day at some of the well-known museums; I plotted visits to five in 3 1/2 days.
For other time-strapped travelers, I present my "best of" tips for some of New York's finest museums, with a little how-to mixed in.
If you're crazy about museums, as I am, one of the most important things you can bring is a functioning set of mental blinders. If you spend too much time trying to take in too many exhibits, you'll get "museum fatigue," which applies to both your brain and your feet. You want your visit to be a pleasure, not a slog.
—American Museum of Natural History
The Granddaddy of Them All, this palace of knowledge has been on my must-do list since childhood.
I arrived at the main entrance facing Central Park about a half-hour before opening, and was glad I did. I was among about 30 people who had already staked a place before the tour buses pulled up. Once in, I picked up the all-important floor plan (having studied it online first) and marked off my must-see exhibits. This put me light years ahead of the milling crowds in the rotunda — some of them may still be there, trying to figure out where to go.
With the extensive renovations going on at AMNH, the rotunda is cramped and the lines snake every which way. Get more out of your admission price, and get marching to ... The Akeley Hall of African Mammals. It's right off the rotunda, full of lifelike dioramas and animals that look ready to run away if you stare too long. If you like dinosaurs, hustle upstairs — make this one of your first stops, to avoid the crowds — to marvel at the T-rex and other giants. Pace yourself here; the specimens are thoroughly documented and you'll want to read all the text.
Other must-see exhibits: The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, presided over by the famous life-size model of the blue whale; the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, which makes sense of 6 million years of evolution; and the enormous glass box that houses the Rose Center for Earth and Space.
More information: www.amnh.org
—Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is where planning and extra time come in handy. In its 2 million square feet, The Met keeps more than 2 million works (not all on display at the same time), divided into 19 departments.
Prepare to spend some time in the American Wing, gazing at original Tiffany windows; peering into the period rooms; and strolling through the arms and armor wing, wondering how on earth people got around in all that heavy metal. (Skip the cafe, just off the sculpture gallery. The coffee is terrible, and the food limited and overpriced.)
A must-see: the 1,700-year-old Lod mosaic, on display until April 3, 2011. The mosaic, which served as the entire floor of a room of a Roman-era house in what is now Lod, Israel, is a marvel, depicting lions, a giraffe, a rhino and even a sea monster, among a bevy of exotic animals. Even more astounding is the near-perfect shape it's in.
—Museum of Modern Art
Heavy crowds are as much a hallmark of MoMA as its Lichtensteins and Warhols. Even with a City Pass (see the "if-you-go" information with this accompanying article), you'll want to get there before it opens to avoid feeling you're going to be trampled by Northern Europeans in expensive shoes.
Must see: MoMA's design wing, which literally puts on a pedestal the perfect marriage of form and function. Smile at the simple joys of the inflatable chair, a train-station departure board and stackable Heller mugs.
If you visit by March 14, 2011, swing by "Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen," which incorporates an original 1920s Frankfurt Kitchen (orderly folk will swoon at its efficiency), posters about saving food for the troops and more appliances than you can shake a spatula at. As for the famous MoMA Store, let's just say I had to have a stern talk with myself after two visits: "No, you may not have the Lego Fallingwater kit."
—The Guggenheim Museum
A trip through Frank Lloyd Wright's teacup-like building is an experience in itself, with detours off the ramp to look at Klee, Kandinsky and Mapplethorpe. An exceptional exhibition — that ends Jan. 9 — is "Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936." Impeccably curated, and deeply sobering, it examines the drive among interwar European artists to leave the horrors of World War I behind and embrace the clean lines and whole human figures of classicism. Not all the names are big ones, but the message is: When seeking "perfection," be careful what you wish for.
—The Morgan Library and Museum
My only disappointment of the trip happened here, when I learned that the wing housing Pierpont Morgan's actual library was going to reopen ...shortly after my trip was over. Feeling peevish, I dragged myself to the other exhibitions — and snapped out of it. You'll miss these if you don't travel soon: "Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress" and a collection of black-and-white drawings by Pop genius Roy Lichtenstein end Jan. 2.
Must see: On display through Jan. 23 is "Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks," a delightful collection that illustrates the Impressionist's skill at portraying not just dancers but horses and jockeys, and a downright pretty landscape. If you're visiting Feb. 4-May 1, you might enjoy "The Changing Face of William Shakespeare," which will include the recently discovered "Cobbe Portrait" of the playwright — worth seeing because it's believed to be the only surviving likeness painted of him while he was alive. This portrait, and one of Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, is being seen for the first time outside the United Kingdom. You'll also see a 1596 royal gift roll that records the earl's New Year's gift to Elizabeth I, the Morgan's First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays and a portrait of Shakespeare acquired by Pierpont Morgan in 1910.
IF YOU GO:
Manhattan: so many museums, so little time. Get the most from your visit by taking a few minutes to plan what you'd like to see and how you're going to get there. That way, you can spend time looking at the exhibits, not figuring out a game plan.
Go during the offseason. The Museum of Modern Art was unbelievably crowded in October, the month when a lot of theatergoers come to the city. If you're claustrophobic, or just like a little space and quiet to contemplate exhibits, the hordes in the galleries may do you in. The chilly days of January-March bring sparser crowds to Manhattan and its museums.
Buy a New York City Pass. The booklet of coupons admits you to six major attractions for $79, a 45 percent savings. Once you've stood in line to get the booklet (they're sold at most major museums, and you can get a voucher for a pass online), you won't face a long wait again. You breeze inside each museum to the will-call or information desk — see each coupon for instructions, or just ask — where a museum employee will exchange the appropriate coupon for a ticket. www.citypass.com.
Do your homework. Figure out what you most want to see, and match your interest with the right museum. There are exhibits for the whole family at the American Museum of Natural History, but probably not at the Museum of American Folk Art. If you've always wanted to see jewelry and windows by Tiffany, you'll be bored at The Cloisters.
Turn to technology for help. You can look at floor plans and exhibit lists online, and many museums let you purchase tickets in advance.
Cluster your visits. Group the museums according to the days and times they are open. For instance, the Morgan Library & Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are open on Tuesdays, but MoMA is not. Save time by taking the subway to museums; I walked nearly everywhere, but I was alone, had good weather and am speedy.