Remember back on my 100th Museum celebration post how I said that I wouldn’t revisit the idea for a while, like maybe at 250 or halfway or something? Of course you do, because you – yes, you – read every single thing I ever post on CTMQ. And I love you for it.
The funny thing is, I’m now right where I originally thought I’d be finishing up with Connecticut’s museums. Yes, way back in 2006, a younger, darker-haired naïve version of me assumed there was only maybe 200 museums… tops. I wonder if I’d have embarked on CTMQ had I know what was truly ahead of me? Yeah, probably.
I refuse to engage in an argument (a discussion, sure) about my list of 200 at this point. Sure, some of them aren’t museums as you may think of museums, but they are all separate and distinct cultural centers promoting arts and/or ideas. More importantly, from my perspective, I’ve sort of stopped caring about THE NUMBER and am far more interested in really just experiencing pretty much everything possible in Connecticut.
I’d be a fool to pass up an opportunity to have some fun at an arbitrary number’s expense. The big two-oh-oh. I remember when America turned 200 years old. I remember, at only 3 and half years old, riding my red, white and blue bedecked tricycle in a parade down the road in the little neighborhood of my youth. I remember all 200 museums I’ve visited and written about. I can count my negative experiences on one hand – which is really amazing when you think about it.
Unfortunately, my grand 200th Celebration plans completely and totally fell apart. Hoang and I celebrated the momentous event down at MGM Foxwoods; a night of fine dining at Paragon Restaurant, luxuriating in bubble baths and an impossibly well-appointed suite. We each gambled with 100 dollars (representing the 200 museums) and had a grand ol’ time. The next morning, we were to visit the supposedly excellent Mashuntucket Pequot Museum.
And then this happened out the window of our beautiful suite:
Museum: Closed. Undaunted, on the way back home to West Hartford we decided to stop by the Connecticut Historical Society mere minutes from my house and which I’d never been to before, which is sort of strange in and of itself. In the end, the CHS was a perfectly fine museum at which to celebrate like the King of Connecticut Museums that I am.
And so, in keeping with what is now surely a tradition I started 100 museums ago, here are my top 10 museums between visits 101 and 200. I should note that this was an incredibly hard list to derive, as I went to more than ten really cool, really interesting museums. Some of these may not sound like they appeal to you, but they do. I don’t care who you are, the singular devotion of some of the great people who created these places will sway you. Trust me. My criteria for selection is very subjective. I love each of these museums often for very, VERY different reasons.
Oh yeah, a big, hearty Thank You to everyone at all 200 museums so far – you are immensely appreciated.
10. Haddam Shad Museum, Haddam
The first of three museums in this top 10 that are the fascinating result of one man’s singular passion. I am clearly enamored by these types of museums. Invariably, a retired gentleman has collected everything about something for many years and has decided to share his collection with the world. Often, these places sound somewhat strange to most people. Many people would probably shy away from visiting a hidden-away trumped up old shad shack devoted to all things shad. Not me. And neither should you.
The small museum is run solely by Dr. Zaientz, a retired dentist who grew up in the Connecticut River shad culture. Dr. Zaientz recognized the dying industry and was involved in the successful effort to name shad our official state fish. As much as I enjoyed learning about shad – and believe me, you can spend hours here watching shad movies and talking shad stories with the good doctor – this visit will always be a favorite of mine for an entirely different reason. In a very strange way, the Shad Museum let me know that CTMQ was legit. I once erroneously wrote that the Shad Museum was closed for good and I received more than one email setting me straight. Back then, I was just amazed anyone happened upon this blog let alone read it for content! Dr. Zaientz was understanding and welcoming and we forged an email friendship that culminated in me bringing my entire family, including my parents from Delaware, to his wonderful little museum in Haddam.
