date published: June 24, 2002

Discover Boston’s treasure trove of mini-museums, offering facts and fun in intimate and often unlikely settings
by Panorama Staff
photos: Kristin Kammerer

Visitors to Boston know all about Beantown’s museum biggies—the encyclopedic Museum of Fine Arts, the cavernous Museum of Science, the stunning Kennedy Library and Museum. But did you know that inside the FleetCenter, home to Boston’s Celtics and Bruins, there’s a museum that honors the Bay State’s superstar sports legends like Ted Williams and Larry Bird? Or that you can visit the original Samuel Adams microbrewery (the Boston Beer Museum) in Jamaica Plain, where you’ll discover the history of beer-making in Beantown? If you’ve already slogged from one historic site to the next along the Freedom Trail or quacked yourself hoarse on a Duck Tour, perhaps it’s time for a unique spin on history and the arts. There’s a wealth of small museums around town—many of them obscure and infrequently visited—where you can learn local lore on a more intimate scale or glimpse artwork that you won’t find in the city’s more staid museums. There’s the Boston Fire Museum, documenting some of the Hub’s most devastating blazes, or the Museum of Bad Art, which playfully mocks artists whose attempts at greatness fell woefully short. Moreover, you won’t have to struggle through endless crowds or pay exorbitant ticket prices. As the age-old adage goes: good things do come in small packages. —C.W.

Boston Beer Museum
30 Germania St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-9080.
In 1985, Jim Koch revolutionized the American beer industry with his introduction of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, a craft brewed creation that sparked the microbrewing revolution of the 1990s. The Boston Beer Museum isn’t so much a museum as a tour of the original brewery in Jamaica Plain, an area that was a brewing nexus in the early 20th century. The facility is now used for research and development, but every variety of Sam Adams is still brewed here once a year. The tour begins with a video about the history of the Boston Beer Company and the plant (formerly the Haffenreffer Brewery), then moves onto the main floor to detail the intricate brewing process. The best part of the journey, though, is its conclusion—when visitors head for the tavern-style tap rooms to sample a host of Samuel Adams beers. Take the “T” to the Stony Brook stop on the Orange Line. —C.W.

All-star lineup—Hidden gems on the Boston museum scene include (left to right) the Museum of Afro-American History, the Dreams of Freedom Museum and the New England Sports Museum.

344 Congress St. Station, 617-482-1344
Instead of checking out Spider-Man at your local cineplex, pay homage to some real heroes of the past and present at the Boston Fire Museum. Located one block from the Children’s Museum, this memorial offers an intriguing yet practical look at how early 20th century firefighters extinguished blazes without the help of modern technology. The museum features historical tools of firefighting’s past—from hand-pulled and operated pump trucks dating back to 1868 to the actual stalls used for fire horses (which pulled trucks before engines). The building itself dates back to 1891, and period photographs and replicas chronicle some of the city’s most devastating blazes, including the disastrous Coconut Grove nightclub fire of 1942 and the 1964 Bellflower Street fire. Open Sat noon–4 p.m. or by appointment. Free admission. —N.S.

Dreams of Freedom Museum
One Milk St., 617-338-6022
Boston might not be “the Hub of the Universe,” as parochial Bostonians still like to boast, but there was a time when the city was the second largest gateway for newcomers to America. Located just off the Freedom Trail, the Dreams of Freedom Museum honors Boston’s history as a key port of entry for immigrants, illuminating the treacherous Atlantic crossing that travelers endured as well as the obstacles they faced once they arrived. A holographic Benjamin Franklin leads a 20-minute multimedia presentation featuring the stories of well-known immigrants like Patrick Kennedy, Phillis Wheatley and the infamous anarchists Sacco and Venzetti. Visitors are then given a passport and “processed” through customs. The family-friendly exhibits include sample citizenship test questions and interactive computer stations where kids are given a chance to record their families’ own immigration stories. —C.W.

