A Few of Our Favorite Museums: An NEA Crowdsourced Post
Museums are institutions that collect, preserve, and interpret objects, artifacts, and other material evidence that are made viewable to the public. Museums have evolved to not just present history to the public, but to show us how resilient humans, nature, and animals are and the stories of how societies are able to overcome obstacles and achieve the unexpected.
Launched in 2010 as a collaboration among the Arts Endowment, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and participating museums across the nation, Blue Star Museums provides free admission to United States military personnel and their families each summer from Armed Forces Day to Labor Day. This initiative brings our nation’s defenders and the people dearest to them together to have unique family experiences and explore the culture and history within local communities.
In honor of Blue Star Museums opening day—which this year is Saturday, May 20, 2023—we asked NEA staff to share which museums, in the United States and beyond, were their favorite. With thousands of museums to explore, it can be difficult to pick which ones to add to your must-visit list. Check out our map of participating Blue Star Museums to get started.
“One of my favorite museums is the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. I love history, and I like the feeling of walking back in time and having the opportunity to poke around and see the past from different angles.”
“My favorite museum is the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve always loved the various styles of the America’s Presidents portraits and the icons included in Bravo!, as well as the mellowness of the Kogod Courtyard. However, I have new appreciation for the museum as inspiration for my young daughter’s favorite book, Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, by Jessica Curry and Parker Curry. In the book, young Parker enjoys a day at the museum, concluding with finding the First Lady Michelle Obama portrait.”
“When our family was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas, we enjoyed visiting the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum. We loved learning about the history of the carousels and the fact that they are all unique works of art. The best part was getting to pick out your horse for a ride on a historic carousel.”
“One of my favorite museums is the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. It's one of my favorites because of the experience and memory that it provides. The museum is one of the first museums I took my son and nephew to when they were younger. After watching Night at the Museum and seeing so many objects and figures that were in the movie, they were wowed, and it brightened my heart to see them so excited about learning. My personal all-time favorite museum is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, because it sheds light and knowledge on the culture of the African American journey.”
“The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite museums in the world. It is such an intimate space for viewing art, and recently, they have started incorporating other voices in their exhibits beyond curatorial staff, including students, local leaders, and other community members. It’s really enriched the experience and helped me see pieces in a new light.”
“One of my favorite regional art museums is the Morris Museum of Art, the oldest museum devoted to the art and artists of the American South. Located in downtown Augusta, Georgia, on the banks of the Savannah River, the museum features a rich collection of historic and contemporary works of art by southern artists and includes the work of self-taught artists. The museum also hosts the Center for the Study of Southern Art, a reference and research library featuring archives pertaining to artists working in the south.”
—Patricia Moore Shaffer, Ph.D.
“This is such a hard question, especially living in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) where we are spoiled for choice when it comes to great museums, many of which charge no entrance fee. I think the museum that has had the most profound impact on me is the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing various shows there, especially the triannual Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition has really expanded my understanding of what a portrait can be. The museum is a never-ending source of inspiration, not to mention the physical site itself is beautiful, particularly the shared courtyard with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (another favorite!).”
“Rather than name my favorite museum, I’ll mention one of my most memorable museum experiences. In the spring/summer of 1995, I repeatedly visited the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, to take in an exhibit of 31 pieces created by James McNeill Whistler—including his coup of interior décor, The Peacock Room, a permanent installation. The exhibit proclaimed his debt to Asian art, as his sketches and paintings were ranged alongside numerous works by Japanese masters.”
“Two of my favorite museums are London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I love having a glimpse into a person’s life and thinking about the decisions the artist made when painting a portrait or taking a photograph.”
“The Art Institute of Chicago. I can’t say it is my all-time favorite museum—there are just too many—but certainly my earliest memories of visiting one with my family. Exploring the museum’s vast collection of drawings, sculptures, photography, and paintings was pretty overwhelming as young kid but one piece I have a vivid recollection of is the America Windows by Marc Chagall. Such a beautiful and colorful series of stained glass full of meaningful representation. Forever etched in my memory.”
“It is a toss-up between: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I love because of the extensive collection and commitment to curatorial/interpretive excellence—there is always something new to discover; the National Portrait Gallery in London, which, as a serious reader of English history, I love because I feel like I’m spending a few hours with old friends; and the Louvre in Paris and the many iconic artworks there, especially the extraordinary Jacques-Louis David paintings of the coronation of Napoleon [Bonaparte].”
“It’s so hard to pick one, so I have to list a few. In high school, I went on a field trip as a member of the art club to the Mattress Factory, a museum that focuses on exhibiting installation art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the first time I understood that visual art could go beyond a canvas hanging on the wall. I was especially drawn to the work of Yayoi Kusama and eventually went on to see her work in the top floor of a sky scraper in Tokyo and on a remote art island called Naoshima in Japan’s Inland Sea. I was also inspired by an exhibition of feminist art at the Istanbul Modern. And I enjoy regular visits to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC!"
“It is difficult to narrow down one museum that stands out for me as my favorite. There are so many different museums that have taught me to view the world through a different lens, and I am grateful for that. The one I find my thoughts returning to is the Strasenburgh Planetarium, part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center in Rochester, New York. As a kid, we took several trips to the planetarium, and it opened up my eyes to see what is beyond this world—that our life on earth is just a tiny piece of something so much bigger. To this day, I find it so peaceful to get outside on a warm, clear, dark night and lay for hours looking up at the stars.”
“One of my favorite museums is the Phillips Collection in the DuPont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. It’s a house museum and has a very intimate environment as the galleries feel a bit more like a home than a cultural institution. It’s a great place to spend a rainy afternoon in the city.”