Trois Cent à Bernards
When I think back to the naïve beginnings of CTMQ back in the 2006-07 timeframe, I never thought I’d visit 300 museums in little ol’ Connecticut, the third smallest state in the country. It wasn’t because I thought I couldn’t do it, it was because the thought of 300 museums would have been bonkers to me at the time.
As I work my way through the editing and updating of old pages, I laugh at my younger self claiming “200 museums in total.” Oh dark-haired, 30-pound lighter Steve. How cute you were.
So here we are… celebrating my 300th museum in Ridgefield at one of the fanciest restaurants in the state: Bernard’s. Ridgefield is home to several quality restaurants and depending on your tastes and mood, you can dine at a stuffy white-cloth French restaurant, a not so stuffy French restaurant, a down-scale but still delicious French restaurant, a hot dog cart with French themes… I have no idea how Ridgefield became such a French restaurant mecca, but it did.
We went with Bernard’s, the type of restaurant people go to for their 40th wedding anniversaries. It is not the type of place one takes a little 4-year-old boy and his unpredictable 9-year-old special needs brother. But hey, we threw caution to the wind and went for it. After all, this was an important celebration for us and I didn’t want to scrimp. To Bernard’s we go!
Baby grand piano, knock-off impressionist paintings on the walls, monkey-suited waitstaff… perfect. Nothing but the best for my family. After all, they get dragged to museum after museum and certainly deserved some pampering for putting up with me and my nonsense.
(The food at Bernard’s was excellent!)
Continuing tradition below, I present to you my list of my top 10 of my 3rd 100 Connecticut museums! As ever, it was not super easy to cobble together. A few rather cool places just missed the cut and that’s never an easy decision to make. Also following tradition, a huge thank you to all the docents, volunteers, and keepers of the museum flame… in the face of a world transfixed by smartphones and TV on demand. Cheers!
10. The Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art, Montville
June 2014, 2015, & 2016
I didn’t want to like this place. After all, it is an unapologetic tourist trap. It looks like one, it’s located where you’d think (on the way to the casinos), and it’s certainly priced like one. It seems like it would be a corny rip-off. And it my well be a rip-off depending on your situation.
If your situation includes children, then The Dinosaur Place is pretty darn cool. Cool enough to slot in at number 10 on this list. And cool enough that we’ve taken our boys three times over three successive summers. The core of the place is really well done. As far as we’re concerned, that’s the waterpark, playground, and the dinosaur stuff. Our family of four gets all of that for about 100 bucks. There are all sorts of “add-on’s” if you’re so inclined.
We’ve never been so inclined. Here’s the thing – the boys loved this place. The splashpad is huge, the playground is very unique and expansive, and the dinosaur trail is way, way less cheesy than I would have guessed it to be. I found it informative, interesting, and artistically impressive.
9. The Yale Medical Library and Cushing Center, New Haven
I’m excited to revisit the Cushing Center with my younger son Calvin someday soon. He just wants to see brains. And what better place to go see brains than a place that specializes in brains?
That’s what I said when Hoang and I took a vacation day for her birthday and headed to New Haven for an afternoon of brains and fetal skeletons and all sorts of fun stuff like that at Yale. The Cushing Center is in the basement of the Yale Medical Library.
The Cushing Center is professionally designed and presented in a very interesting and informative way. It is certainly NOT all about brains. Far from it. Owing to Dr. Cushing’s expansive interests (and capacity to purchase and collect rare artifacts), this is truly a museum of medical history and art. I would understand if this isn’t your cup of tea, but if you’re remotely interested in what’s going on inside that head of yours, I highly recommend a visit.
8. Finnish-American Heritage Society Museum, Canterbury
Every time I put one of these “Top 10 of X00” lists together, I’m compelled to choose a tiny, far-flung, unknown, rarely visited museum based solely on the fact that I took my children to it and we had a blast.
Such was the case out in Canterbury where a small enclave of Finns settled a couple hundred years ago. We went during their annual mid-winter Sledding Day Celebration. (“Laskiainen Paiva”) We are not Finnish. We don’t live anywhere near Canterbury. We weren’t even there to go sledding.
We were there for pea soup, rye bread, and their cute little Finnish cultural museum. We got a personalized tour from a slightly confused gentleman. But it was awesome. We hung out with the Finns for a couple of hours; Calvin dancing to the delight of the older women and Damian was full of random questions misinterpreted as genuine interest in Finnish folklore.
It was a great day and I will never not love these little places that dot the state.
7. Barker Character, Comic, and Cartoon Museum, Cheshire
September 2014 & January 2017
I’ve only just now realized that I’ve been to several of these Top 10’s more than once. I often write that there’s just no way I can revisit museums, and yet… I have. The Barker Museum eased up on their “No Pictures” policy between my visits – which was the main reason for my second visit.