Institute of Contemporary Art
955 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-266-5152
Tucked into a renovated old police station, this museum is the oldest non-collecting contemporary arts institution in the United States, which means that the galleries are virtually recreated with every new show. The space at the ICA is open and inviting as the visitor travels up a winding central stairway leading to three display floors illuminated by natural light pouring in from several large windows. In Boston, where history echoes in every street, the ICA is the only museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary art, and has presented works ranging from Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol to up-and-coming artists like Ellen Gallagher and Nikki Lee. —M.P.

lost classics—(left to right) The Larz Anderson Auto Museum features classic cars; the Museum of Bad Art
displays classically inept art; and the U.S.S. Constitution Museum showcases classic maritime history.

Larz Anderson Auto Museum
Larz Anderson Park, Brookline, 617-522-6547
Before Detroit, there was New England. Most people don’t know that the auto industry was actually born here in the Bay State in the late 19th century before moving on to the mass-production lines of the Midwest in the 1920s. It is also not widely known that we have a local museum that highlights this bygone era. For a look into the history of cars and the social impact they have had on America, take a drive out to the idyllic Larz Anderson Auto Museum near the Brookline Country Club. This mahogany- and marble-walled carriage house, modeled after a French castle, boasts the oldest collection of automobiles in the country, including at 1901 Rochet-Schneider. The current main gallery exhibit, New England Paves the Way, examines some of the first cars ever built, and celebrates the museum’s 50th anniversary. —A.K.

Museum of Afro-American History
46 Joy St., 617-725-0022
Among the sites on historic Beacon Hill, from the golden dome of the State House to the Victorian-era row houses, resides the Museum of Afro-American History. This three-story brick schoolhouse is dedicated to the African-American experience in New England during the 19th century. The second floor is decorated with artifacts, including a first-edition copy of poems by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first slave poet, and a typesetting device used by abolitionist newsman William Lloyd Garrison. The third floor houses five multi-media stations that recreate the slave trade era and the Underground Railroad. A 30-minute film describes Boston’s place in African-American history as told through the perspective of a young narrator. Next door is the African Meeting House, the oldest African-American church in the country, where the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass once spoke.  —J.N.

Museum of Bad Art
Dedham Community Theater, 580 High St., 781-326-0409
The adage “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” could be the mantra of the Museum of Bad Art, submerged in the basement of Dedham Community Theatre in suburban Boston. Founded in 1993 by Scott Wilson, who plucked the museum’s centerpiece Lucy in the Field with Flowers from a garbage pile on a Boston street, MOBA giddily glorifies all that’s wonderful and dreadful about bad art. It exalts the creative process, even if the artists’ creation is an utter failure. Giving the godawful a good name, the museum has burgeoned into a full-time enterprise showcasing some 45 pieces which change several times a year. The descriptions that accompany each painting are as gut-busting as the artwork itself. But you won’t find any Velvet Elvises or Bob Ross’ “happy little trees” here. The museum eschews kitsch in all its forms. And you won’t stumble upon any lost treasures either, although the abominable art displayed will make you appreciate the real deal even more.  —C.W.

5th and 6th floors of FleetCenter, Causeway St., 617-787-7678
The FleetCenter, the basketball and hockey arena that’s home to Boston’s Celtics and Bruins, is also the site of a little-known museum honoring New England’s greatest sports champions. Legends like Larry Bird, Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr are prominently displayed, but little guys like “Mo” Harrington, Jr.—a Boston Garden usher for 56 years—also find a place among the memorabilia. The old Garden, replaced by the FleetCenter in 1995, is depicted with utmost reverence, featuring exhibits of the arena’s seats, penalty boxes and pieces of the Celtics’ creaky old parquet floor. The Armand L’a Montagne solid wood sculptures are probably the museum’s crown jewels. You can almost hear the crack of Ted Williams’ bat in his engraving. Other highlights include exhibits on venerable Hub sports traditions like the Head of the Charles Regatta, the Boston Marathon and the Beanpot Hockey Tournament. —N.S.

22 Charlestown Navy Yard on the Freedom Trail, 617-426-1812
After descending from the world’s oldest commissioned warship, “Old Ironsides,” stroll across the dock and take an in-depth look at the ship’s history at the U.S.S. Constitution Museum, located in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Inside the museum are displays and interactive exhibits detailing the vessel’s construction and history, as well as anecdotes about the ship and its crews that will delight even novice history buffs. You can even fire a cannon—electronically, that is! —N.S.

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