Shadrach, InnaShack and AwayWeGo; our visit to the Haddam Shad Museum
9. Action Wildlife Foundation, Goshen
Life is a series of lessons. Writing this blog amplifies that cliché by a factor of ten. There have been so many instances of museums (etc.) exceeding my expectations my head spins. Action Wildlife exemplifies this lesson in more than one way. For years, I’d driven by its entrance along route 44 in Goshen and ignorantly mocked what I thought was a goofy, possibly cruel, surely stupid tourist trap. So imagine my surprise at how awesome Action Wildlife really is.
Action Wildlife is NOT one of those hokey roadside zoo things with dirty caged up animals walking around in demented circles. The animals here, all purposely and carefully selected to match the environment of southern New England, have acres on which to roam and run. They are well-cared for and AW makes a strong commitment to animal stewardship and environmental quality. The sprawling property is very well maintained and a family could easily spend many hours here. In addition to all the live outdoor animals, AW houses the best display of taxidermy anywhere in the state not named Peabody. (And even then, it’s still close.) All three of us absolutely loved the huge display of pretty much every top predator in the world.
AW is very family friendly, with a small petting zoo area, picnic areas, and even a playground. I felt good about my visit, which I didn’t expect at all – and even sent my parents there with Damian once when they were caring for him.
Lights! Camera! Action Wildlife! Um… Camera?; our visit to Action Wildlife
8. Topsmead, Litchfield
Ah yes, Topsmead. Interestingly, I didn’t even take the full tour during my visit because Damian decided he didn’t want me to take the full tour. Regardless, I got enough of it to know that it was great.
Topsmead is a bit odd. It’s a beautiful country manor formerly lived in by a very rich woman that has been kept up beautifully by the state (as per her will). But it’s also a secret; no signs point the way at all and it is hardly – if ever – mentioned in state tourism materials. Again, this was part of the will of Mrs. Chase for whatever quirky reason. Topsmead really is just an oasis of sorts; an English manor cottage plucked from the Cotswolds “hidden” a short way off of route 118 not far from route 8. It’s worth a visit just to picnic on the grounds… But Topsmead makes my top 10 not only for its charm and cache, but also because the tour was just so darn good.
It was great, in fact. Our guide could write the book on tour guiding. He knew his crowd and spoke to our interests. He engaged Damian and occupied him with Damian stuff so he could talk about the architecture to the adults. He was fun and funny and knowledgeable. He allowed for one on one moments for the more esoteric questions. He recognized that with Damian, we’d need to dip in and out of the tour. He was loose and adaptable to his crowd. Yes, it helps that the subject was interesting but even so, he gets my nomination for best tour guide in the state. If I only knew his name…
Totally Tops; our visit to Topsmead
7. The Lock Museum of America, Terryville section of Plymouth
This museum is nothing short of amazing. Even after I look you in the eye and tell you, without a trace of exaggeration or sarcasm, that this museum contains absolutely nothing other than locks and lock-related memorabilia, you still will be amazed when you go there. You’ll be amazed that, yes, this place is two full floors and several rooms of locks and lock related stuff. This is one of those museums that surely must have been borne from mild insanity. And I mean that in the kindest of ways.
I went to the Lock Museum as part of my day-long profile for Connecticut Magazine. It was the perfect place to go with the writer to give him a flavor for these types of singularly focused museums. Within minutes, we were immersed in a Twin Peaks type World of Locks. A sonorous disembodied voice looms over the first room full of locks, guiding visitors from display case of locks to display case of locks. It’s just… Amazing really. And once you think you’ve seen all the locks you’ll ever need to see, you realize there’s an entire second floor – yup – full of more locks and lock technology and lock this and lock that.
I couldn’t care less about locks but I’m telling you, this slightly surreal museum will suck you in for a most wonderful random hour or so of your life.
The Key to My Heart; my visit to the Lock Museum of America
6. Flanders Nature Center, Woodbury
My love for Flanders is completely and absolutely personal to me. In truth, Flanders is nowhere near the best nature center in our state full of nature centers. It’s quite small and doesn’t really look like it’s changed much in 20+ years. However, it IS sprawled out across a lot of the land trust land and offers a lot in the way of art classes and summer camps for kids.
