Museums

Breaking Old Habits: Innovative Programming at Museums in New York City

How the Met, MoMA, Cooper Hewitt, and others are keeping art fresh and alive.

Access to world-class museums is one of the best things about living in and visiting New York City. But let’s be honest, going to a museum you’ve already been to can sometimes be a little boring. It’s not that they don’t have countless treasures, it’s just that once you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art a handful of times, it can begin to feel like you know them inside and out.

One of the reasons for this boredom is that our human brains are wired for patterns: It’s not that we don’t want to see new things when we visit a familiar place, but rather that we seek out what we already know. Sometimes, you just need a new experience to shake you up and help you see with fresh eyes. Fortunately, the programming staffs at most museums are constantly coming up with creative ways to help you view works you might not have noticed before. Below, a roundup of the five most innovative ways to experience museums in New York City.

Quiet Mornings at MoMA
The best thing about the Museum of Modern Art is that it has one of the most breathtaking collections of modern and contemporary art in the world. One of the worst things is that everyone in the world seems to be there all the time. Visiting the museum on an ordinary day can feel a bit like being in a train station during rush hour. Which is why Quiet Mornings at the museum are so extraordinary. They take place the first Wednesday of every month from 7:30–9 a.m. and only a limited number of tickets are available, cutting down on the usual crowds. Guests are invited to roam the galleries disconnected from their phones, in a state of serenity. Mindfulness is encouraged by the guided meditation session held by a meditation leader from 8:30 –9 a.m. It’s the perfect way to clear your head for a New York morning.

Photo by Timothy Hursley
Photo by Timothy Hursley

Soundwalk at the Met
A day dedicated to seeing museums in New York comes with a significant amount of walking. This can be very daunting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a way to help keep you going from institution to institution in the form of a soundtrack created by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer John Luther Adams. Titled 9:09, the soundtrack lasts for exactly the number of minutes it takes the average person to walk from the Met’s main building on 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue to the Met Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue. Available for download on your smartphone or via the WQXR app, the soundtrack is culled from noises that Adams collected on the street between the two museums. Human voices, jackhammers, sparrows, and buses are sculpted and melded together to form a polyphonic masterpiece. The city has never sounded so majestic—and a walk to see art has never been less laborious.

Photo by Ed Lederman
Photo by Ed Lederman

The New Cooper Hewitt Experience
When the Cooper Hewitt reopened in 2014 after three years of renovations, it shocked the world by doing something that had never been done in a museum before: successfully incorporating up-to-date, interactive technologies in its exhibitions. Known as the New Cooper Hewitt Experience, the program encourages visitors to use technology to keep on processing what they’ve learned beyond the museum’s doors. It consists of features like the Pen, which is handed out to every guest with an admission ticket. The Pen allows you to scan the wall label of an artwork you like or want to learn more about; the object is then “collected” on a dedicated website you can look at when you get home. (How cool is that?) Other features include the Immersion Room, which enables you to browse the museum’s collection of exquisite wallpapers and project them on a wall; the Process lab, which lets you brainstorm solutions for real-world design problems; and the Collection Browser, which consists of seven interactive tables that offer high-resolution images from the museum’s collection. Maybe not the best experience for your technology-impaired grandmother, but great for anyone who is enthusiastic about the modern world.

Photo courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Photo courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The New Museum’s Artists VR
Who needs an actual museum when you have the technology for virtual reality? Fortunately for museums, virtual reality still has a long way to go before it can replace any type of real-world experience, but that doesn’t stop forward-thinking institutions like the New Museum from dabbling in the medium anyway. In its online exhibition “Artists VR,” the museum presents virtual reality artworks by six leading contemporary artists—Peter Burr with Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Jeremy Couillard, Jayson Musson, Jon Rafman, Rachel Rossin, and Jacolby Satterwhite. Consisting of animations that simulate the afterlife, nightclubs, video games, and magical worlds, the exhibition is available for free for anyone who downloads the First Look: Artists’ VR app on his or her iPhone or Android.

Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

Works & Process at the Guggenheim
Established in 1984, Works & Process is a performing arts series held in the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright–designed home on Fifth Avenue. Recently, the series ventured beyond the building’s 285-seat theater to the spiraling rotunda of the main structure for Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young’s immersive dance performance. The piece featured the dancers beating on the famous museum’s walls with drumsticks as they swept through the galleries and offered a new way of looking at what is ordinarily a static space. Although the performance won’t be replicated, Works & Process offers plenty more for the spring, including Come From Away on Broadway, a program and discussion on March 5 that will preview a new Broadway musical directed by Christopher Ashley.

Photo by Zack DeZon
Photo by Zack DeZon