Anyway, I love this place. Unassuming at first, the museum extends across a few buildings and contains so much comic, cartoon, and character history it boggles the mind. Everything from my childhood. And my parents’ childhood. And my sons’ childhood. Which are a lot of childhood years to cover.
There is a TON of stuff crammed in here at the Cheshire museum and you certainly don’t need to be a comic book nerd to enjoy it. Source: Non-comic book nerd who took his non-comic book nerd wife.
6. Griswold Inn Art Collection, Essex
The Griswold Inn, locally known as “The Gris,” lands on every list for it’s food, it’s charm, it’s cuteness, it’s location in downtown Essex… But I’m guessing it’s never landed on a top 10 Museums list.
I’m proud to be the one to do it first.
Of course, this is likely due to the fact that it’s not a museum, but it should be. The Gris has three museum-quality collections: Guns, History of Essex and “The are and history of steam boating on Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River.” As for that last bit, the Gris houses the best collection of it in the world. That is not an exaggeration at all. This is an amazing place.
Free tours are given about once a quarter or so. Or were. I can’t recommend this tour enough and if the owner Geoffrey Paul is running it, it’s one of the best 90 culural minutes you can spend in the state.
5. iPark, East Haddam
If this top 10 list seems art-heavy, that’s because it is. I’m not even an art fanboy, scholar, or much of a purchaser. I merely appreciate cool and unique art.
Which brings us to iPark. I am a fanboy of outdoor art that blends with natural surroundings. (Example: I love Andy Goldsworthy’s stuff.) iPark is all of that (and a bit more.)
I visited during one of their open houses and it was bitterly cold. No matter, I found myself wandering the grounds with other hearty souls happening upon the outdoor installations in the woods, in the fields, near the creeks and marshes. I loved it.
iPark has writer’s cabins and studios and such for artists to occupy on a temporary basis. They create art while there, then the public goes and checks it out. It’s a simple, yet excellent, formula.
4. Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Ledyard
Any list of “best” Connecticut museums that doesn’t include the Smithsonian-partnered Pequot Museum is a bad list. Back when the tribe shared a gambling monopoly with Mohegan Sun and were flush with cash, they poured a ton of money into this place.
And it shows. World-class dioramas with life-like ancestral native Americans attempt to fill the large space. The lighting is best in class, the storyboarding, the layout… all of it. Oddly, it’s also a pretty bad museum for a few other reasons, and a colossal waste of money. It’s rarely open anymore and has very little “Pequot” anything it but oh, what’s there is lovely.
3. Timexpo Museum, Waterbury (RIP)
… like this museum did.
Tragic. Everyone who drives through Waterbury knows the Timexpo Museum, whether they stopped in or not. Outside, near the highway, (still stands for now) a large Moai, a.k.a. an Easter Island Head. This, at a museum dedicated to the founding of Timex, the company known for its watches.
Just that paragraph alone should tell you how awesome this place was. Two-thirds of the museum was dedicated to the history of timepieces and the history of Timex, which was founded in Waterbury and is now headquartered in Middlebury. The other third is dedicated to Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon Tiki voyages.
Which included Easter Island. Of course. Timexpo opened in 2001 and cost over $5 million. I lasted about 15 years before closing due to low attendance. Sigh. I loved this museum and was very sad to see it close.
2. New England Air Museum, Windsor Locks
I was thinking about NEAM the other day and wondering which is the largest museum in Connecticut. It’s obviously the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea, but if we stick to (mostly) indoor joints, I’d guess it’s NEAM.
The New England Air Museum’s collection contains over 100 aircraft ranging from early flying machines to supersonic jets. Over 65 aircraft are on display in three large exhibit hangars and in an outdoor display area (open depending on weather) while others are in storage and restoration hangars.
And the hangars aren’t just filled with junk. This is a museum museum; clean, bright, informational placards at each aircraft. It explains the history of flight, the birth of local companies like Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, and houses some hugely impressive displays.
Hugely impressive and… huge. NEAM should be a required stop for anyone trying to get a full view of Connecticut.
1. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
Here we are… at my favorite museum of my 3rd group of 100 Connecticut museums! The weirdest part of this being tabbed as my favorite is that my write-up of it is pretty weak. I have a real issue with writing up great/huge museums. I find it far more difficult than writing up small/fairly junky places.
This place is free. (As is the equally awesome and nearby Yale University Art Gallery, by the way.) We like free.
The Yale Center for British Art houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.This is a big time museum in Connecticut’s biggest time city. The British Art Center was architectural genius Louis Kahn’s final work and was completed after his death. (The aforementioned gallery across the street was his first major commission, so there’s some poetry at play here.)
Kahn’s building is Hoang’s favorite part of the museum. Kahn focused on unique natural light patterns and angles. It’s quite striking. For me, being “the museum guy,” I think I mostly just appreciate that we have Yale here and Yale has boatloads of money and boatloads of money means world class art museums.
Which is awesome. On to the next batch of 100!