When you really think about it, there are an astounding number of museums in New England. Massachusetts alone is home to more than 500 cultural institutions. That’s enough to make any cultural connoisseur or weekend historian’s head spin. Just how are we supposed to decide?
Luckily for me, and those of you reading this post, I have access to a bunch of curators who make it their business to visit as many museums as possible. I decided to pick the brains of a few and see where they send their friends and family. This isn’t your run of the mill “must see” list, however. I asked about unique experiences and places that are off the radar of most tourists. There are some neat looking museums on this list, many of which I’ve never been to before. What is your favorite on the list? What museum would you add?
Phillip Prodger – Curator of Photography
“A gorgeous spot in the west Narragansett Bay near the foot of the Jamestown Bridge. Most people just drive by, but it’s a picture perfect mill house in unspoiled countryside with pretty gardens, a charming farm pond and an old waterwheel. Wonderful to think about Stuart growing up here, his destiny to one day paint George Washington’s famous portrait far in his future.”
“Ever wonder what happened to those fabulous 8mm films your talented great uncle Ed shot in the 1950s? If he was lucky, they went to Bucksport. A wonderful repository for amateur and professional films alike, and endlessly fascinating. The archive maintains more than 10 million feet of film, a study center and a 140 seat theater. Need to plan ahead though to find out what’s playing.”
The home movie below is called “Around the Home” from Bucksport, Maine from the Benjamin Blodget Collection at Northeast Historic Film. The reel starts with winter scenes of children playing and sledding in the snow. The next section was taken at the Memorial Day Parade from 1935 in downtown Bucksport.
“The sponge used to deliver the world’s first anesthesia in an operation? It’s here, along with other amazing objects that chronicle the history of medical advances pioneered in Boston. Most folks will only find this museum if they are killing time at the adjacent Mass General Hospital, but it’s worth a trip in its own right. This fully modern update of a venerable institution is not only a peaceful oasis, its collections are mind-boggling.”
Paula Richter – Curator for Exhibitions and Research
“The art collections and exhibitions of the Farnsworth Art Museum are always a rewarding stop on Maine’s coastal Route 1. During the summer months, after visiting the museum galleries in Rockland, I highly recommend making a visit to the Olson House, a few miles south in Cushing. The site of Andrew Wyeth’s haunting masterwork, Christina’s World, the weathered wood frame house with its sparsely furnished interior immerses visitors in a painter’s subject matter and artistic vision as few others places can.”
“Around New England several communities founded by the religious sect, The United Society of Believers, also known as “The Shakers,” are now open as museums, historic sites and preserved landscapes. These include the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire and Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts which offer visitors the chance to see the Shakers’ renowned architecture, furniture, handcrafts and gardens in original settings. Located in the rolling hills northwest of Portland, my favorite is the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village that runs tours, programs, workshops, concerts and nature hikes in the summer and fall. Home to a small group of active Shakers, it is the welcoming spirit of this living community, who open their worship services as well as their village that creates an authentic human dynamic unique to this community and place.”
“New England boasts a diverse array of historic houses from those built by early European settlers in the 17th century to modernist landmarks. Located in the Berkshire region, Naumkeag, is a gilded age summer home designed by McKim, Mead, & White for attorney Joseph Choate and his family in the late 19th century. Filled with original furnishings, the house features a series of imaginative gardens framed by views of the mountains. Landscape architect Fletcher Steele designed the gardens in the early 20th century in collaboration with Miss Mabel Choate, a descendent. A highlight of the property is The Blue Steps, azure fountain pools set in a hillside grove of white birch trees traversed by staircases and paths with water cascades.”
Dan Finamore – The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art & History
“Many people doing the drive between Boston and New York will stop at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which is a breathtaking building with an amazing collection. But fewer people stop at the New Britain Museum of American Art. The collection there is surprisingly strong for such a small city, and the staff there are very welcoming.”
“This is a museum with great attitude. They have insanely rare automobiles, airplanes, engines, motorcycles, carriages, etc. but instead of putting them on a pedestal, they fire them up! Their summer auto and air shows are a great time to visit.”
“I know it’s cute and camp to visit tiny museums that show off someone’s personal obsession but, really, in an unguarded moment, who wouldn’t admit to a fascination with cryptozoology?”
Austen Barron Bailly – The George and Nancy Putnam Curator of American Art
“As a graduate student in art history at Williams College, I got to enjoy on almost a daily basis the extraordinarily rich collections of the Clark Art Institute and Williams College. Both are marvelous museums nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in Williamstown, MA, in the far northwest corner of this state. The picturesque settings of the college campus and famed “purple mountains” are matched by the art masterpieces within–major holdings of French impressionism by the likes of Renoir and Monet as well as quintessential masterpieces of American art by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. A visit over a fall weekend would be the perfect art and nature getaway.”
“And don’t miss Mass MoCA in nearby North Adams. It is an extraordinary museum of contemporary art (the largest center for contemporary art in the U.S. in fact) housed in a renovated 19th century factory on the banks of the Hoosic River. A must see with an incredibly impressive roster of innovative contemporary art exhibitions and installations year in and year out.”
“Closer to home is a hidden jewel at Phillips Academy (better known as Andover, the renowned prep school): the Addison Gallery of American Art, founded in 1931. The rich collections of American paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs and more (even ship models!) are on display in the original elegant building by Charles Platt on the Andover campus that has been enhanced by the addition of a new wing and learning center completed in 2008. The collection of historical to contemporary American art is truly superb thanks in large part to the generosity of the school’s impressive roster of alums, including such important American artists as S.F.B. Morse, Joseph Cornell and Frank Stella among many others. What is particularly interesting and unique about the Addison is the fact that the museum rotates its entire display 4 times a year so there is always a chance for a new experience and discovery of American art.”