Destroy the Earth and Visit Masters of the Past at the Springfield Museums

by Johnny Monsarrat

 

I'm constantly surprised how many Events INSIDER readers limit themselves to the Boston metro area. I think we're so used to the arts that we don't realize that New England, because it's the most densely populated and artistic region of the United States, and has the longest history, has more culture hidden away in little places than anywhere else in America. There is so much to do in Salem, Plymouth, and Springfield that you just wouldn't find in the outskirts of Houston, Atlanta, or even Chicago. They really pack a punch.

 

Jeez, if you were to pluck Boston off the map you'd lose Harvard, BU, Tufts, Wellesley, Babson, Brandeis, and MIT, but you'd still have world class Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Northampton, UMass Amherst, UConn, RISD, Smith, and so many more. So what makes you think that Boston has the only arts destinations in New England?

 

For example, it can be a great adventure to zip out on the Mass Pike and explore Western Massachusetts for a day or a weekend. Visit it for the rural setting, hiking the Berkshires or taking in an outdoor play. In a review I'll write later today, I was watching an outdoor production of Macbeth when an actual owl flew in and landed on a tree behind the stage!

 

Sometimes you go for the local take on something traditional. Springfield, for example, has the Big E, the largest agricultural faire on the East Coast. They have a parade of giant balloons every year. Nearby is the Basketball Hall of Fame and Volleyball Hall of Fame. The Amherst College museum has the world's largest collection of early Jurassic era dinosaur footprints. In nearby Connecticut, Dinosaur State Park is one of the largest dinosaur track sites in the United States. You won't find these things in Boston.

 

You also won't find the Springfield Museums, four museums placed around a fifth attraction, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. There you'll find extensive statues that honor the children's author Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who lived there. It's creative and interesting. You can walk right onto the sculpture platform and they had a celebration last week to elect The Cat in the Hat for President. (And they will open The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in 2017!) 

 

You could easily spend a whole day in this location, whether you have kids or not. I have to say I'm impressed with Springfield's tourism outreach. They have poured a lot of money into these attractions and trust me, it will wow you. Sadly, I was only able to visit two of the museums this week.

 

Let's start with the Springfield Science Museum, which I might call, Danger, Destruction: How Many Ways Can I Destroy the Earth?

 

The Connecticut River Valley (which confusingly runs north/south through Massachusetts as well as Connecticut) is well known for its dinosaur excavations. Here you'll find footprints, dinosaur bones, all on display here. They even have The Jurassic Theatre, a dark audio-only tunnel where you can listen to what it might have sounded like to live amongst dinosaurs. It's dark, spooky, and great fun.

 

You can also see the poisonous frog used to make poison blowdarts, piranha cousins, and a boa constrictor. Then you can destroy the planet using a meteor simulator. Choose the size and other attributes of the meteor heading for Earth and watch what happens when they collide. Laugh like an evil villain operating the tsunami wave machine. Uh oh! That big wave is heading for an abandoned village. What will happen?

 

They even have a shaking table that simulates an earthquake. First you make a giant structure from building block. Then you press a button. Oh no, earthquake! Watch it all fall down. (Yes, as an adult without children, I took great joy in this.)

 

Other exhibits don't involve the destruction of the planet, but that's okay. See what silver, gold, and copper look like when they're still in the ground. They have live and stuffed animal exhibits from the shocking to the everyday skunk, squirrel, and opossum. There's a small aquarium too, and staff come out with interactive exhibits for kids.

 

Then there's an extensive exhibit on Africa and African-Americans, with a room-sized diorama of the savannah and giant animals, ape and human skeletons, and artifacts and history from the African continent up to slavery in the United States and today. I learned that Africans invented writing, irrigation, and metallurgy.

 

Sadly, I didn't have time for the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, with old timey automobiles, Indian motorcycles (a famous brand), Smith & Wesson firearms (another famous brand local to the area), and a "game land" for Hasbro, yet another local but famous brand. You know Hasbro's toys and board games like Scrabble, Cranium, Battleship, Twister, Connect 4, Operation, and Clue.

 

So I headed to one of the two art museums, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, or simply, "The Smith". That's where they have the sculptures, and I love sculptures.

 

There they have ancient Japanese armor, including a set from 1500 years ago, and an ornately carved ceremonial shrine taller than I am. There's a room filled with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, which I found delightful. Often artists will "beautify" their subject, but find the two busts where -- ugh! -- they adorably did not clean up their subjects at all. There's also three people fighting with a snake, but if you look carefully, it's actually two snakes. Can you find both heads? Some of the statues are casts of the originals found elsewhere, but I was delighted to learn how the casting is done, in a separate exhibit.

 

Right now they have a temporary exhibit on cabinets, on how art is stored and displayed. This includes a mummy case. You'll also find ancient Chinese art (they really liked urns) and Islamic art, with tapestries, an ancient Koran, bowls, tiles, and two jade-hilted daggers. Oh, and there's an entire wing of the museum dedicated to interactive kid activities.

 

Plus they have many paintings, of course. Did you know that Norman Rockwell lived in Western Massachusetts? There is a museum of his work in nearby Stockbridge.

 

So get out there and explore the artistic gems of the United States. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars to visit Paris or the Bahamas. Great adventures await you in your own backyard.

 

See www.springfieldmuseums.org.