There’s A New England Museum For Everyone (Seriously)

Like so many old things in the United States, the six New England states were at the forefront of museum creation.

Harvard’s Mineralogical & Geological Museum traces its roots to a campus mineral collection that started in 1782 and that’s believed to be the nation’s oldest university rock collection.

Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth was established in 1824 to showcase the history and culture of the 17th-century Mayflower immigrants and the local Wampanoag people.

Maine’s Bowdoin College unveiled its art museum in 1811, the Yale University Art Gallery in 1832, and Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum (the nation’s oldest continuously operated art museum) in 1844.

There are literally hundreds of museums scattered across the region with a mind-boggling array of collections. What are some of the best in each category? Read on to find out.

Old Masters: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

It may not be the largest fine art gallery in New England, but it’s certainly the most intriguing. The Italian Renaissance-style mansion with its tropical garden courtyard is reason enough to visit. From Rembrandt to American master John singer Sargent, the artwork blows your mind. And then there’s the empty frames that once held 13 masterpieces stolen in 1990 — worth a collective half a billion dollars and the largest art theft of modern times.

Other top picks: Boston MFA, Wadsworth Atheneum (Conn), Fogg Museum (Boston), Portland Museum of Art (Maine).

GardnermuseumIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Maritime: Mystic Seaport

The nation’s largest maritime museum, the Connecticut coastal attraction harbors a flotilla of vintage watercraft, living history programs in a waterfront village with 60 heirloom buildings, a working shipyard that helps preserve historic ships, and annual events like Riverfest.

Other top picks: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (Vermont), New Bedford Whaling Museum (Mass).

Mystic Seaport MuseumMystic Seaport Museum – Maritime Museum in Mystic, CT

Sports: Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Located in the city where James Naismith famously invented the sport of basketball, this comprehensive sports museum traces the history of amateur, professional and college basketball inside a giant silver sphere overlooking Springfield, Massachusetts.

Other top picks: The Sports Museum (TD Garden, Boston), New England Racing Museum (Loudan Speedway, New Hampshire).

HoophallThe Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Wildlife: Squam Lakes Natural Science Center

Get up close and personal with New England’s native flora and fauna at this excellent collection in New Hampshire’s gorgeous Lakes Region. Native animals — like mountain lions, black bears, and beavers — that are rarely seen in the wild reside in large, natural habitats. The center also offers scenic cruises on the Squam Lakes.

Other top picks: The Aquarium at the Berkshire Museum (Mass), New England Wildlife Center (Mass).

Squam Science CenterGet Nearer to Nature

Science & Nature: Yale Peabody Museum

Founded in 1866, the Peabody is a long-time global leader in many fields but is perhaps most renowned for paleontology. Among its many treasures are the Burke Hall of Dinosaurs, Inca artifacts that Hiram Bingham discovered at Machu Picchu, and around 5,000 meteorites found all around the world. The Connecticut museum reopened earlier this year after an extensive, four-year renovation.

Other top picks: The Bruce Museum (Conn), Harvard Museum of Natural History (Boston).

YaleHome | Yale Peabody Museum

Presidential: JFK Museum & Library

Although dedicated to 35th president John F. Kenndy, this Boston waterfront complex also reflects the turbulent times that shaped his life, from World War II in the Pacific and Cold War to the Space Race and Bay of Pigs.

Other top picks: Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum (Mass); Adams National Historical Park (Mass).

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumHome

Americana: Shelburne Museum

Sprawling through 39 buildings in a parklike setting along the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, the Shelburne presents an amazing array of Americana, from folk paintings and decorative arts to quilts, dollhouses, wooden decoys, furniture and even circus art.

Other top picks: Portland Museum of Art (Maine), Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park (N. Hampshire), New Britain Museum of American Art (Conn), Bennington Museum (Vermont), Norman Rockwell Museum (Mass).

Shelburne MuseumWelcome – Shelburne Museum

Geography: Mapparium

True, there’s just one exhibit at this one-room museum inside Boston’s Mary Baker Eddy Library. But it’s a doozey: A three-story, stained-glass globe of the world viewed from a steel-and-glass bridge that bisects a massive glowing ball that shows the continents and countries as they were in the 1930s when the Mapparium was constructed.

Modern Art: MASS MoCA

The sprawling redbrick campus of the old Arnold Print Works in North Adams provides ideal spaces for the often-oversized artworks of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Foremost among these is a colorful Sol LeWitt wall drawing retrospective and three massive installations by German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Other top picks: Ogunquit Museum of American Art (Maine), Punto Urban Art Museum (Mass), Andres Institute of Art (N. Hampshire), American Mural Project (Conn).

MASS MoCA | Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary ArtMASS MoCA

Design: Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Founded by and named after the author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and more than 70 other children’s books, this whimsical collection on the Hampshire College campus in western Massachusetts features the work of more than 200 picture book artists. Take the kids and afterward treat them to something cold from Orchard Run Ice Cream across the road.

Other top picks: RISD Museum (Rhode Island), Gropius House (Mass), Frank Lloyd Wright at the Currier Museum (N. Hampshire).


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