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The best Boston museums

Explore everything from the natural world to cutting-edge art at these standout Boston museums

Photograph: Siena Scarff
The best Boston museums: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Though several Boston museums have venerable histories, they’re anything but stuffy. The Museum of Fine Arts has debuted a striking addition by Foster & Partners, and the Institute of Contemporary Art now occupies a dramatic structure on the Waterfront, Boston’s new frontier neighborhood. Art lovers should also explore the city’s galleries—the SoWa Arts District in the South End is a thriving creative hub. With its academic associations, Boston (and Cambridge) has long been a center of science and innovation—you can explore this legacy at the Museum of Science among other institutions.

The best Boston museums

Museum of Fine Arts

Founded in 1870, the MFA moved from Copley Square to its current home, a neoclassical granite building on Huntington Avenue—the so-called "Avenue of the Arts"—in 1909. The globe-spanning collection encompasses 450,000 objects. Of particular note are the collection of American art, including Paul Revere's silver Liberty Bowl and paintings by John Singleton Copley; the Egyptian collection, much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century; the Japanese collection (the first in America and one of the finest in the world); and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including an impressive array by Monet—the second largest collection of his work in the US, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.The Upper Rotunda in the centre of the building is adorned by John Singer Sargent's spectacular murals, which pay tribute to the museum's role as guardian of the arts through references to Greek mythology. As well as the vast permanent collection, all of which is presented in an accessible way with a contemporary eye for design and placement, the MFA hosts major temporary exhibitions on such diverse themes as couture fashion and Spanish art during the reign of Philip III and retrospectives of greats such as Edward Hopper.A new American wing (covering the art of North, Central and South America) and an enclosed courtyard, designed by the firm of British architect Norman Foster, famous for the con

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Institute of Contemporary Art

Once crammed into a tiny building in Back Bay, the ICA moved to its spacious new home in late 2006, and is now the cultural cornerstone of the waterfront. With its 65,000sq ft floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theatre and a café.The museum prides itself on being a platform for challenging works—the permanent collection includes pieces by the likes of Julian Opie, Paul Chan and Mona Hatoum, while changing shows explore broader themes that unite different artists' work, or focus on individual luminaries (Louise Bourgeois, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the like).After you've contemplated the art, retreat to the deck outside, with its expansive vista over the harbor. The building has such unusual features as a downward-sloping Mediatheque that culminates in a front window framing a patch of water.

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The Waterfront

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

As unique as its founder, the eccentric socialite and patron of the arts who was the inspiration for Isabel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, the Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th-century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard with a seasonally changing floral display. Initially conceived by Gardner and her husband Jack to house the growing collection of art and objects amassed during their extensive travels, the museum only came into being after Jack's death.It opened in 1903, with the widowed Gardner residing on the fourth floor until she died in 1924. She wanted the arrangement of the architecture and artworks to engage the imagination, so every piece in the 2,500-piece collection, spanning European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century, is meticulously placed according to her personal instructions. The result is an idiosyncratic mix of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rare books and furniture. Among the many highlights are John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, Titian's Europa and works by Botticelli, Rembrandt and Raphael.In 1990, 13 pieces, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer and Degas drawings, were stolen in America's largest art heist, and the empty spaces—which can't be filled under the terms of Gardner's will—are a poignant sight. Many of the works aren't labeled, but you can buy or borrow a guide to the collections and the security staff are charming and helpful. There are also detaile

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Harvard Museum of Natural History

This historic museum boasts a vast and slightly creepy collection of stuffed, bottled and dried creatures from around the globe, from llamas to coelacanths and butterflies. Fossil-mad children can gawp at dinosaur skeletons and admire the 42ft kronosaurus, a prehistoric marine reptile, while rock fans will head straight for the meteorites and gemstones. Your entry charge includes admission to the interconnected Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology.

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Museum of Science

This extremely child-friendly museum is committed to providing an interactive and educational experience, making science accessible through a wealth of hands-on activities and engaging exhibits. Highlights include the Thomson Theater of Electricity, which houses a giant Van de Graaf generator, providing a safe way to experience a dramatic lightning storm at close range; the domed Mugar Omni Theater for IMAX movies; and the new Butterfly Garden conservatory. At the multimedia Charles Hayden Planetarium, the Zeiss Star Projector reproduces a realistic night sky. There's an enormous gift shop, a decent café courtesy of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and a spectacular view of the river to admire from the vast windows at the back of the museum.

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Peabody Essex Museum

Less than 20 miles north of Boston in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum is home to one of the largest art collections in New England (around 1 million works in total). The backbone of the museum's stock is maritime art, but there is also African, American, Asian, Native American and Oceanic art from which to choose. For a break in the appreciation, relax in the sunny atrium or grab lunch in the outdoor Garden Restaurant.

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John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

A looming concrete-and-glass monolith designed by I.M. Pei (completed in 1979), this shrine to the life and work of the 35th US president overlooks the outer harbor from the top of the Columbia Point peninsula. On the ground floor, the stunning 115ft-tall atrium commands panoramic views of the sea and the city. Downstairs, the museum contains an extensive display of memorabilia, as well as a series of temporary shows. Presented as a series of multimedia retro room sets and visitor-friendly displays, the permanent exhibition comprises a timeline of Kennedy's rise to power (including excerpts from his famous televised campaign debate with Nixon, and documentary footage on the Cuban Missile Crisis), achievements (promoting the space race), his family life and reproductions of the Oval Office and the office of JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy. The historical archives, which can only be viewed by appointment, include an extensive collection of Ernest Hemingway's letters and papers, donated by his wife Mary - Kennedy allowed her to re-enter Fidel Castro's Cuba in order to remove the writer's effects from their abandoned home in Havana. In spring 2007, Hemingway's correspondence with Marlene Dietrich, donated by the actress's daughter in 2003 on the proviso it remained closed for four years, was made public.

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USS Constitution Museum

Built in 1797, this legendary old frigate became one of the most celebrated warships of its era, taking part in over 30 battles and engagements. Ottoman polacres, French brigs and British privateers all felt the force of her guns. Today, 'Old Ironsides' is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. Children can explore the inside of the ship, ask questions of the guides decked out in period garb, then learn about the vessel's stormy history in the adjacent museum - where they can also try out sailors' hammocks for size. Located in a converted pumphouse in the Yard, the museum has exhibitions that relate both to the Constitution itself and to more general naval history. Interactive displays offer a simulated hands-on seafaring experience: the thrill of battle on deck and handling the ship's massive sails.

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