The Best of New England: Museums

Whether you’re visiting Boston, New Haven, or the farthest reaches of Vermont, the region offers a remarkable number of world-class cultural institutions.

CLARK ART INSTITUTE For sheer jaw-dropping potential, few small art museums surpass "the Clark" – a fact made all the more amazing by its remote location in the boondocks of the Northern Berkshires. The museum’s Impressionist Room alone is worth the price of admission, with little-known masterworks by Renoir, Monet, and Degas. But more subtly rewarding is the intimate American gallery, featuring haunting and emotional paintings by Sargent, Homer, and Remington. 225 South St., Williamstown, MA, 413-458-2303, clarkart.edu.

FAIRBANKS MUSEUM The vaulted exhibition hall of this Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities is like few other places in the world. Many of the objects on display are fascinating in and of themselves, including a giant polar bear, antique instruments, and Civil War memorabilia. But it’s the way in which they are displayed – an old-fashioned jumble of glass cases piled atop one another – that gives visitors the feel of walking into a giant encyclopedia, atlas, and field guide all at once. 1302 Main St., St. Johnsbury, VT, 802-748-2372, fairbanksmuseum.org.

ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM
Though it boasts more than 2,500 works, this art museum is better known for the treasures it doesn’t contain than those it does. Bostonians lament the Vermeer and Rembrandts stolen 20 years ago in the largest art heist in history, but the museum still has masterpieces worth visiting, including the great Venetian courtyard that is itself a work of art. The one can’t-miss painting is Titian’s Rape of Europa, arguably the greatest in New England for its tempestuous brushstrokes that almost single-handedly heralded the late-16th-century crossover from the Italian Renaissance period to the Baroque. 280 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 617-566-1401, gardnermuseum.org.

MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS Boston’s premier art museum has it all: mummies and amphorae, French impressionists and abstract expressionists. The gallery that makes the biggest impression on its visitors, however, is one too often missed. Tucked into the lower level of the Asian wing, three enormous Japanese Buddhas represent some of the first Buddhist artwork ever brought to America (around 1890). Now arranged in the semi-darkness of a small gallery, they’ve cast a spell on generations of visitors. 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA, 617-267-9300, mfa.org.

YALE UNIVERSITY PEABODY MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The Connecticut River Valley is famous for its dinosaur fossils, but the towering sauropods assembled in this Yale University museum were collected out west by paleontologist O. C. Marsh. The pristine skeletons of stegosaurus and apatosaurus, as well as a triceratops skull, are the models against which others are judged. That’s enough to give any five-year-old the chills, but the museum goes a step further with its assemblage of meteorites, giant mineral crystals, and lifelike animal dioramas. 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT, 203-432-5050, peabody.yale.edu.

  • John

    The Clark is so worth the trip to Williamstown. But I’d add to your list the much renovated Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge. Their new Headgear exhibit is fun.