If you wander near, don’t miss these museums

  • By Mike Murray, For The Herald
  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014 3:41pm
  • Life

The list of museums I will never see is depressingly long. Yet I am grateful for those I have visited, some by design, others discovered by accident, which is one of the rewards of travel.

Here are some favorites starting in the West.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a five-museum complex that is for me the definitive destination for cowboy and western art, is located in Cody, Wyo., an hour or so from the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park.

It’s a big complex packed with treasures, including a superb collection of American West paintings, sculptures and prints (Frederic Remington, George Catlin, Thomas Moran, among others), and an in-depth look at William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), the comprehensive Cody Firearms Museum (guns, guns and more guns) and a scholarly and entertaining collection of Native American art and artifacts.

It’s an all-day kind of experience.

The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a nugget we unearthed on a blisteringly hot August day in Helena, Mont.

Founded in 1951 on the site of an abandoned brick yard, it draws emerging and established ceramic artists from around the world who take up residence in this rambling complex to study, make art and share ideas in a creative environment.

Even the grounds are dotted with ceramic sculptures, some huge. We toured the studios, talked to a few artists as they worked and purchased two delicate porcelain vases by a resident artist; they sit on the mantel and remind us of that day.

The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, founded in 1889 by Thomas Lister Kay, is a beautifully preserved textile mill in Salem Ore., one of many such mills engaged in industrial wool processing that once dotted the Willamette Valley.

The mill, which produced fine woollen blankets and fabric until it closed in 1962, is a grand old wooden building of creaking floors and warm aromas, soaring ceilings and original machinery, graced by still-working water turbines that generated electricity from the millrace.

It’s a window into the past and the stories of the people who worked at the mill. The lemon meringue pie I had in the adjacent cafe was second only to my mother’s.

The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham is fun for science junkies and history buffs, and a nostalgic trip back in time.

The place is packed with exhibits and artifacts spanning four centuries of science, and for radio buffs it is a gold mine.

There’s a replica of the Titanic radio room complete with original Marconi wireless apparatus, and a large collection of 19th-century inventions including early telegraphs, telephones, electric motors and dynamos.

There are lamps from the laboratory of Thomas Edison, and a 1930s-era living room where you can settle into a comfy chair and listen to shows from the golden age of radio.

The museum started life as the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum. Weekends feature gee-whiz electric demonstrations in the museum’s electrical show theater.

Farther from home

The Metropolitan Museum in New York City remains ground zero for a one-stop-shopping approach to art.

The place is massive and the collections are mind-blowing, with more than 2 million works in 17 departments.

With stamina and a couple of days, visitors can survey the world’s art from classical antiquity through the European masters and into the modern era.

There are musical instruments, costumes, weapons, an Egyptian temple that sits in regal splendor in a vast, sky-lit gallery, and so much more.

Seeing the treasures in the American Wing with its re-creation of period rooms and superb displays of American art and furniture fills one with pride.

The Met is the “Introduction to Everything about World Art” class you never took, cheaper than a Broadway show, hard on the feet and worth the effort.

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind., satisfies my classic-car obsession to a T.

The cars displayed in the restored 1930 Art Deco showroom, an architectural gem in its own right, are American royalty, assembled by hand at the Auburn Automobile Company’s international headquarters in this small Indiana town.

Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs of the classic era (1925-1937) are the heart of this 100-plus car collection showcased over three floors.

Other great American nameplates represented here are Lincoln, Cadillac and Marmon. Gearheads will appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship, inventive design, mechanical technology and raw power of these vintage cars, and everyone can respond to their sleek beauty.

Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Conn., is a vibrant reminder that America was a great seafaring nation.

Located on the Mystic River, the 17-acre site is a meticulously preserved re-creation of an entire 19th-century seafaring village, with dozens of original historic buildings and many historic vessels, including a wooden sailing whaler, sloops, schooners and a steamer.

A ride on the steamer was a highlight of the visit. Mystic is a prime example of “living history museum” in a quintessential New England setting.

I was impressed with the outstanding collection of maritime art, a specialized and popular niche for art collectors, and recall the refreshing breeze off the Mystic River on a hot day.

My most memorable museum moment came during a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg when I watched a man brush against a wooden stand holding a priceless masterpiece.

A Leonardo da Vinci perhaps, or maybe a Rembrandt? The stand rocked precariously back and forth as I held my breath, but it did not fall. It was the longest few seconds of my life.

Mike Murray is a former arts and entertainment editor and writer for The Herald, who retired to travel and ride his bike.

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