They conjure up images from childhood visits to museums: endless relics explained in excruciating detail by docents who, in their zeal, fail to notice the glazed-over expressions on visitors’ faces.
It might be different if these institutions were devoted to—oh, say—witch trials or wanton carnival revelry. What if they honored a Sioux war chief or an artist known for his mustache and a penchant for painting melting timepieces? How about a museum whose treasures included Mick Jagger’s bell bottoms and Elton John’s rainbow-hued regalia? And what if an entire museum was based around our childhood love of play?
Today’s museums are anything but dry and dusty, and energetic exhibits make musty memories fade away. Here are 10 NTA-member attractions that redefine the concept of what makes a museum worth visiting.
Mardi Gras World | New Orleans
“Throw me something, mister!” is the cry heard every year as thousands of revelers gather in the Big Easy for Mardi Gras. But even if your group can’t make it to Carnival, they can experience the pageantry of the celebration year-round at Mardi Gras World.
On the banks of the Mississippi River, this 300,000-square-foot warehouse is where floats are constructed for all the Carnival parades. Magic is made here: Dragons and dinosaurs are created out of chicken wire and crepe paper, and 10-foot heads of Hillary Clinton and Hannibal Lector are fashioned from Styrofoam sheets and papier-mache.
Visitors can watch artists at work and then view the results. They might even leave with a few strands of plastic beads draped around their necks. mardigrasworld.com
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum | Nashville
From Hank Williams’ cheatin’ heart to Taylor Swift’s cheating boyfriends … from rhinestone cowboys to the Man in Black … and whether you dote on Dolly or are mad about Merle, this is the place for country music lovers to get their groove on.
Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has been referred to as the “Smithsonian of Country Music,” with some 2.5 million artifacts tracing the evolution of country music from its roots to present day. Those items range from Mother Maybelle Carter’s Gibson guitar and Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac limousine to the dress Carrie Underwood wore when she won “American Idol.”
Of interest to groups is a special program linked to the major exhibit, “Outlaws and Armadillos.” Groups can tour the exhibit, says Dana Romanello, senior manager for tourism and admission sales, and then take part in a personal showcase and discussion with two musicians who played with Waylon Jennings and others of the Outlaw era. countrymusichalloffame.org
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum | Cleveland
If your group is a little less country and a little more rock and roll, preferring “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” then this museum on the shores of Lake Erie is tailor made for you.
Your only problem might be budgeting enough time to rock your way through all six floors. (Tip: The first floor has most of the action.) You can’t miss Jimi Hendrix’s guitar or Mick Jagger’s jumpsuit. You must watch Michael Jackson and the Stones in concert, and listen to Aretha Franklin talk about who influenced her music. You absolutely can’t leave without finding out how certain cities—Memphis, Detroit, Liverpool and Seattle—influenced musical genres.
From Buddy Holly to the Beatles, this one has it all. rockhall.com
Newseum | Washington, D.C.
Even if your group isn’t composed of news junkies, they will be fascinated by this interactive museum where five centuries of news history combines with up-to-the-second technology.
Some of the exhibits are gut-wrenching: those on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam Tet Offensive.
Some are heartwarming: the gallery of presidents and their canine companions—from George Washington’s American foxhound to Barack Obama’s Portuguese Water Spaniel.
And some are just plain informative: the Time Warner World News Gallery, with its 36-foot-wide world map—updated annually—illustrating by color code the different levels of press freedom in countries around the world.
At this museum, you can be sure of one thing: There’s no such thing as fake news. newseum.org
Museum at the Gateway Arch | St. Louis
They’ve been making real news lately in St. Louis, the location of one of America’s greatest pieces of art and proudest urban symbols.
The Gateway Arch, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s sculptured ribbon of steel, towers 630 feet above the Mississippi River and is visible across the St. Louis metro area. Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the Arch celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s vision of Manifest Destiny.
Visitors take a passenger tram to the top of the arch for the obligatory “ooohhhing” and “aaahhhing.” Afterward, they can check out the sparkling new museum, which reopened July 3 as part of a $176 million renovation of the visitors center. Galleries focus on colonial St. Louis, the nation’s westward expansion and the history of the arch itself. gatewayarch.com
Crazy Horse Memorial | Custer, South Dakota
Most people will tell you the Black Hills are known for Mount Rushmore and its massive granite profiles of U.S. Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. After all, it’s hard to ignore four faces carved out of rock and measuring 60 feet from forehead to chin.
However, the other Black Hills monument—that of Crazy Horse, Chief of the Lakota Sioux—when finished, will make the former POTUSes look like mini-men on the Mount.
A work in progress since 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial is carved from the side of a mountain and depicts him on horseback—long hair streaming behind and arm outstretched—capturing the spirit of a great warrior.
To give you some idea of the scope of this magnificent sculpture, Crazy Horse’s head is 88 feet tall and his horse will be 219 feet. When completed, the 564-foot granite sculpture will be 100 feet taller than Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza.
The campus also includes The Indian Museum of North America, which holds a collection of art and artifacts related to the diverse history and cultures of Native Americans. crazyhorse.org
Salem Witch Museum | Salem, Massachusetts
Here, in this most haunted of cities, stands the stone bastion housing the Salem Witch Museum, honoring those who gave the town its raison d’être. In 1692, 20 people were put to death for witchcraft, and this museum brings to life their (literal) trials and tribulations, and it attempts to explain how such a frenzy could have happened.
This dramatic history lesson uses stage sets with life-size figures, lighting and narration during two informative presentations. Visitors also learn the wider meaning of the word “witch,” along with the truth behind the stereotypes.
Ironically, this most unholy of museums is housed in a former church. salemwitchmuseum.com
Salvador Dalí Museum | St. Petersburg, Florida
Thanks to a Cleveland couple, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who spent their lives collecting works by the eccentric Spanish artist, this St. Petersburg museum would no doubt have the dapper Dalí twirling his mustache in delight.
Housed in a stunning waterfront building with a skylight for natural lighting, it’s the largest museum devoted to Dalí outside of Spain. The attraction contains 96 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and drawings, and 1,300 graphics, photographs, sculptures and objets d’art, as well as an extensive archival library. thedali.org
Newport Mansions | Newport, Rhode Island
“What’s this?” you say. “A museum showcasing the lifestyles of the super-rich?” Make that “museums” because that’s what the palatial Rhode Island mansions under the aegis of the Preservation Society of Newport County are.
Nine mansions—the Breakers, Chepstow, Marble House, Rosecliff, Chateau-sur-Mer, the Elms, Hunter House, Kingscote and Isaac Bell House—will have your group feeling as if they are part of Newport’s Gilded Age, or at the very least, characters out of “The Great Gatsby.”
Add to this an extraordinary garden, Green Animals Topiary Garden, and you have a set of museums like no other. newportmansions.org
Strong National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York
Imagine a museum where you can test your Pac-Man skills, move pieces around on a life-size chess board, sit down with a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery book, or move cartoon characters around on a large screen using just your arms.
Imagination is what the Strong is all about.
“The Strong is like no other museum and is a must for adult groups,” says Karen Dodson, tourism sales associate. “It provides a nostalgia-filled journey through the toys and games of our childhood, offering an opportunity to see one-of-a-kind artifacts, such as the first hand-made Monopoly set, the original Barbie and one of the first commercial jigsaw puzzles.”
Future plans include a 100,000-square-foot wing that will house new exhibits, such as the World Video Game Hall of Fame. museumofplay.org
Top photo: Mardi Gras World (New Orleans)
Photo by mardigrasworld.com