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Museums come in all shapes and sizes, from the sprawling Hermitage in St. Petersburg to jewel boxes like New York’s Frick Collection. For the traveler, they all offer a window into a country’s culture and history, as well as a chance to experience some of the world’s great public spaces. On display this month is a collection of some of our favorite lesser-known--but no less worthy--museums well worth the trip.

Paris – Impressions of Magnificence

Set on the banks of the Seine in the colorful Tuileries Gardens, the intimate Musée de l’Orangerie is housed in the former orangery (conservatory) of the Tuileries Palace. It’s a world away from the throngs that pour into the massive Louvre on the park’s opposite side. Downstairs, you’ll find a noteworthy collection by impressionists and post-impressionists, including Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, Cézanne and Rousseau. Upstairs, two 80-foot oval salons feature eight murals of Monet’s renowned Nymphéas (Water Lilies). Displayed in grand 360° view, the impressive works are shown under diffused light, just as Monet intended. The Paris Museum Pass includes the Musée de l’Orangerie.

Rome – A Cardinal’s Treasure


In 1605, Pope Paul V (1605–1621) granted the title of cardinal to his nephew Scipione Borghese. As an avid art patron, Cardinal Borghese used his amassed wealth acquire a remarkable collection of Renaissance paintings and classical sculptures, while commissioning works by Caravaggio and Bernini. To showcase his acquisitions, the Cardinal built Villa Borghese on the outskirts of Rome. The villa and its magnificent gardens were purchased by the city in 1903 and given to the public. Lovingly restored, the villa—now known as the Galleria Borghese—is one of Italy’s treasures, containing hundreds of the Cardinal’s paintings and sculptures that include works by Bernini, Canova, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rubens and Barocci.

Athens, Greece – Fabled Peak of Antiquity


In 1865, archaeologists in Athens unearthed a headless marble statue when builders broke ground for the Acropolis Museum. The body of the statue was later reunited with its head to become Kritios (or Kritian Boy). Residing in the New Acropolis Museum, this statue takes its place among other noted artifacts like the Elgin Marbles (sculptures, inscriptions and pieces of the ancient Parthenon, sacred temple of the goddess Athena) and discoveries found on the slopes of the Acropolis. These incredible finds received a stellar new home in 2009 to preserve their sanctity. Standing on the same ground as the original, the new museum far outshines its predecessor in size and prominence. On the ground floor, upward-sloping glass floors set atop hundreds of pillars offer views of the excavation site below. Upstairs, the glass-enclosed third floor showcases the Parthenon’s famed marble frieze (ca. 443-438 B.C.).

Berlin, Germany – Island of the Arts


Set on the Spree River in the middle of one of the world’s greatest cities, Museum Island traces its origins to the 1820s, when construction began on the Old Museum. In 1841, King Frederick William approved a master plan that set aside the island for the arts and sciences. Four museums, all housed in temple-like structures, were later added: the New Museum (1859), the Old National Gallery (1876), the Bode Museum (1904) and the Pergamon (1930). Heavily bombed during World War II, the museums were all restored following Germany’s reunification in 1990. Showcasing a mind-boggling array of art that spans 6,000 years and includes all periods, Museum Island serves as Berlin’s cultural heart. Its myriad treasures include the bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Altar. UNESCO named the island a World Heritage Site in 1999.

Hiroshima, Japan – A Call for Peace


On August 6, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the Enola Gay had dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a chief supply depot for the Japanese army during World War II. Two thousand times more powerful than the largest bomb used up to that time, it caused catastrophic devastation, creating a massive mushroom cloud of impenetrable dust; temperatures of approx. 7,000°F on the ground; and an atomic wind of 980 mph beneath the blast that ignited, melted and flattened almost everything in the vicinity. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum relates the story in a sobering, balanced and deeply moving way through photos, mementos, special exhibits and videos from survivors. The adjoining park, Children’s Peace Memorial and the Atomic Dome across the river offer visitors a chance to absorb the effects of the events, as do Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Miyajima Island Tour.

