Boston is known for many things: history, higher education, and devoted, possibly rabid, sports fans. But the city is also home to world-class museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the delightful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
But, if you prefer your museum excursions to be more bite-sized, Greater Boston offers many smaller gems as well. From traditional art to antique cars to postage stamps — yes, postage stamps — diverse interests are represented.
Here’s a sampling of the best.
1. Harvard Museum Of Natural History
Lions And Tigers And Bears
Museums showcase much more than paintings as the Harvard Museum of Natural History proves. The museum features an assortment of mounted displays of animals from the African Savannah to Asia’s jungles to Brazil’s rainforest. In the Africa Room, the lion reigns supreme perched above its prey, while the fierce-looking Bengal tiger captures everyone’s attention in the Asia room.
The museum also houses fossils, including the so-called “Harvard Mastodon.” These magnificent creatures roamed the continent as recently as 13,000 years ago; this specimen was excavated in New Jersey in the 1840s.
Another captivating fossil, the Kronosaurus, is hard to miss. At 42 feet long, this prehistoric carnivore, with daggers for teeth, would have hunted in the seas between 200 and 65 million years ago.
Pro Tip: Your ticket grants access to Harvard’s other museums, such as the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology — perfect to satisfy the Indiana Jones in all of us.
2. Bunker Hill Monument & Museum
A Signature Battle
The Freedom Trail, Boston’s popular self-guided walking tour, passes many of the city’s iconic sites. Unfortunately, not everyone makes it to the Bunker Hill Monument & Museum, but they should. The towering 221-foot monument commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place in the early months of the Revolutionary War.
National Park Rangers bring the battle to life during afternoon talks (Wednesday to Sunday), explaining how on June 17, 1775, militia from four colonies banded together to oppose the British siege of Boston. While the Redcoats eventually won the day, the Minute Men proved to be worthy adversaries inflicting significant casualties on the British.
The museum’s exhibits depict what the battle might have looked like, based on historical accounts. The colorful Cyclorama recreates numerous aspects of the fighting in a 360-degree format, a popular medium during the 1800s. In another room, a diorama gives visitors an excellent overview of the landscape in the late 1700s, a stark difference from the development that exists today.
3. Charles River Museum Of Industry And Innovation
Weaving, Watches, Wheels, And Beyond
The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham celebrates the technical advancements that drove America’s Industrial Revolution. On this site in 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell, a successful merchant, along with other investors, established the Boston Manufacturing Company, which would transform the textile industry in the U.S.
The museum boasts exhibits highlighting the growth of the textile industry and hosts weaving demonstrations. Other spheres of business are represented as well, such as steam engines, automotive, bicycle manufacturers, machine tools, and the printing industry.
Of course, no museum showcasing local business innovations would be complete without watches. After all, Waltham is known as the Watch City. The museum features exhibits highlighting the Waltham Watch Company, established in 1854, known for being the first company to mass-produce pocket watches in the U.S.
Pro Tip: The entrance to the museum sits along the Charles River. Visitors follow a footpath accessed from the nearby Elm Street bridge to get to the entrance.
4. Spellman Museum Of Stamps And Postal History
Put A Stamp On It
What did John Lennon and Franklin D. Roosevelt have in common? They both collected postage stamps. It might seem odd to the average millennial, but there was a time when stamp collecting was a widespread hobby. The Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History keeps this tradition alive with its exhibits and live demonstrations. The museum interprets the story of stamps — and the postal service in general — from the first postal stamp issued in England in 1840, depicting a young Queen Victoria, to the Pony Express of the 1860s to a popular Elvis Presley stamp issued in 1993, where the country got to vote on which image of Elvis to use.
The museum organizes stamps by themes, such as wildlife, national parks, and comic book characters. And, in spite of all the distractions of the modern world, these collections continue to resonate with children. In fact, the museum hosts popular interactive wildlife demonstrations during which live animals are brought to the museum to complement a stamp theme, like owls or reptiles.
5. Larz Anderson Auto Museum
It would be an understatement to say that Larz and Isabel Anderson liked automobiles. The wealthy couple purchased over 20 from 1900 to Isabel’s passing in 1948. Some of their vintage vehicles live on at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, just outside of Boston.
Touted as “America’s oldest auto collection,” the automobiles are housed in the Andersons’ impressive Carriage House, built in the design of a French chateau. Fourteen cars and carriages from the original collection, including an 1899 Winton Phaeton (their first automobile), resembling more a horse-drawn carriage, minus the horse, are on display.
Visitors who appreciate classic cars on a smaller scale will love the vast collection of diecast model cars donated to the museum.
6. Davis Museum
Of course, there are many smaller museums boasting traditional artwork, and one of the best is the Davis Museum. Located on the campus of Wellesley College, the museum hosts many impressive works spaced out over multiple floors. The building boasts the benefits of a larger art museum but in a warmer, more intimate setting.
The first floor focuses on pieces from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The collection of African wooden masks, including the D’mba (shoulder mask) used in ritualistic dances, is captivating and mysterious. The second floor displays artwork from the medieval period up to the 19th century, including a portrait of George Washington.
It’s hard to imagine a more profound visual contrast than between a somber Northern Baroque painting and the explosion of color and energy conveyed in Quattro Centric XII, an acrylic on canvas work featured in the Late-Modern and Contemporary section on the third floor of the museum. Don’t miss this part of the museum.
7. Museum Of Bad Art
Art Too Bad To Be Ignored
What’s the opposite of fine art? Well, if you visit the Museum of Bad Art in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, you may find out. Founded in 1993, the museum’s tagline is “Art too bad to be ignored.” Over the decades, the museum has known a few homes, but today the collection can be found at the Dorchester Brewing Company.
The museum grows its collection through scouring yard sales and thrift shops but also accepts works donated by artists themselves. For art to be included in the collection, it must have been an intentional artistic effort that didn’t work out as the artist wanted or missed its mark. For instance, a painter was inspired by a photograph of President Kennedy on board a yacht enjoying an ice cream cone. The artist’s rendering of Kennedy, however, makes him look more like a Bond villain than someone enjoying dessert.
The casual setting of a brewery makes for the perfect venue to view these creations. It’s a place where you can sip a pale ale and stare at a particular piece of art in wonderment.
Boston bound? Don’t miss