62 Days of Summer
The New York State Museum’s mission is to tell the story of the state dating back to before there was a New York, a United States or even a North America.
It’s hard to navigate all the exhibits in-depth in a day. Don’t try; skimming is OK. This is a perfect place to spend a wet summer day, especially when you absolutely, positively have to get kids out of the house.
There is a heavy emphasis on science here, from the state’s anthropology/ethnopology covering 11,000 years to biology, zoology and paleontology. The 1.5 million specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils include 3.5 billion-year-old bacteria and a 20,000-year-old fossil fish.
One of the highlights here is the Cohoes Mastodon, a nearly full skeleton discovered in 1866 that dates back 11,070 years “give or take 60 years.” Formerly in the lobby, it is now in the back of the museum on the first floor.
There are other wildlife exhibits, accompanied by ambient sounds. (Have some coins to toss in the pool by the elk exhibit.) The museum’s archeological collection includes 4 million artifacts. No, not every one is on display.
Tracking the history back to the Ice Age and beyond allows a visitor to time travel, through a Native Peoples Exhibit into the Dutch age, Colonists, and the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Art, artifacts and re-creations — a 1920 classroom does not seem so pleasant — try to capture the essence of New York’s current 54,000 or so square miles.
Culture is covered, from African-American experience in Harlem to a brownstone set piece from “Sesame Street.” Art and pottery abound. Vehicles range from 19th century fire apparatus to early 20th century cars and even a plane. You can learn how New York City grew into the metropolis it is today.
The mastodon was the crown jewel of the museum — until the opening of the World Trade Center exhibit in the wake of 9/11.
Artifacts as large as a charred New York Fire Department truck and gnarled steel girders dominate the hall, but the visceral wallop can really be felt in the small items recovered from the site: A doll, a broken golf club, a melted pay phone are just some examples. Videos also tell the story.
A warning to parents: The subject matter here is, of course, heavy. Some children will be saddened or scared, but others may be, well, kids. Remember, you have to be at least a high school senior to have a direct memory of that dark day. For many, 9/11 is not history but a painful memory; make sure kids understand that portion of the museum is a solemn place.
If an appeal to decency doesn’t work, try bribery: While the exhibits on the fourth floor of the museum are few — be sure to check out FDR’s 1932 Packard — that’s where you’ll find the popular carousel ($1 a ride), built between 1912 and 1916.
If you have young kids, they will be begging you to take them there from the moment you walk into the museum. Don’t lament having to skip some exhibits; you couldn’t appreciate them all in a day anyway.