Boutique museums to whet your wanderlust and curiosity

8 mins read

Losing your sense of time and space in a museum is a spiritual experience. If you want to minimize the time, but keep the head trip, try a smaller, more niche museum to pique your interests.

Traditionally, museums as we know it, are vast halls and endless rooms holding historical and cultural artifacts. Throughout the world, there are a long list of modest-sized repositories offering a different experience. Yet and still, boutique museums provide depths of information on critical eras and peoples.

In some cases, it is good to explore the past in small, yet deep doses. In other situations, there are museum-goers who prefer to dig into the past and present without the confines of buildings at all. This list of museums offer interactive, evocative and innovative showcases of history, art and culture.

Ah Tah Thi Ki, Tallahassee, Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation Florida

When the white man came, the Seminole were one of the many nations that fought back. They were one of the few who survived and of the even fewer to preserve their rich history, but the only to never be conquered. What did they do? They hid in the Everglades of Florida.

Today, in the heart of the Everglades, they have a museum with over 180,000 artifacts showcasing the rich Seminole history to “interpret Seminole culture and history, inspiring an appreciation and understanding of the Seminole people.” The Ah Tah Thi Ki means, “a place to learn and remember,” in Seminole.

Located in South Florida off of Highway 75 and the smaller road, Highway 27, it sits smack dab in the deep, lush fauna and flora between Boca Raton and Naples. Once you enter, you step out of the United States and into an older nation.

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa

The doors to the Apartheid Museum immediately place you into the reality of what it was like to be Black or Afrikaans in an Apartheid South Africa. Similar to the segregated south, you must walk through one door if you hold a Black identification card, and white, if you belong to the other.

For the rest of the walk, the brutal and sad story of Apartheid is told in a series of interactive displays using technology, storytelling and objects giving as real of an experience as possible. At some point, you’ll cry or have to catch your breath. The tales of the horrors of what people will do to maintain power using a racial code is an honest exploration of South Africa’s troubled past, but it is one that can liberate the mind in understanding how to stand in freedom.

Whether it is the gallery of nooses or the trail recounting freedom fighters killed — mostly Black but also white — who fought to dismantle the system of Apartheid. In the end, you come to a waterfall that cleanses you and offers an area to reflect. It is an absolute must-see when you travel to South Africa.

Backstreet Cultural Arts, New Orleans, Louisiana

The Black Indians are a mainstay in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and throughout the year. Backstreet Cultural Arts museum captures decades of ornate costumes and passed-down traditions making up the intricate Black Indian heritage grown from Black communities in Crescent City.

The cultural arts center is small, but a strong nucleus holding the history and culture of people who have fought to remain after the disastrous 2005 storm, Hurricane Katrina. Housed in literally a traditional house found in the quarters, get a glimpse of the most festive time in the US that prominently holds culture.

Cahokia Mounds, Colesville, Illinois

The City of the Sun lies just outside of East St. Louis, Missouri and Collinsville, Illinois along the great Mississippi River, which is named after the pre-Columbia civilization that built a nation along the waters of one of the largest rivers in the world.

The Chokia Mounds, or what remains of them, capture a glimpse into a culture that ran from north of Mexico to the bottom of Ohio. The series of mounds that dot the civilization is also one of the largest archaeological sites in the US. Chokia Mounds are recognized as UNESCO heritage sites.

Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale, Mississippi

There’s the blues, then there is Delta Blues, the mother tongue of the earthy, twanging musical genre born from Black creatives in the South. Recently, celebrating its fortieth year, the Delta Blues Museum marks the history and musicians that created classical American music.

Off of the Great River Road, a 3,000-mile-long highway along the Mississippi River in Clarksdale, the museum is located in the Delta of Magnolia state, which is also noted as the birthplace of blues. From John Lee Hooker to Robert Johnson, the exhibitions often come with live entertainment.

Fowler Museum, Los Angeles

To get away from the traffic jams and smoggy days, take a quick detour into a series of showcases that delve into global arts. Located on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Fowler Museum hosts year-round showcases of artists and histories telling the stories of culture and ethnicity from innovative lenses.

With great attention to move away from the Western Gaze, much of the focus is on past and current art from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. The recent announcement of a $600,000 Andew W. Melon grant, to enhance the curation and research of African Art, allows for guests to look for more exhibits from the Triangular Trade in reverse.

Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), San Francisco, California

In 2005, a section of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Garden’s paved the way for a museum capturing the first prominent group in the city, people of African descent. MoAD, one of the few museums in the world focusing on “African Diaspora culture and on presenting the rich cultural heritage of the people of Africa and of African descendant cultures all across the globe,” the exhibitions provide stunning and often interactive components that encourage visitors to engage and think about the robust contributions of the diaspora.

