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Maryland’s Eclectic Museums

Visit the Offbeat and Uncommon

by Nancy Parode

Early spring days can be both beautiful and frustrating. The days are longer, the green spears of daffodil leaves are poking through the soil and there is a hint of warmth in the air. Those early spring days can be frustrating, too, because everyone is tired of staying indoors but it’s too cold to spend much time outside. Or, even worse, it’s raining.

Days like these are perfect for museum adventures, and Maryland is home to an amazing variety of museums. Most Marylanders are familiar with the state’s big, famous museums, such as Baltimore’s National Aquarium and the B&O Railroad Museum, and these museums deserve their excellent reviews. For your next museum jaunt, however, why not choose a destination that focuses on an offbeat subject or offers an uncommon approach to a familiar topic?

Although a few of Maryland’s more unusual museums, such as the National Cryptologic Museum and the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, are still closed—the National Cryptologic Museum is being renovated and the National Museum of Dentistry is closed due to Covid—many museums are eagerly welcoming visitors, so you’ll have plenty of options.

Museums for the Whole Family

Maryland abounds with family-friendly museums. The state’s proximity to the nation’s capital makes it an ideal location for showcasing all sorts of quirky collections. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is a prime example. This museum presents art created by self-taught artists—no art school graduates allowed. The result is a diverse array of sculptures, paintings, collages and much more. Kids love waving down at siblings from the enormous bird nest balcony, so make sure your smartphone is photo-ready and prepare to plunge into the world of visionary art.

Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center in Solomons is another great place to introduce children to art.  You’ll want to visit Annmarie on a pleasant day to take full advantage of the boardwalk and pathways in the sculpture garden. Children can look for “tree pop” art, learn about Maryland native plants via a series of tile-inlaid benches and go on a sculpture scavenger hunt. Indoors, a series of gallery exhibitions highlights the work of artists from all over the country. If you visit between April and Labor Day, you’ll see some extra whimsy as you look for fairy and gnome homes in the garden. (Tip: The Women’s Walk features sculptures of women, some nude, so you’ll want to prepare for a thoughtful discussion if you take children down this side path.)

The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum focuses on a completely different type of art—decoys. This time-honored craft developed as hunters realized that ducks and geese were more likely to gather with saw other waterfowl. The hunters created wooden ducks and geese to entice the live birds to land nearby. The Decoy Museum has an incredible collection of decoys from the Chesapeake Bay region as well as exhibits on decoy making, gunning boats and shotguns. Don’t miss the incredible view of the Susquehanna Flats from the museum’s second floor deck.

While the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum doesn’t have a waterfront view, it does boast an extensive collection of artifacts, objects, and documents related to the history and development of electronic systems. The museum’s exhibits trace the development of telegraphy, radio, radar, sonar and satellite technology. You’ll find hands-on opportunities in nearly every gallery. You can order a (pretend) pizza by telegraph, play a theremin and see what you look like in infrared. The helpful front desk staff will give you a brief introduction to the museum and demonstrate some of the exhibits. (Tip: Call ahead to see if a ham radio club member will be at the museum during your visit. The museum hosts the Amateur Radio Club of the National Electronics Museum, call sign K3NEM, and club members occasionally operate the museum’s amateur radio station.) 

The National Capital Radio and Television Museum, located in Bowie, traces the development of two types of communications technology: radio and television. This small but mighty museum is housed in an old farmhouse whose rooms are filled with every sort of antique radio and television imaginable. You’ll learn about the history of radio and television, listen to old radios, find out how vacuum tubes work, and see the “guts” of old radios. This free museum is best experienced with one of the enthusiastic, knowledgeable docents as your guide; the docents know how to open all the secret compartments and operate the working radios. Expect to spend about 1.5 hours on the tour. 

Museums for the Older Set

Some museums, while excellent, contain exhibits that are better suited to older visitors or have age restrictions for entry.  A few of Maryland’s eclectic museums fall into this category.

Glenstone, for example, restricts entry to visitors aged 12 and up, and guests who are 12 to 17 years old must be accompanied by an adult at all times. For modern and contemporary art lovers who are old enough to visit, Glenstone’s exhibits are not to be missed. Set in a 300-acre landscape near Potomac, Glenstone showcases post-World War II art in a series of pavilions, a separate gallery building and outdoors. A woodland trail invites visitors to explore the landscape. Tickets to Glenstone are free, but they are in high demand, so you’ll need to plan well in advance.

Medical museums can be both engrossing and educational, even if some of the exhibits make you cringe just a little. Frederick’s National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s exhibits bust many common myths about medical care during the Civil War, such as the belief that amputations were often done without anesthesia, and teaches visitors about the Civil War doctors, nurses and chaplains who cared for the soldiers in both armies. It’s an engaging and informative museum that will change your views on Civil War medicine, especially if you don’t mind reading a lot of signage.

The William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History in Linthicum Heights also falls into the better-for-older kids category. The museum’s focus on the history of urology makes it not only a unique destination but also a museum best suited for older teens and adults. Your guide will show you medical instruments galore and point out the incredibly detailed medical illustrations created by the museum’s founder. The collection offers visitors a tangible timeline of advances in urology and the medical profession. As of this writing, the museum is open for pre-arranged guided tours only; you can request a tour via email. 

The Baltimore Tattoo Museum is housed in a Fells Point tattoo parlor, but it’s definitely a museum. This small museum showcases traditional tattoo art, and every available surface is covered with tattoo imagery, large and small—even the ceiling! You’ll also find exhibits about the history of tattoo art, tattoo machines and famous tattoo artists. If you’re interested in tattoo art or would like to learn more about it, don’t miss this funky-but-fascinating little museum.

Tips for Museum Visitors

*Be prepared to wear a mask, depending on Covid restrictions in each museum’s location.

*Some museums in Maryland require guests age 12 and over to show proof of Covid vaccination.

*Wear comfortable shoes. Even if the museum is small, you may be standing for quite a while, especially if you tour the museum with a guide.

*Plan ahead. Most museums are not yet operating on a full schedule, so they may be closed or have shorter hours on the day you want to visit. 

*To avoid crowds, visit on a weekday and arrive when the museum opens.

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