So what’s with the impressive ranking? Well, I had Damian with me out there and we happened to visit one section of the center smack-dab in the middle of a special needs day camp group. Despite our intrusion, we were welcomed and invited to poke around the barnyard animals and barn. The camp counselors acted as guides in a way, showing Damian how to feed the pig and allowing him to hold a baby snapping turtle. Finally, with the unbridled chaotic joy of the special needs campers all around us, I told a couple of the counselors about Damian and his unique behaviors and special needs. Not that they needed to know, but suddenly their magic amped up a few notches and Damian’s whole demeanor changed. He LOVED them and had a grand ol’ time for a good 45 minutes there, interacting with the older kids in wheelchairs and bumbling on the Karaoke machine.
It was a very touching and important hour of my life. Damian can be impossible at times and every museum I take him to is a complete crapshoot. After the long drive out to Woodbury and a slightly touchy picnic lunch, I wasn’t expecting much over among the pigs and horses. I was happy to be wrong and for that, I’ll never forget Flanders or my time there. Experiences like that transcend this blog and quite frankly, most of what I do.
Here it is, my visit to the Flanders Nature Center
5. Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury
Ah yes, the Mattatuck. Even though this was my 134th museum visit, I actually just recently wrote about my visit. So I’m pretty beat down writing about this place, but that’s only because it’s so big, so good, and so cool. I stake my reputation on this: The Mattatuck is reason enough for you to make a trip to visit Waterbury on purpose. The museum is a town history museum on steroids (the good kind) with a healthy and very well thought out mix of whizbangery and traditional exhibits. All the usual suspects are present, but the Mattatuck shows off its creativity in ways I’ve never seen before. And as you can imagine, I’ve seen a lot.
The first floor history exhibit alone makes for a great museum. But the Mattatuck has an entire second floor art gallery mostly dedicated to Connecticut artists and the very local Alexander Calder. I was blown away by the rich collection of the museum and the perfectly succinct blurbs about each piece hanging in the galleries. Furthermore, there’s a third floor to visit as well – considered a separate Waterbury Button Museum, containing a billion buttons made in Waterbury back when that was a big industry here. If you must visit ONE Connecticut town history museum in your life, I’d make it the Mattatuck.
Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not, and you can get Mattatuckered out with me here.
4. Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven
Believe it or not, I’d never been to the Peabody before this 2010 visit. Good natural history museums are probably my favorite type (don’t tell the other guys that) just as good natural history books are my favorite things to read. I do hold a biology degree after all, and I like to write and read so it sort of makes sense. Anyway, I’ve no idea why I never went to Yale’s showcase museum before but I’m sure glad I finally did. Moreover, I’m glad I brought along my two favorite people in the world, Hoang and Damian. They both enjoyed the venerable museum as much as I did.
Everyone knows about their giant dinosaur skeleton, but it was the other things like the incredible mural in the dinosaur hall and the stately marble stairs up to the second floor. It was the amazing animals on display in their life-like dioramas. The Peabody’s mineral collection rivals any in the country. The three of us stayed here until closing and could have stayed even longer if allowed. Able to spend the time to read most of the displays, one really gains an appreciation for Yale professors and students past and present. Of course, 100-200 years ago, pretty much anyone doing anything in academia were from one of the northeast Ivies, but still, it’s pretty cool to learn about the first guys who studied meteorites and paleontology and some of the pioneers in evolutionary biology and on and on.
The Peabody truly is one of the few museums that an entire family from age 3 to 103 will enjoy top to bottom anyway. It could be the only one in Connecticut come to think of it.
3. Peters Rail Road Museum, Wallingford
Why hadn’t I written about my visit to this place until over a year after I went? Because I couldn’t come up with the proper words to describe its awesomeness. It is, quite simply, amazing. The labor of love of one man, Dave Peters (and most definitely with a helping hand from his lovely wife), this nearly-secret little affair is tucked impossibly efficiently into Mr. Peters’ Wallingford home. Visits are by appointment only for obvious reasons and if you are a polite and respectful CTMQ reader, I can’t recommend you seeking this museum out. Even if you have absolutely zero interest in trains and train history. Why? Because I guarantee you you’ll leave the museum with a completely newfound love of trains. It’s that good.
