Of the 35,000 museums in the United States, fewer than 1,100 are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, and to be honest, not all of them are hits with groups. Some are practically in the middle of nowhere, some just can’t deal with more than a handful of visitors, and some have parking lots barely big enough for two Volkswagens and a Prius.
However, many communities are blessed with multiple group-friendly museums and have group tour professionals to help you fill your days and nights and make sure you have plentiful parking. Here are five.
Mention Hannibal, Missouri, and virtually everyone makes the connection to Mark Twain, who lived his formative years there from age 4 to 18. A ticket to the Mark Twain Home and Museum Properties goes a long way explaining what laid the foundation for the celebrated author and humorist.
“This is great for motorcoaches because one ticket covers seven historic properties and museums,” said Megan Rapp, assistant director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “History buffs can spend hours going from building to building.” Those attractions include Twain’s boyhood home, a National Historic Landmark; the Becky Thatcher House; and the Huckleberry Finn House. The shops of Hannibal’s historic downtown and views of the mighty Mississippi River are just blocks away.
A significant complement to the Twain attractions is Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. Jim’s Journey, Hannibal’s newest museum, is the only African American history museum in northeast Missouri. It is broad in scope, but its core is in Daniel Quarles, the real-life person Twain used to build the fictional character of Jim in “Huckleberry Finn.”
For a total change of pace, check out Karlock’s Kars and Pop Culture for a dose of nostalgia. You don’t need to have taken an American literature course to enjoy this private collection of classic cars, a motorcycle Steve McQueen owned, jukeboxes, arcade games, movie memorabilia and a cash register that once belonged to another famous Missourian: Harry Truman.
Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City, Kansas, is cowboy country. Its Queen of the Cowtowns nickname is easier to promote than another early nickname: Wickedest Little City in America.
That Old West cowboy heritage is celebrated at the Boot Hill Museum, which recently unveiled a $5.5 million expansion that features nine new exhibits. They add context to the gunslingers’ faux shootouts and the Long Branch Saloon Variety Show, which Visit Dodge City calls the longest-running seasonal theatrical show in the U.S. The saloon is modeled on one that burned in 1885, and its interior is based largely on the “Gunsmoke” TV show. Yes, you really can belly up to the bar for a sarsaparilla.
Dodge City Historic Trolley Tours provides a one-hour roll through town to get you into an Old West frame of mind. That air-conditioned tour explains the westward expansion’s Fort Dodge, the Santa Fe Trail, the coming of the railroad and the creation of the cattle culture.
A curious combination of museums is the Gunfighters Wax Museum — meet Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Belle Starr and others — and the Kansas Teachers’ Hall of Fame. The teachers Hall of Fame was the first of its kind in the U.S., and in addition to honoring stellar teachers, it features a one-room schoolhouse, classic classroom furniture and audiovisual equipment through the decades.
Bentonville in northwest Arkansas had zero reputation in the museum world just a few years ago, but that’s not true today, not after the arrival of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Museum of Native American History and other attention-getting institutions.
“From a group travel perspective, we are a multiday destination. When I arrived 15 years ago, we were a pass-through destination,” said Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, recalling a time when the Walmart Museum was the primary museum attraction. It is interesting how humble and recent the origin of the world’s largest retailer is.
When Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, it was the first major art museum to open in the U.S. since 1974. A decade later, it has a complementary museum and performance location called the Momentary. Housed in a former cheese factory, the Momentary focuses on living artists, and even more art is exhibited at the 21c Museum Hotel. Pop into the 21c and look for one of the playful green plastic penguins on display.
Honoring art of a completely different kind is the mission of the Museum of Native American History, which has more than 10,000 artifacts from many cultures that date back 14,000 years. The artistry of the makers of hunting implements, decorative pottery and intricate beadwork is obvious.
Professional football, America’s first ladies, warplanes and even trolls are in the museum spotlight in Canton, Ohio.
The best known of the bunch is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with its 118,000 square feet of exhibit space and its very own football stadium. It gets national exposure every year when new members go into the Hall of Fame and the NFL/Hall of Fame Game is played.
A tour’s focus easily shifts to history because Canton was home to President William McKinley. The McKinley Presidential Library and Museum also encompasses a science museum with a major planetarium. Separate but complementary is the First Ladies National Historic Site that examines the significant role of America’s first ladies, of course including Ida Saxton McKinley. The National Park Service administers the first ladies site.
More history, this time of the noisy type, is recognized at the MAPS Air Museum. This museum of the Military Aviation Preservation Society houses more than 50 types of aircraft, from a 1908 Martin Glider first flown by the designer’s wife as the test pilot all the way to an F-16 Fighting Falcon with a maximum speed of 921 mph.
Just for laughs, put the Troll Hole on your list of museum prospects. A visit lets your group brag on seeing the Guinness World Record Largest Troll Doll Collection.
Cooperstown, New York
Was Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field where baseball was invented? It doesn’t matter because baseball’s multifaceted story is explored and exalted here at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall of Fame honors players, managers, executives and even umpires, and one of the museum’s captivating exhibits is “One for the Books,” a comprehensive look at baseball’s records and the stories behind them.
Although Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball, its very name is linked to the family of author James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote “The Last of the Mohicans” and whose father founded the village between the Adirondacks and the Catskills in central New York. The family name lives on at the Fenimore Art Museum, located on property the novelist once owned. It houses a significant collection of American folk and fine art and the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Artifacts relating to Cooper also are on display.
Yet another experience awaits at the Farmers’ Museum, which opened in 1944 but is on land that has been a working farm since 1813. The 1813 farm was owned by, yes, Cooper. It overlooks Otsego Lake and explains 19th-century rural life through historic buildings such as a tavern, a pharmacy, a blacksmith’s shop and a general store. Programs vary through the year, just as farm life did through the seasons.
Proving baseball’s influence throughout Cooperstown, there’s a discount program for the baseball museum, the art museum and the farm museum. A double play gets a special rate if you pick any two museums, and a triple play discounts all three.