5 super-niche science museums
Whether you're into southwest Florida seashells or the minerals of Michigan, these museums let you dive deep into a tiny corner of the natural world.
Thu, Jun 13 2013 at 2:08 PM
Photo: Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock
Think you’ve tackled pretty much every slightly disturbing medical museum, criminally overlooked natural history museum and appetite-stirring (or suppressing) food museum? Is the collection at the Burt Reynolds Museum starting to lose its charm the umpteenth time around?
Well, frustrated museum-goers, welcome to the highly specialized — and somewhat special — world of super-niche science museums. With similar overall missions to larger institutions dedicated to science and natural history, these museums really zero in on one aspect of the natural world and are often equipped to offer a much more comprehensive glimpse into the subject at hand than museums with multiple departments and collections. (We’ve left out paleontological museums because, well, they’re a dime a dozen.)
After an hour or so spent wandering the galleries of one of these highly specialized facilities, you may emerge a well-versed expert on, for example, seashells, rattlesnakes or meteorological events.
If you get all worked up over mollusks, then check out …
Photo: EOL Learning and Education Group/Flickr
Aside from being home to crusty walrus impersonator Wilford “Beetus” Brimley, the shrimp-shaped Gulf Coast barrier island of Sanibel, Fla., is best known for two things: its sizable wildlife refuges and the insane amount of seashells that wash up on its pristine white sand beaches. And, of course, there are the thousands of dedicated — perhaps slightly obsessive/aggressive — beachcombing conchologists that descend on the island to partake in some old-fashioned treasure hunting (ever heard of the “Sanibel Stoop?”)
It makes perfect sense then that in addition to an ungodly amount of shell-based knickknacks for sale and hordes of frenzied bucket-toting beachcombers, visitors to this ecology-focused paradise will also find a malacology-centric natural history museum. Opened to the public in 1995 (the nonprofit organization behind the museum was established a decade prior) and boasting a collection over 150,000 specimens strong, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum features more than 30 educational exhibits “devoted to shells in art and history, shell habitat, rare specimens, fossil shells, common Southwest Florida shells, and more.” And located near a “dazzling display” of scallops in the museum’s Great Hall of Shells, visitors will find a new exhibit honoring baritone-voiced cowry collector, orchid cultivator and museum benefactor, Raymond Burr (aka your grandpa’s favorite TV defense attorney, Perry Mason).
If you’re simply mad about meteorological events, then check out …
Photo: John C. Freeman Weather Museum/Facebook
Although it may receive some fierce competition in the attendance category from psychologists (the Jung Center), abstract expressionists (the Rothko Chapel), pop artists (the Menil Collection,) prehistoric skeletons (the Houston Museum of Natural Science) and Asian elephants (the Houston Zoo), the John C. Freeman Weather Museum is without a doubt the only member of the Houston Museum District to proudly boast a tornado chamber and a teeth-bleaching studio (OK, maybe not that second one).
Established by father-daughter meteorologists Dr. John C. Freeman and Jill F. Hasling in 1987 along with the Weather Research Center, a nonprofit “founded to respond to a need to educate the public about weather and weather safety,” the Weather Museum features an array of meteorological-minded exhibits including the aforementioned National Weather Service-built tornado simulator, the interactive Weather Wizard Corner and a mock television broadcast studio where budding Sam Champions — or Amy Freezes — can try their hand at delivering the weekly forecast “just like the pros.” Given its overall emphasis on outreach and education, the museum also hosts a packed schedule of special events such as a Groundhog Day Gala and the popular Weather Camp program.
If you’re keen on slithering and venomous (but totally misunderstood) reptiles, then check out …
Photo: Tom Reichner/Shutterstock
So here’s the thing: It would probably be in the best interest for anyone suffering from even the slightest case of ophidiophobia to steer very clear of the conservation-minded American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque’s historic Old Town. After all, nothing can ruin a perfectly lovely day like a shrieking snake-a-phobe being cajoled into visiting an esteemed institution that claims to boast the world’s largest collection of different species of (live) rattlesnakes on public display (more than the Bronx Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the National Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo and the San Diego Zoo combined, apparently).
With annual attendance numbers topping 50,000, it’s clear that many folks are willing to overcome their fears and step foot inside the 23-year-old museum (the gift shop is also super-popular). For those not quite ready to come face to face with the museum’s resident specimens, there’s also an impressive collection of snake-related art, artifacts and ephemera including advertisements, photography, sculptures, paintings and antique snakebite kits. The goal? To reveal “the hundreds of ways that rattlesnakes and other ‘less desirable’ animals have influenced our lives.”
If you’re excited by everything creepy, crawly (and Canadian), then check out …
Photo: Dr. Morley Read/Shutterstock
Sure, there are a handful of museums dedicated to the study and collection of six-legged terrestrial arthropods spread out across North America with notable ones including the Audubon Butterfly Gallery and Insectarium in New Orleans, the Bohart Museum in Davis, Calif., and the North Carolina State University Insect Museum. However, true entomology enthusiasts with a passion for three-part-bodied critters will have to fly/walk/swim/ crawl/hop/swarm north to visit the grand dame of live insect zoos: The Montreal Insectarium.
A très romantique place to bring a date — because nothing says “let’s make out” like being surrounded by “jewel-like beetles,” “giant stick insects” and “furry spiders” — the “veritable temple” of bug love that is the Montreal Insectarium is considered to be North America’s largest insect and arthropod museum with 160,000 living and naturalized (read: dead) specimens displayed in vivariums, special habitats and display cases. And while we’re on the topic of Québécois natural science museums, the Montreal Biodome — also a Space for Life institution along with the Montreal Botanical Garden and the Montreal Planetarium — is also not to be missed by visitors to La Métropole du Québec.
If you just can’t get enough, umm, minerals, then visit …
After shuffling around to multiple locations throughout the decades, the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum — Michigan’s official mineral museum since 1990 — relocated to its self-described classy and accessible permanent home on the campus of Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula burg of Houghton in 2011. Proclaimed museum manager Darlene Comfort to the Tech Today after the dedication of the new location: “We couldn't be in a better location. It's perfect. People are looking for us and they're coming. And everyone who comes through the door say they'll be back to see the museum in its full glory."
Fantastic! But wait … does this mean that there are also unofficial mineral museums in Michigan? If so, how many? And do other states have official — and unofficial — mineral museums as well? It boggles the mind! Whatever the case, the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum aims to impress with a collection of over 25,000 specimens including the world’s most comprehensive collection of Michigan minerals (natch) and “one of the best” fluorescent mineral exhibits in the U.S.
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