Hoang and I didn’t know what to expect when we knocked on the door and were led inside a perfectly normal and well-kept house. Pleasantries exchanged, Dave led us down in the basement and his collection of the entire history of AMTRAK and all things American trains. Dave was a machinist with AMTRAK and sort of fell into collecting stuff that was destined for the scrapheap, taking it home, refurbishing and making them new again. And then, perhaps most impressively, jamming everything into his basement like it’s some sort of Tardis from Dr. Who. In addition, Dave displays a hand build train layout. Everything on it was handmade by him. Everything. The hobo and their hobo fire, the trains themselves, the engines, the hot air balloon that flies up and down.
I could go on and on about the Peters Train Museum. It extends upstairs and into the closets and now-empty kids’ rooms. But I’ll save the surprises for you to discover yourself. (And for me to write about myself!)
2. The Glass House, New Canaan
Again, like several on this list, I’d encourage those who think they’d hate this place or have no interest in it to try and visit it. (Granted, it’s pretty expensive to do so, so I’ll forgive you modern-haters for now.) As much as I love the idea of the glass house and appreciate it on many levels, I am perhaps more excited that my wife worked on getting this place its well-deserved National Historic Landmark status. This was a couple years before she got lucky and met me, and I just think that’s a really cool story.
It took a couple years to secure a Saturday tour, but the wait was worth it. Philip Johnson’s ground-breaking structure is but one of several buildings we were able to visit on the property. There is an impressive underground art gallery and a light and airy sculpture gallery. A library, a “ghost house,” a pool and a silly nod to Frank Gehry. The guides are knowledgeable and passionate and will deal with your “how can you live in a glass house” questions with aplomb. The extended tour allows photographs (imperative if you visit) and time for questions and a nice, leisurely pace. I learned a ton of stuff about Johnson and the property and New Canaan’s efforts to save a bunch of mid-century moderns. There is beauty in simplicity and as incredible as all the old ornate Victorian stuff I see in the typical Connecticut museums, modernism offers a poignant counterpunch to all that fluff.
1. Weston Woods, Weston
The easiest number one ever. As incredible as the other nine on this page are, my day at Weston Woods was, quite simply, the most rewarding day I’ve had since I began this blog. (Note: Damian came along before I started and my second son still has two months in the oven). And the funny thing is, Weston Woods isn’t even a museum you can visit easily at the time of this writing. And you probably don’t even know what it is… Weston Woods was founded in 1953 by Morton Schindel who became fascinated with picture books while reading to his children. He was inspired by their involvement with the stories and the rapt attention they paid to the illustrations and their eagerness to listen to a story over and over again. Weston Woods has remained the principal innovator in the translation of picture books into the audiovisual media, and the pioneer of the multimedia approach to children’s literature. Throughout this time, the philosophical underpinning of Weston Woods has been fidelity to the original.
Nestled into the secretive woods of Weston, Mort Schindel has been overseeing the transformation of his property and business into a viable museum. Frankly, it already was a top notch museum when we visited on an impossibly dreary, freezing, downpouring day in the spring of 2010. Priceless art and artifacts litter the estate; original Maurice Sendak cels piled here, the first VCR over there, one-of-a-kind film equipment filling another room across the road. Weston Woods is absolutely incredible. The sheer volume of stuff and history and art Mort has collected and saved is worthy of the Smithsonian. Since every single one of us has seen his movies, created via Mort’s own pioneering processes, spending a day where it all happened was amazing.
Mort is one of the sweetest and kindest man I’ve met in my life. He was great and patient with Damian and showed a perfect mix of pride and humility about his work. I believe the town of Weston has allowed his property to become a proper museum and I know he’s getting professional curator help as well. When this place opens to the public at large (which it may or may not ever do), Weston Woods will be one of the best places in the northeast to spend a day. Trust me.
So please, enjoy our visit to Weston Woods.