There's nothing quite like walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre, or the Vatican Museum. The kinds of museums that have row upon row of masterful works of art from around the world; places you could wander through for days and still see only a fraction of the collection. But with all due respect to the big guys, we think there's a lot to be said for smaller museums too. Whether they delve into local culture or unusual topics (syphilitic skulls, anyone?), or present world-class works of art on a more manageable scale than some of the behemoths, a small museum can satisfy your urge for culture without leaving you feeling overwhelmed. Here are some of our favorites, from the bizarre to the sublime.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
New Orleans, Louisiana
When thinking about a visit to New Orleans, one likely envisions partaking in an all night party, dancing to the music of local brass bands, putting back cocktails, and reveling in the Mardi Gras spirit that is alive and well in this city 24/7. (Yes, even post-Katrina.) A museum visit is usually not on the agenda. But any fan of the cultural and historical significances behind some of the real treasures of New Orleans, including the Mardi Gras Indians, as well as jazz funerals and social aid and pleasure clubs, would be remiss to skip a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum (tel. 504/522-4806; www.backstreetmuseum.org; $5 admission), a gem of a small museum located in a modest house in the heart of the Treme neighborhood. The museum's mission is simple and altruistic: to protect the community riches of New Orleans. In addition to numerous videos that document various elements of jazz funerals and the colorful celebrations of social aid and pleasure clubs, admission fee gives you access to an impressive collection of handmade Mardi Gras Indian suits. To see these works of art up close -- notice the details and intricate patterns of the handstitched beadwork and feathers -- is to better understand what makes the culture unique. Also one-of-a-kind is the proprietor of the museum. Sylvester Francis, a New Orleans character in his own right, is a historian of the urban culture of New Orleans, and his tales of the city rival the remarkable memorabilia included in his collection. Be sure to chat with Sylvester if he's there when you visit -- he'll fill you in, with a twinkle in his eye, on some of the wonderful traditions of this culture-rich city. -- Cate Latting
The Gilbert Collection
London's Gilbert Collection (tel. +44/207420-9400; www.gilbert-collection.org.uk; £5 admission) is home to a treasure trove of decorative arts that more than holds its own against the better known Victoria & Albert Museum in the quality department, but its smaller size makes it far easier to navigate. Housed in Somerset House, this priceless collection of silver and gold works, mosaics, and other objects d'art was bequeathed to England by Sir Arthur Gilbert in 1996. It's an absolute must if you're a fan of the decorative arts, but even if you aren't, it's a dazzling experience that's worth every pound of the admission charge. I even prefer it to the crown jewels exhibit at the Tower of London, where visitors are often rushed and can't take time to soak up the atmosphere.
Perhaps most impressive are the museum's 200+ gold boxes; many of these gem-encrusted pieces belonged to European royalty (Frederick the Great of Prussia had particularly extravagant taste) and were used as diplomatic gifts. You can also wander through one of the most comprehensive collections of Italian mosaics in the world (be sure to inspect the painstaking detail work on the tables and chests, many of which belonged to such notable names as de Medici and Bonaparte). Other highlights include a set of ornate Royal Gates commissioned by Russia's Catherine the Great for the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, a collection of gold and silver howdas (small, open carriages used to ride upon elephants) that once carried India's rajahs, an elaborate 19th-century gold Torah crown (one of only a few in existence), a breathtaking collection of gold and silver pieces dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, and a set of striking miniature enamel portraits (including one of George Washington). -- Naomi Kraus
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Just a few blocks from the much larger Museum of Fine Arts sits the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (tel. 617/566-1401; www.gardnermuseum.org; admission $12), in a magnificent building designed in the style of a Venetian palace. Step inside the cool interior and the first thing to catch your attention is a four-story, flower-filled courtyard lit by an enormous skylight that allows the glow of natural light to filter into the galleries. Gardner, a passionate patron of the arts, amassed her collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and furniture in the late 1800s, and opened the museum to the public for the first time in February of 1903. Little has changed since then, because Gardner's will stipulates that the galleries are to remain as she herself arranged them. Personal touches abound; for example, Titan's Europa hangs beneath a piece of green silk cut from one of Gardner's gowns. You'll see works by such greats as Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Matisse, as well as Gardner's contemporaries and friends John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler (both of whom painted portraits of Gardner that hang in the museum). It's not all about the art, though -- Gardner often held concerts here, and today the museum has its own chamber orchestra and hosts special appearances by world-renowned musicians throughout the year in the tapestry room. -- Christine Ryan
The Museum of Jurassic Technology
Culver City, California
If you ever find yourself in the Palms District of Culver City in Los Angeles, yearning for a museum experience with a difference, you should stop by the Museum of Jurassic Technology (9341 Venice Boulevard; tel. 310/836-6131; www.mjt.org; $5 adults, $3 students, fchildren under 12 free). Part exhibit, part Ripley's Believe It Or Not, the museum is a cerebral amusement park: a rollercoaster for the mind. Its windowless façade and ordinary location offer few clues to the strange secrets behind its doors.
