I ❤️ Small Museums

As the late, great Billie Holiday once sang:
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, bloggers gotta blog.

I started this damp Saturday by boring the socks off of the nice folks who use Convoglio email. They were treated to a longish discourse on two alternative ways to train Spam filters. Count yourself lucky if you were not among them.

Bore others into stupefaction: done. Now what?

I was looking that the photos from our recent trip to New Zealand to see if I could milk them for one more blog entry. Maybe, maybe not. But that’s now a project for another day. What I realized is that I really like small museums.

I don’t mean “small” as in “Eugene, Oregon has a nice art museum on campus.” I mean more like “Fairfield, Iowa has a Museum of Spoons”. Which, so far as I’m aware, it does not.

I want to share with you some photos from a few unexpected surprises that we’ve come across in our travels.

The Cimarron Heritage Center – Boise City, Oklahoma

http://www.chcmuseumok.com

Just after I retired in 2013, we made an 11,000 kilometer loop around the states that lie west of the Mississippi River. Having recently watched the excellent Ken Burns series on the Great American Dust Bowl, we made a detour of several hundred kilometers just to visit the place where it began: Boise City, OK.

Extra credit: Unlike the town in Idaho, the locals pronounce the name Boyce City.

We arrived late in the afternoon, maybe 4:00 or so. We’d been living in a cocoon of comfort inside Mary Anne’s new Audi. Opening the door in the museum parking lot was like stepping into a sauna. It was 113 degrees farenheit (45 celsius) and a strong wind was blowing.

The place was supposed to close at 5:00 but the nice ladies running the place told us to take as long as we’d like. I could have spent days. The museum spans many buildings and is filled with everything someone thought that others might find interesting.

I have no idea why I have only three photos of this special place. But I will be sure to take many more, should we ever return.

The main entrance and offices
A real plains tribe tipi (or tee-pee) also with assorted kind-of related things.
This is what brought us to Boise City – information about what it was like during the worst man-made natural disaster in American history.

The Prairie Village – Rugby, North Dakota

https://www.prairievillagemuseum.com

We were heading west on U.S. Highway 2, the most northernly route across the states. Imagine our surprise to discover that the exact geographic center of North America turned out to be conveniently located right beside the highway! (A little too conveniently, perhaps?)

But it was worth a stop because nearby was an entirely reconstructed prairie-era village. This was at least as cool as Boise City.

Over the past two hundred years or so, many small towns in the area were abandoned for one reason or another. Some thought that they would thrive when the railway came through, only to be bypassed. Others were abandoned when years of drought drove farmers away.

But those who remained began collecting buildings and their contents that were left behind. On this large, flat piece of land, they assembled a collection of buildings gathered from here-and-there into a town that never was.

On the day we visited, Mary Anne and I were almost the only people. There were no guards, no cameras. Just a trust that you wouldn’t steal from the exhibits.
Note the 48 star flag
Iron lungs were still a thing when I was a boy. Polio put more than one child (or adult) into one of these machines. Sometimes for a while. Sometimes for life. Fuck you anti-vaxers!
Why do I feel like that X-ray machine could burn a hole right though me?
What would a local museum be without local curiosities?
There are several barns full of old carts, sleighs, cars and tractors. Apparently when a farmer retires, he amuses himself by restoring old equipment.

The C.M. Russell Museum – Great Falls, Montana

https://cmrussell.org

Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926) was many things: consummate Westerner, historian, advocate of the Northern Plains Indians, cowboy, writer, outdoorsman, philosopher, environmentalist, conservationist, and not least, artist.

C.M. Russell Museum

Charlie Russell was a lucky guy – an artist recognized in his lifetime and able to make a good living off of his art.

We found ourselves here because I can’t count. We were due to meet friends in Missoula, Montana on a certain date for some river rafting. As the day drew near, I realized that we were one day ahead of schedule on our loop-the-west road trip.

A quick phone call later, we were booked into a room at Glacier National Park for the night, which left plenty of time for lunch and a tour of the Russell Museum in Grand Falls.

Russell was a little bit too young to have fully experienced prairie tribal life. By the time he was of age, Caucasians had pretty much finished destroying the native way of life.
Russell has an extensive collection of native artifacts
The Russell’s cabin, next to the museum building. This was not the home of a poor prairie farmer.
Russell’s saddle

Mangawhai Museum – Mangawhai Heads, New Zealand

https://mangawhai-museum.org.nz

We had just spent three great days at Mangawhai Heads while heading south to meet friends in New Plymouth. Beaches were visited, as was a very earthy, friendly local pub, and a French restaurant on Valentine’s Day.

As we left town, Mary Anne spotted the museum. We decided to have a look.

The first thing I noticed when we pulled into the parking lot was the restored school and other buildings across the street. It brought the Prairie Village in North Dakota to mind.

Inside there was something for everyone: local Maori history, sea and seabird ecology, lifestyle exhibits, and a display of wood carvings by a local artist who died young.

Kiwis are great re-users. When old trams were taken out of service, families converted them into holiday homes. Note the water tank and open-air food storage.
Carvings by the late artist Ian McMillan

Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room – Southwold, England

http://southwoldsailorsreadingroom.co.uk

We made a day trip to Southwold while visiting nearby friends. After a rendezvous with still more friends, lunch on the pier and a stroll through town, we found ourselves outside the Sailors’ Reading Room.

One part museum, one part social centre, the Reading Room is in my opinion exactly the sort of thing one travels to England for.

You may say that I didn’t take a lot of photos. I say that I took plenty for a place festooned with No Photography signs.

In Summary…

This could go on forever. Perhaps you feel that it already has.

Big museums are great. Where else are you going to see a Picasso or a Van Gogh? But for my money, the best entertainment values are the small places filled with items of local interest.

If you know of other great small museums, feel free to mention them in the comments section.

Comments

  1. Jan McCallie

    Hmm we were in Fairfield we could have verified if there were a museum. My grandpa had a small house he used as a museum right outside Fairfield. Long gone now. A great museum to visit is the steamship Arabia in Kansas City. Long buried artifacts from a steamship that went down as it was headed west with every household item needed to settle the west.

    1. Post
      Author
      Steve

      Kidding. I have a friend from university who lives in Fairfield. Mary Anne and I visited on our 2013 road trip. I wanted an example that was a small town and Fairfield came to mind. What is in Fairfield is Maharishi International University run by the Transcendental Meditation folks. This is why my friend is there. It makes for an interesting mix of farmers and the TM crowd. They seem to get along pretty well.

  2. Wayne Litenberger

    The most eccentric museum I’ve ever visited is in Haines, Alaska. The small town is home to the Hammer Museum. Actual hammers. There are thousands of them in two rooms. Hammers to do things that you probably didn’t know needed doing. Altogether a fine experience.

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