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9 Under-the-Radar Museums in Boston

Much more than the Revolution.

The Boston, MA skyline.
Hi, I'm Liam!

Liam Greenwell is a writer and teacher based in Mexico City. He is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can read more of his work at liamgreenwell.com and find him on Twitter @liam_greenwell.

Tourists come to Boston for its revolutionary history, countless universities, and deep Irish and Italian heritage. Meanwhile, museums such as the MFA and Isabella Stewart Gardner rank among the best collections of art in the US.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find under-the-radar experiences that show the fun and funky side of what is sometimes portrayed as an uptight place. Go beyond the Freedom Trail and the Tea Party and use this list of museums to get hip to the contemporary nature of Beantown.

1. ICA Watershed

ICA Watershed in Boston, MA.
ICA Watershed is open during the summer and features pop-up exhibitions.Foto: Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock

A new annex to a popular museum.

When the Institute of Contemporary Art moved into its Seaport building in 2006, it was on the forefront of revitalizing the district. Since then, the neighborhood has transformed into one of the most desirable in the city—and the museum has similarly become one of the city’s most popular. Since then, a lesser-known annex space called the Watershed—which is open only during the summer and features pop-up, large-scale exhibitions—opened across the harbor in East Boston. The ferry ride from the main ICA is included in your ticket, but you can also take public transportation to the Watershed and enter for free.

Don’t miss: The chance to explore the adjacent neighborhood of East Boston, one of the city’s most culturally-diverse areas.

2. Warren Anatomical Museum

Skulls displayed at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, MA.
This museum showcases unusual aspects of the human body.Foto: Roberto Serrini / Tripadvisor

A journey through the body.

Not for the squeamish, this small museum in the Longwood medical district brings visitors through some unusual and uncomfortable aspects of the human body. The highlight of a collection that includes human skeletons and preserved fetuses may be the skull of Phineas Gage. A railway worker in the 1800s who suffered a horrific accident that forced a metal bar through his head, Gage miraculously survived, though his personality changed. This led to the discovery that the frontal lobe of the brain, damaged in Gage, is a center for personality and emotion.

Don’t miss: Gage's skull is, of course, a highlight, as is the conjoined fetal skeleton on display.

3. Boston Athenaeum

Boston Athenaeum in Boston, MA.
The Boston Athenaeum has had impressive members in the past such as John F. Kennedy.Foto: PhillipJR / Shutterstock

A library for local giants.

A member-supported library, museum, and social club that has been at the heart of Beacon Hill for more than two centuries, the Athenaeum is a storied institution. Giants of American history and literature such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and John F. Kennedy have all been members. Today, though, the institution has shed its closed-off reputation without sacrificing its intellectual vibe. Day passes are available— access to the first floor only costs significantly less.

Don’t miss: The library has many literary treasures including a first-edition copy of Birds of America and books that once formed part of George Washington’s personal library.

4. Harvard Art Museums

Harvard Art Museums in Boston, MA.
This impressive spot has one of the most extensive collections of pigments in the world.Foto: Harvard Art Museums / Tripadvisor

Color, light, and art history.

The Harvard Art Museums may be more well-known than most of the others on this list. But the institution—housed in a beautiful building with a memorable atrium across from Harvard Yard—has enough secrets to justify its inclusion. One of those, on the fourth floor, is the Forbes Pigments, a collection of over 2,700 color samples that the conservation staff continues to use in their restorations. One of the most extensive collections of pigments in the entire world, it includes extremely rare and even toxic samples. Elsewhere, check out the museum’s extensive photography, contemporary art, and ancient artifact collections.

Don’t miss: In the Lightbox Gallery on the fifth floor, you can look below your feet at curators preserving different pieces of art and also gain a great vista of the Harvard Campus.

5. The National Center of Afro-American Artists

African American man looking at art inside of a museum.
The National Center of Afro-American Artists (not pictured above) features contemporary Black artists.Foto: AnnaStills / Shutterstock

Celebrating Black Bostonians.

In the diverse neighborhood of Roxbury, this museum stands as a testament to the long history of Black artists in Boston despite the obstacles put in their way. It features a permanent collection as well as rotating exhibitions of both historical and contemporary Black artists. You’ll also see one exhibition featuring a Nubian king’s burial chamber—from a culture whose legacy influenced Black leaders in the 1960s. The culture also serves as the namesake for nearby Nubian Square, recently renamed to honor the history of Black civilization.

Don’t miss: The Black Nativity celebration, a tradition held each December for over 50 years, with a story written by Langston Hughes.

6. The Museum of Russian Icons

Art inside the Museum of Russian Icons in Boston, MA.
This museum houses the largest collection of Russian icons in North America.Foto: Ru66 / Tripadvisor

A world-class collection.

About an hour from Boston, in the small town of Clinton, this museum is a treasure trove. It’s the largest collection of Russian icons in North America and one of the largest outside of Russia, with exemplars from as early as the 15th century. Witness the history of Russian Orthodox Christianity stretched across centuries and on every scale. There are small religious icons meant for private prayer, while other parts of the collection feature altarpieces. The most incredible part is that the museum started as a private collection and opened its doors only in 2006.

Don’t miss: The Royal Doors, a grand artifact from a rural church in the 1700s.

7. Georges Island

Georges Island in Boston, MA.
Georges Island is a favorite summer spot for Boston locals.Foto: James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

Into the harbor.

The most popular destination in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Georges Island is a favorite summer spot for locals—and it’s a bit less well-known for tourists. Home to Fort Warren, a Civil War training ground and prison, the island is said to be haunted by the “Lady in Black”—the wife of a Confederate prisoner said to have been sentenced to death. Even if you fail to spot her ghost, you’ll be able to enjoy a different view of Boston from the harbor itself. Extend your visit by taking a ferry to several other islands in the harbor.

Don’t miss: The excellent views of the Boston skyline.

8. The Armenian Museum of America

Inside the Armenian Museum of America in Boston, MA.
Visit this museum to celebrate the art, history, and culture of the Armenian people.Foto: The Armenian Museum of America / Tripadvisor

Cultural celebration.

In the heart of Watertown, this museum celebrates the Armenian diaspora through collections that spotlight ancient artifacts, contemporary art, and literary history. You’ll learn about the long history of Christianity through prayer scrolls; government and culture through coins and textiles; and contemporary challenges through exhibitions on conflicts with Russia and Azerbaijan. The museum also spotlights the contributions (and controversies) of famous Armenian-Americans, such as paintings by Jack Kevorkian, who was also known as Doctor Death because of his advocacy of euthanasia.

Don’t miss: The collection of stamps and other paraphernalia from the months surrounding Armenian independence from the USSR in 1991.

9. Museum of Bad Art

The outside of the Dorchester Brewing Company building in Boston.
The Museum of Bad Art is located inside the same building as the Dorchester Brewing Company (pictured above).Foto: Dorchester Brewing Company / Tripadvisor

Tongue-in-cheek treasures.

This museum, housing particularly shocking artistic blunders, preserves “art too bad to be ignored.” In the same building as the Dorchester Brewing Company, this is the perfect place to explore after throwing back a few beers. The accompanying descriptions mostly steer clear of being mean-spirited—this is a place to celebrate doing things badly rather than laughing at those who do. Just because most of us won’t end up in the MFA doesn’t mean that we can’t make work that brings joy to others.

Don’t miss: The Elvis portraits. You’ll know them when you see them.

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