Inside, the exhibits will take you to a world where myth, superstition and natural wonders abound. There are displays unlike anything you've ever seen: fruit stone carvings, a tribute to trailer park culture called "The Garden of Eden on Wheels," and Mary Davis's... well... horn, to name a few. Don't miss the outlandish story of the Stink Ant of the Cameroon or the improbable yet convincing presentation explaining how, with the aid of x-rays, bats can fly through solid objects. Want more? Check out the miniature sculptures of the eccentric genius, the late Hagop Sandaljian. Only visible by microscope, these exquisite microminiatures are truly astounding.
The MJT harkens back to a by-gone era, when a visit to a museum was a profound and mind-altering experience. It reminds me of a time when the secrets of the natural world were slowly being uncovered, when the exhibits on display would have left visitors of all ages dumbfounded, suspicious, and mystified. The MJT, to some degree, has rediscovered those moments.
A word of caution -- like the exhibits themselves, the opening hours for the MJT are also little unusual (Thurs 2-8pm; Fri-Sun noon-6pm). -- Andrew Murphy
The Mütter Museum
A visit to the "disturbingly informative" Mütter Museum (tel. 215/563-3737; www.collphyphil.org; $12 admission), housed in the historic College of Physicians of Philadelphia, starts normally enough, with exhibits introducing the culturally popular founding father Benjamin Franklin and his contributions to the world of medicine, including the flexible urinary catheter he created (he had some trouble with gallstones himself). Another display depicts how to keep your kitchen free of bacteria; it involves a spray bottle of bleach, half a plastic chicken, checked wallpaper with a cheerful rooster border, and a fridge with colorful children's drawings. In the upper gallery of the main room, things start to get a little intense with the series of human horns, including hand horns and some that grow out of the forehead. Wax reproductions highlight dermatological conditions like those caused by syphilis. Mütter's own collection of syphilitic skulls represents the various degrees of osteo-necrosis brought on by the condition.
One of the prize pieces of the collection is the "soap lady," whose corpse was preserved by a process called adipocere, in which gases released during fat decomposition transmute the body into a waxy substance -- she even has some dusty hair remaining on her head. The museum also features skeletons aplenty and an array of body parts that have been preserved for medical posterity, often injected with mercury or colored wax to illustrate hard-to-see networks like the body's nervous and circulatory systems. "Wet" specimens in jars include a gangrenous black hand, brains, fetuses, a portion of tattooed skin, scalps, lungs, livers, and an entire human head displayed in slices. Dry specimens range from an elephantized colon, the skeletons of two conjoined babies who shared a single head, desiccated penises, and a collection of tiny inner-ear bones. Ben Franklin said "I am more afraid of the medicine than of the malady." After my trip to the Mütter Museum, I tend to agree with him. -- Alexia Travaglini
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Building a repository of Italy's most important collection of European and American art of the first half of the 20th century on a tony section of Venice's Grand Canal might seem to some immoderate. But the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (tel. +39/041-2405411; www.guggenheim-venice.it) in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni somehow seems just right; a bastion of good taste and privileged calm in a city of superlative excess. After wending across a small bridge and down a narrow lane, visitors pass through a small gate and find themselves in the quiet garden of the Palazzo. The tenor of the place is relaxed and calm; a welcome relief from the crowds in Piazza San Marco and its adjacent blocks of tourist schlock.
