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Iconic Collections in Northeast Museums

Strawbery Banke Museum

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

On Portsmouth’s original seaport, the Strawbery Banke Museum, which is named for the original 1600s settlement, is a living-history museum that depicts life from the late 1600s through the 1950s. “Most living-history museums focus on a specific time,” said Stephanie Seacord, director of marketing for the museum. “We’re covering many centuries of life in the same waterfront neighborhood.”

Forty buildings and several gardens from the Colonial, Federal, Georgian and Victorian eras dot the 10-acre grounds. Some structures have been restored and furnished to their periods; others are used for exhibits or shops for artisans practicing traditional trades. The most elegant building is an 1860 mansion that belonged to Gov. Ichabod Goodwin. The Shapley-Drisco House, circa 1795, shows how buildings adapted over time; half is a Colonial dry-goods store, and the other is an intimate 1950s home.

In addition to information from a docent, groups will hear from role-players across the property. “Our actors really get into the spirit of the moment,” Seacord said. “You never know if you’re going to meet someone from 100 years ago or 200 years ago.”

Groups can take the traditional tour or request themed tours on topics like archaeology, architecture, gardening and maritime history. The museum can also arrange for groups to do breakfast or lunch in its Revolutionary-era tavern, with a role-player welcoming guests to make themselves comfortable in one of the many small dining rooms in her father’s tavern.

Shelburne Museum

Shelburne, Vermont

Founded by sugar heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb in 1947, the Shelburne Museum is a wonderfully unconventional museum of art, design and Americana nestled in Vermont’s scenic Champlain Valley. The heiress’ “collection of collections” is exhibited in the historic structures she relocated to her property from across New England.

“Mrs. Webb’s interests were as broad as they were deep,” said Geeda Searfoorce, communications and marketing manager for the museum. “She started with horse-drawn buggies and ended up collecting buildings.” They include a dry-docked steamboat that once toured Lake Champlain, an 1871 lighthouse, a jail, a one-room schoolhouse, a covered bridge and a restored 100-year-old carousel.

Today, more than 100,000 works fill 39 unique buildings on a sprawling 45-acre campus studded with trees and gardens. The collection includes impressionist works by Monet, Manet and Degas; several pieces by American masters Grandma Moses, Andrew Wyeth, Homer and Thomas Eakins, among others; and prized folk art like weathervanes and quilts.

“Mrs. Webb was one of the first collectors to respect folk art as something other than kitsch,” Searfoorce said. “It was truly revolutionary at the time.”

Because the collection is so broad and scattered, groups should block off at least three hours for a highlights tour or connect with the museum to come up with a customized tour.

Museum of Fine Arts


Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) holds one of the most comprehensive collections in the world:  450,000 pieces dating from prehistoric times to modern day. Paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne, as well as 37 Monets, the largest collection outside of Paris, stand alongside treasures from the ancient world, an unrivaled collection of Asian art and one of the truest representations of American art.

The sprawling Art of the Americas wing showcases iconic pieces from pre-Columbian times to the 20th century, including galleries lined with Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.

Befitting the city’s important role in the American Revolution, the MFA boasts a peerless collection of Colonial art, including John Singleton Copley’s famous portrait of Paul Revere, Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington, and Revere’s silver teapots and tableware.

“Something that makes us special is that our city is rooted in the beginning of the history of the nation,” said Gary Mak, the museum’s marketing director. “But that’s only part of the story, which is why we are dedicated to representing all of America.”

Mak said the highlights tour would be the best bet for most groups, unless they want to request guides for a specific interest. In the best-case scenario, groups will find themselves at the MFA on the first Friday of the month, when they can enjoy music, cocktails and tapas as they peruse miles of art.