Cancun, Mexico – The Silent Evolution


Cancun is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you hear the word “museum.” But the popular Yucatan playground has found an innovative way to embrace both art and conservation in a unique museum that fits right in with the beaches, resorts and party life. Designed to illuminate the interaction between art, environment and science, the Underwater Museum (Museo Subacuático de Arte) features permanent life-size sculptures made from specialized materials intended to promote aquatic life. Fashioned by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, 400 human sculptures were installed below the azure waters around Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Meant to draw visitors away from the natural reefs that are in dire need of recovery, this “sculpture reef” lets marine life colonize and repopulate. The sculptures—depicting humans in all manner of activities—appear in a constant state of flux, changing form and shape as barnacles, algae, coral and marine life settle on them. Currents and light from above produce a kaleidoscopic effect while underwater optics make the statues appear 25% larger. Snorkel, dive or take a glass-bottom boat to this uniquely dramatic site.

Memphis, TN – Continuation of a Dream

In March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Memphis to lead a protest march by the city’s African-American sanitation workers. A few days later he was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. One of only a handful of museums that welcomed African-American guests at the time, the Lorraine is now the central point of the National Civil Rights Museum, which proudly carries on King’s legacy. Chronicling all the significant events of the American civil rights movement, the museum leads visitors from the earliest slave revolts to boycotts, bus strikes, sit-ins, marches and voter-registration drives. Visitors can climb aboard the re-created bus in which Rosa Parks staged her act of defiance, see a model of the first sit-in protest at a Woolworth lunch counter and discover the motivation behind the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama. If you visit, we highly recommend the audio guide.

Washington, D.C. – First Draft of History


As you walk into the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the day’s events unfurl around you. Front-page news stories from around the world, displayed on LCD screens, line the corridor. Major stories such as Hurricane Katrina, the D.C. sniper, political campaigns and uprisings, sports highlights and other significant events fill its 14 galleries and 15 theaters, along with poignant physical reminders such as remnants of the Berlin Wall, a mangled broadcast antenna from the World Trade Center towers and pieces of United Airlines’ Flight 93 from the 9/11 tragedy. Galleries also showcase the foundations of journalism and the people who sacrificed to get the stories. An interactive newsroom and working broadcast studio bring the news to life. One of the most compelling parts of the Newseum is the Pulitzer-Prize photography gallery, which displays the world’s largest collection of iconic images.

New York City – Immigrant Stories

New York City

In addition to exploring New York’s bounty of excellent art museums, every visitor should make a stop at 97 Orchard Street to appreciate the history of the people who made this city great. Between 1863 and 1935, a total of almost 7,000 working-class immigrants lived within the walls of this five-story apartment building as they tried to create a new life, start a family and work toward a better future. Serving as a tattered time capsule, the Tenement Museum gives visitors an inside look at immigrant life in the 19th and 20th centuries. The building’s inhabitants endured great hardship, living through the Great Panics of 1893 and 1907 and, of course, the Great Depression. Viewable on small-group tours, the re-created apartments display the building’s modest beginnings—water came from a spigot in the garden until 1895, indoor toilets weren’t added until 1901 and electric light didn’t shine until 1924. Guides and role-playing interpreters share the compelling stories of German, Irish, Greek, Russian, Italian and Jewish families in their first American homes.

Las Vegas, NV – Neon Dreams

Las Vegas

Since the Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, Las Vegas has been awash in neon and glitter. The offbeat Neon Museum strives to preserve the city’s iconic neon signs and related artifacts, including the lobby of the historic La Concha Motel lobby, which the museum saved from demolition. Following rehabilitation, the stellar curved structure will serve as a visitor center when the museum opens its doors to the general public in 2012. Until then, you can make reservations to take a fascinating tour through “The Boneyard.” Over 150 pieces sit stacked in this dusty, outdoor burial ground for aged neon signs that lost their luster when energy-efficient LED lights took over. Passionate—and sometimes quirky—tour guides will lead you around the signs while recounting early Las Vegas history with stories of Howard Hughes, the mafia and more. Witness such marvels as a giant Silver Slipper, Binion’s Horseshoe, Aladdin’s Lamp and signs from the city’s museums and wedding chapels. It’s a unique collection of art history and a grassroots experience at its finest.