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

Split into two sites, the museum covers one of the most prolific movements in the US with 260 artifacts and more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of people and events leading up to the Civil Rights Movement and through it.

The famous Lorraine Motel, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and the boarding house where the shots were fired from the assassin, make up the National Civil Rights Museum.The macabre history is elevated with current celebrations and live entertainment performances.

The Legacy Museum, Montgomery, Alabama

The Legacy Museum, located in downtown Montgomery, stands at a depot where enslaved Blacks and Natives were housed before being auctioned off like cattle. From enslavement to mass incarceration, the museum tells the unfair practices and policies making up the framework of the US criminal justice system.

When you enter, you are told that you are standing on hallowed ground. After, you take an emotional journey through a quaint-sized museum packed with histories and statistics displaying how Blacks faced gross inequities since being slave stocks.

A map shows you how Montgomery was one of the major hubs to trade enslaved people in some of the most inhumane ways. There were about a dozen other main sites that include New Orleans, Charleston, Baltimore, Richmond and New York.

At one point, Montgomery had more businesses dedicated to the business of slavery than inns and restaurants. That is how profitable enslaved people were in the Americas. Towards the end of the exhibition are jars of earth collected throughout the east coast, Midwest and south. From red clay to fertile brown dirt, the collected soil was taken where numerous racial terrors took place.

The earth at the museum and dirt from the surrounding warehouse are sacred because they are filled with memories, tears and blood that have saturated the red soil for centuries. By walking through the museum, you understand just how traumatic the experience was for enslaved people in a series of interactive displays that take you from the holding cells of mothers, children and fathers to a story that leads to current photographs and pictures depicting the chattel-like ways that mass incarceration adopted to hold a disproportionate number of people of color, including youth.

In between, music, movies and photo exhibitions give grave details of then, and now. Like in Alabama, segregation is still legal in their state legislation.

The Peace and Justice National Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice sits on a hill, right in the pocket of Montgomery’s African-American community. It is the only site that attempts to collect and make public all the names or incidents in which blacks were killed in racial terrors.

The area is serene, and holy and sad. As you walk along a path, you are provided with details of the gruesome slave trade. At points along a pathway, sculptures mark the traumatic experience. It shows scenes of families divided, children stripped from parents, and merciless beatings and killings that took place to funnel a system that funneled the foundation of US economy and infrastructure.

Next, the time period speaks of moments after the emancipation of those in slavery, to where Blacks were killed without impunity, now called racial terrors or racial killings. From Florida up to New York, west to Illinois, and back down to Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, Blacks were lynched, shot, drowned, raped, burned and beaten to death in multiple ways. Some killings were public displays, while others were middle-of-the-night takeovers.

To acknowledge the over 4,000 accounts of racial terrors that the organization uncovered in research, the most extensive collection to date, Equal Justice Initiative brought on a bevy of artisans to create a mausoleum of caskets made with a type of steel that does not corrode or rust, but every time it is exposed to water, it turns a reddish-brown color that resembles the weeping of bloody tears.

Caskets of names are set on the floor or hang from above. The memorial runs in alphabetical order and is set in a circle, so that the lives of those past and the present remember that the circle of life must not be broken again.

Trap Music Museum & Escape Room, Bankhead, Atlanta

Fifteen years after rapper, Clifford “T.I.” Harris, Jr. dropped the first trap music album, “Trap Muzik”, he opened an interactive pop-up museum displaying exhibitions and signature pieces showcasing the culture and music makers who created the genre.

Located in Bankhead, a district of west Atlanta notorious for red-light district activity such as drug dealing, seedy strip joints and gang banging, the museum tells the story of a lifestyle captured by T.I. and other artists in and outside of Atlanta, such as 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Future, Gucci Mane, Webbie, 21 Savage and the late Shawty Lo, through art and installments.

To recount the tales as a hustler and musician in “the Trap,” an escape room asks participants to solve puzzles and riddles, using trap themes and information to get out. Cost $10.

Wynwood Walls, Miami, Florida

Off of the 95, traveling down the warm highways of Dade County, you begin to see walls of buildings colored with dynamic graffiti art that belong to the installations at Wynwood Walls. Started in 2009 to revitalize, aka gentrify, the warehouse district in the city, developer Tony Goldman launched a massive public art project that has changed the area’s landscape.

Linking with other artists, he used the large warehouse buildings that often lacked windows as large canvases to paint. Today, a tour through the district shows how art can be used to transform an area. Tours are provided while projects continue.

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