Monday, July 20, 2009

Museum Monday: Small Museums

Old World Wisconsin barn Image of barn at Old World Wisconsin, historic farm and villiage, by newagecrap.

Every Monday this month, I'm doing a post on museums to encourage people to visit one during their summer vacation.  The first week I talked about how to navigate through a museum, and last week I discussed which art museums you should visit for certain types of art.  Both of those posts focused on the huge, crowd-drawing museums with major collections drawn from all over the world.  For this post, I want to shift focus a bit and talk about small museums.

Why You Should Go

I love large museums as much as the next person, but think for a second about what's in them:  artwork and artifacts from other countries.  Even in large museums that feature American art, they tend to focus on art with broad national or popular appeal.  So while big museums are great at giving you an overview of something, by their very nature they tend to fail at specializing in specific arts, artists, periods, or movements.

Here's where the small museum comes in.  The hundreds of thousands of small museums across the US specialize in preserving American history and Americana where it otherwise would die out or be forgotten.  Some of them are really great; some can be lame.  But either way, your chance of learning about a slice of American history at a small museum is pretty good.  These museums can be pretty fascinating and really fun to visit!

Where To Find Them

Small museums are literally everywhere.  There's probably even a few close to where you live that you don't know about.  Just to give an example:  I live in a town that's so small, when Bella complains about size of Forks, I laugh because to me it sounds large.  Yet there are at least four museums here that I can think of off the top of my head.  One of them I only found out about a few months ago (it's pretty lame, though).  There are another three museums less than an hour's drive away that come to mind immediately.  So pretty much any community has a good chance of having a museum.

Small museums can also be attached to institutions (churches, universities or colleges, insane assylums, hospitals, etc.--yes, you'd be surprised at the number of them that have museums) or companies.  For example, an abbey near here has a museum of American Indian Art.  Why?  It's a really long story.  The point is, once you start looking for them, it's hard not to trip over small museums.

You can search for small musuems by location or interest.  Guide books can be an okay resource, although they don't always list all the museums in an area (you don't want to miss one, now do you??).  The best resources (unsurprisingly) are on the internet.  Museums USA is a great site that lets you search for museums by type or location, and has a fair number of listings (although not comprehensive).  The Small Museum Association and the American Association of Museums also have directories, although theirs are more difficult to navigate and only the more well-funded museums will pay to be in their listings.

Types of Small Museums

Art Museum--There are a few small museums with impressive collections of great (though not universally known) artists.  One example is the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haut, Indiana.

Production or art-specific museum--Other museums focus more on specific companies or producers, such as Michael Garmin Galleries; or on specific types of art, like the America Museum of Ceramic Arts.

Artist-specific--While these museums usually don't have a definitive collection of the artist's work, they can offer a better portrait of the artist.  And they don't necessarily contain only work by said artist, either.  A perfect example is the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.

Artist home or studio--This might tie into an artist-specific museum, but not necessarily.  These museums usually contain very little in the way of the artist's actual work, but are fun to visit if want a peek into an artist's life.  I loved visiting the E. I. Couse House & Studio in Taos.

Historic home or village--I actually love these types of museums!  What could be better than bringing history to life?  One of my favorites was Fort Mackinac in Michigan.

And many others--Whatever you're interested in--quilting, costuming, aviation, musical instruments--there's a good chance a small museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and educating the public about it.

For the average traveler, a small museum can be a risky proposition.  You don't know exactly what you're going to get when you walk into one, and they require more effort and thought on the part of visitors to find and make time for.  However, I firmly believe small museums are the backbone of this country's cultural and historical preservation, and they're well worth the effort to visit.

Have you visited any small museums?  Do you have a favorite?

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