9 Unsung Museums

mcmichaelWith all the blockbuster exhibitions opening each fall, we don't typically think of summer as prime time to visit museums.

But one of the joys of summer vacation has long been finding ourselves in a new city and discovering a museum that’s a little off the beaten path. Maybe it has an unusually interesting permanent collection, or maybe it does a few small but high-quality shows each year. These museums are well worth a visit, and once you’ve found them, they feel like your own private discoveries.

The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.
There are so many museums on the Mall in Washington that you may wonder why you’d venture out to Kalorama for yet more art. This is why. The Textile Museum shows beautiful and historically important textiles from around the world—just awe-inspiring, amazing stuff. Bonus: You’ll actually enjoy reading the cards next to each piece, which are refreshingly free of art-world jargon.

Computer History Museum, Mountain View, Calif.
Early calculating machines and computers are really things of beauty. Don’t believe me? See for yourself at the Computer History Museum, housed in the heart of Silicon Valley and just down the road from the Googleplex (a tourist destination in its own right). The Computer History Museum displays the first personal computers from Apple and IBM, the first Cray supercomputers, Google’s first servers and a working version of Charles Babbage’s compute engine — which he designed in 1834 but never built. There are also toys, photos, videos, advertisements, t-shirts and other digital gizmos, from anti-lock braking systems to early pacemakers.

The Hess Collection, Napa, Calif.
If you think wine-tasting and contemporary art go together, this is the place for you. This is the same Hess as Hess Vineyards, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t encourage you to visit their tasting room. But the museum, on the same property, houses about a quarter of the collection of Donald Hess, who limits himself to relationships with 20 living artists. I’m hardly an expert, but the first time I went, I was shocked at the overall high quality of the art. Hess collects mostly hard-hitting, thought-provoking work, and his collection is definitely worth a detour.

Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine
With more than 17,000 items in its collections, Maine’s biggest and oldest public art institution might not qualify as small or out-of-the way. But the Portland Museum of Art encapsulates everything I love about regional museums: They’re not competing as directly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago, and they often collect awesome local and regional artists that you might not get to see if you only went to the “major” museums. The drive to Maine is a lot more pleasant now that we have the good sense to stop in Portland, visit the museum, and have a snack at Duckfat. 

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois
Laugh all you want about “Lincoln in Latex.” This is still the best presidential library, which perhaps is not surprising given that Lincoln is widely considered one of our best, if not the best, President. The museum helps you understand his character, and the times he lived in, through telling 3-D displays, artwork, and historical artifacts.

McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Toronto
The McMichael Collection is known primarily for its holdings of the Group of Seven, among the best-known of Canadian artists. It just so happens the Group of Seven painted landscapes in a semi-abstract style, which is one of my favorite combinations. If that doesn’t appeal to you, the McMichael also has an interesting collection of contemporary art and, in keeping with its mission to highlight the relationship between art and nature, an impressive sculpture garden.

The Neue Galerie, New York
Ronald Lauder instantly got worldwide notice for his embryonic Neue Galerie when he paid $135 million for Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. But now the Galerie is almost as well-liked for its Café Sabarsky, with its authentic Austrian pastries, as it is for its art. The Neue Galerie specializes in early 20th century German and Austrian art and design, with plenty of holdings by big names such as Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Joseph Hoffmann. All in a beautiful townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, Calif.
Yes, it’s an observatory and the planetarium show is first rate. But this historic site — at the top of a hill with Los Angeles literally at your feet — is worth touring. The exhibits do help bring the study of the stars and planets to life. A favorite explains how people have viewed the sky over thousands of years, and really gives you a sense of how telescopes, lenses and mirrors changed the way we literally see and think about the universe.

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas
Full disclosure: We’ve never been here. But we’re eagerly awaiting an excuse to go, or a report from someone who has. Osa Johnson, our favorite explorer, is remembered through the photos, films and artifacts she and her husband, Martin Johnson, collected on their forays into Africa in the early 20th century. Osa and Martin were explorers, naturalists and pioneering filmmakers. Starting in 1917, they documented the people and wildlife they found on their safaris through the South Pacific, Africa and Borneo, and were eventually responsible for making the word “safari” a household term. If you manage to get there, drop us a line. -- KW and CG

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image courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

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