The collection here was put together from the works that heiress Peggy Guggenheim amassed during a unique and frenetically creative time in Europe. Indeed, the palazzo was her private residence and is where she played host to many of the artists whose works adorn its well-curated walls. The residence, unfinished but for the ground floor, lends visitors a well-edited glimpse into a rarified time in Europe, coasting from Cubists in the foyer to Abstract Expressionists in the bedroom and Surrealists in the hall, until finally, one finds oneself in the serene garden or canal-side terrace -- perfect places to contemplate it all. -- Marc Nadeau
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City
Queens, New York
Most people who visit New York City rarely venture off the island of Manhattan. Those people are making a mistake. Just across the East River -- a mere 10 minute subway ride -- is one of New York's greatest modern art museums: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (tel. 718/784-2084; www.ps1.org; $5 admission, or free with a MoMA ticket purchased within 30 days of your visit).
P.S. 1, an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art, is one of the few New York City museums that I never tire of. Housed in a former public school in Long Island City, Queens, P.S. 1 inhabits one of the most unusual exhibition settings I've ever seen. Here, the building -- constructed in the Romanesque Revival architectural style -- becomes a part of the art. The museum puts on more than 30 exhibitions each year, and unlike many other non-profit arts centers, it does not keep a permanent collection. It brings fresh, cutting-edge exhibitions to the forefront, and is constantly evolving with the times.
It is difficult to categorize the exhibitions at P.S. 1 because each exhibition is strikingly different. One gallery may embody serenity while another is pure chaos. Although the museum does feature works by some prominent artists (Christo, Jasper Johns, and Jonas Mekas, for example), many of the artists it features are unknowns. P.S. 1 is provocative, vibrant, and anything but stuffy. One of the best times to visit is on Saturday afternoons during the summertime, when the outdoor courtyard turns into a giant dance party with live music and DJs. -- Jennifer Polland
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
While bronzes by Degas and abstracts by Picasso are great, sometimes you want to check out something a little more obscure by someone whose work isn't plastered across postcards and calendars just yet. At the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, or SMoCA (tel. 480/994-ARTS; www.smoca.org; $7 admission), contemporary art, architecture, and design take center stage in a renovated movie theater. The space is small, but packs a lot of punch, from the design of the actual building and numerous educational programs to the permanent sculpture garden (where you'll find Jame's Turrell's Knight Rise skylight) and the gift shop, which carries everything from coffee table art books and jewelry to furniture and clothing.
Since it opened seven years ago, the museum has evolved into a meeting place for the culturally inclined, and now hosts a slew of special events including SMoCA Nights, an after-hours party that brings together art, fashion, music, and entertainment, and an annual home tour and expo that highlights the city's best home design and architecture. The next SMoCA Nights event, "Sputnik," will take place on June 21st in conjunction with the opening of "Space Is The Place," an exhibit highlighting the past, present, and future of space exploration. Sputnik will feature a vintage futuristic fashion show inspired by current metallic trends and retro looks from the 1960s, and dueling DJs spinning "space-age sounds." -- Anuja Madar
Walt Whitman Birthplace
West Hills, New York
A-wandering one weekend on Long Island, I came to a fork in the road where stood a remnant of the past thriving firmly in the present. Once a country farmhouse, built early in the 19th century by the poet's father, the Walt Whitman Birthplace (tel. 631/427-5240; $4 admission) now sits on a tiny spot of green amidst highways and across from the Walt Whitman Mall, about which the poet might have, (but did not) say: I am large/I contain multitudes.
The poet's father, Walter Whitman, Sr., built the homestead around 1816, and it's remarkably well preserved, with some of the original glass in the large windows, which allow the house to fill with light. The poet was born there in 1819, and spent his early childhood on Long Island, until Whitman senior took his family to live in Brooklyn a few years later. The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was organized and purchased the birthplace in the late 1940s, and it was later named a New York, then a National, Historic Site. In addition to the house, there's a large Interpretive Center, which features exhibits about the poet, some of his possessions (including a writing desk) and perhaps the only audio recording of his voice -- Whitman's life spanned most of the 19th century, and Mr. Edison had invented his talking machine by the time he died in 1892.
Poetry still lives at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, with regular group and guided tours of the property (including a hiking trail) and through monthly poetry readings; an annual poetry contest that draws thousands of entries; and a Poet in Residence, who gives readings and conducts a master class. This year's poet, David Wagoner, will give a reading at the 2007 Whitman Birthday Celebration (his 188th!) on June 3. Previous Poets in Residence have included such modern masters as Nikki Giovanni, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds. -- Kathleen Warnock
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