Drumheller, Canada – Relics of the Badlands


How many museums claim to explore 300 million years of life? In a deep canyon approx. 90 miles northeast of Calgary, you’ll find one that does a masterful job. Passionately devoted to paleontology and boasting a remarkable bone bed of prehistoric life outside its doorstep, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta (a 90-minute drive from Calgary) features over 125,000 fossil specimens, including 40 dinosaur skeletons. Modern architecture, high-tech exhibits and interactive activities like fossil digs make this a grand museum for paleontology fans, dino newbies, casual museum goers and kids. As part of the Alberta Fossil Trail that spans 1,553 miles, Drumheller is a captivating site of ongoing science. Still unearthing fossils in the surrounding geography, scientists dig up approx. 2,000 specimens every year. Watch paleontologists preparing fossils in the lab for exhibit, view giant scenes of saber-tooth tigers and mammoth skeletons in action, look out over the Badlands and become utterly submerged in this land of primeval magic.

San Francisco, CA – Legion of Honor

San Francisco

Alma Spreckels was so impressed by the French pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that she offered to build a museum in its likeness. On Veteran’s Day 1924, the “great grandmother of San Francisco” and her husband Adolph gave the Legion of Honor to the city in honor of Californians killed during World War I. Filling it with Rodin bronzes she’d acquired after meeting the artist in Paris, Spreckels added other art treasures she’d acquired as well as works by local sculptor Arthur Putnam. Perched like a relic of antiquity overlooking the Pacific, the museum houses European paintings and decorative arts, sculpture, ancient Mediterranean art, photography and one of the country’s largest collections of works on paper. Weekend concerts at 4 p.m. in the Rodin sculpture hall feature the 1924 Skinner pipe organ. Wander through the sculptures or sit and listen while the symphonic sounds of 4,500 pipes resonate through the halls. The San Francisco City Pass can include the Legion of Honor as your Choice Ticket.

San Francisco, CA – The Exploratorium


Determined to show the world that the Great Earthquake of 1906 had not damaged the city’s spirit, San Francisco pulled out all the stops to stage the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. One of the few remaining buildings from the exhibition is The Palace of Fine Arts, whose romantic Corinthian colonnades and grand Romanesque rotunda became an instant hit with the public. Later falling into ruin, the structure was resurrected when city residents rallied to rebuild it. Through the lobbying of physics professor Frank Oppenheimer, it became an interactive museum where people could explore science and technology. The one-of-a-kind Exploratorium has intrigued visitors ever since in all realms of math, physics, chemistry and biology. Constantly changing exhibits are all hands-on, fulfilling every whim of scientific curiosity, from how an opera singer can carry a note to breaking the Mayan code. Talking computers, vapor chambers, subzero gardening, forensic entomology, walking polygons, earthquake construction and hundreds of educational toys keep both adults and children fascinated for hours. The San Francisco CityPass includes the Exploratorium.

Shelburne, VT – Eclectic American History


Employing her remarkable knack for collecting American folk treasures, Electra Webb founded the Shelburne Museum in 1947. Resembling an old New England village, it’s set on 45 acres of rolling landscape outside Burlington. You can easily spend a day or more poking through the 39 structures that Webb had relocated to her property, including historic houses with stellar period furnishings. Stroll through galleries, barns, a schoolhouse, stagecoach inn, railroad station, general store, jail, carousel, covered bridge, lighthouse and a three-story Ticonderoga steamboat. Over 150,000 art pieces fill the buildings and galleries, from quilts, jewelry, Tiffany glass, dollhouses and firearms to carriages, sleighs and scale circus models in a 500-foot-long parade. Twenty-four spectacular gardens and the re-created 1950s house are popular attractions. Knowledgeable guides, daily demonstrations, constantly changing exhibits and events like the Peony Garden Party make this a most intriguing place to visit.

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