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Charles River Museum
Photograph: Linda LabanCharles River Museum

The most unusual museums in Boston

You’ve done all the big museums; now discover the niche, funky ones

Written by
Linda Laban

It’s not surprising that the Boston area has so many museums: it offers so much history simply because it was among the earliest Colonial settlements. From there, due to a wealthy merchant class, it became a hotspot during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and, in turn, wealth created work for many craftspeople. Also, because of its learned status as the Athens of America, it also produced great thinkers and artists. So, there is much to preserve for posterity and, thankfully, wonderful niche museums present art and artifacts, mostly with a hyper-local focus. Once you’ve visited the best museums in Boston, check these places out. If viewing art is more your thing, check out the best art galleries and other places to see art in Boston.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston

The most unusual Boston museums

In the 1800s, thanks to its access to hydropower, Waltham became the center for Boston’s industrial revolution. This charming museum, set in the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill, adjacent to the Charles River, honors the city’s place as a continued hotspot for inventors and innovators. From Cabot Lowell’s Boston Manufacturing Company’s textiles to the Metz motorcar, the museum’s artifacts are set in wondrous permanent exhibits in an original red brick mill building. Each spring, the museum plays a large part in The Watch City Steampunk Festival, which riotously celebrates the Victorian steam-driven era with museum events and a street festival.

Tucked off Staniford Street in West End Place, this wonderful niche museum pays homage to one of Boston’s almost forgotten neighborhoods: the West End. Bordered by Beacon Hill and the North End, the West End—notably the birthplace of Star Trek actor the late Leonard Nimoy—was mostly razed in the mid-20th century to make way for high-rise condos and government buildings, including the notoriously brutalist City Hall complex. More recent developments have put the area back on the map and, fortunately, the museum’s founders saved artifacts and stories, which are displayed in permanent exhibits as well as three revolving shows each year. There are also lots of fun events, including West End walking tours.

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This museum might be small, but where else in Boston boasts the very door behind which the great novelist and social commentator Charles Dickens once slept? The Omni Parker House claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States; though most of what you see is a 1927 renovation, the hotel indeed hasn’t closed since Harvey D. Parker founded it in 1855. The museum displays artifacts from its considerable history, including the door to the room Dickens slept in. Other guests such as Mark Twain and the Kennedy family are noted—John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie in the dining room and announced his run for presidency here in the early 1960s. The hotel’s staff famously included Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. On a sweeter note, Boston cream pie was invented here and you can pick one up from the gift shop on the way out.

For all its industry and innovation, Waltham is officially known as The Watch City—the city seal bears the image of the Waltham Watch Company’s factory. The Waltham Watch Company was the first American manufacturer to use assembly line mass-production techniques for making timepieces, thus creating more and less expensive watches and, most importantly, the most accurate clocks and watches in the world at that time. Now posh loft apartments and offices, the Waltham Watch Company’s three, large turreted red brick buildings on Crescent Street house a permanent exhibit of instruments, timepieces, advertising posters, and photographs of the WWC workers who made industrial history here.

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Just feet away from the spectacular cantilevered Institute of Contemporary Art in the Seaport District, the Society of Arts and Crafts stands two floors up on the corner of Seaport Boulevard. This free museum is dedicated to the art of design and skilled craftsmanship in everyday living. The museum is rooted in the American Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century and this collection includes ceramics, textiles, metal and wood work, and glass art. The gift shop is filled with stunningly covetable stuff to take home.

Think about it, what would daily life be like without modern plumbing? This museum, coincidentally but appropriately located in Watertown, and humorously often called The Toilet Museum, is dedicated to waterworks, the works and vessels that convey water. The surprisingly beautiful collection, which was started in the 1950s, was originally the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum, located in Worcester. Still privately owned, the museum was then established in Watertown and is currently housed in a renovated icehouse. In 2019, the museum established the Watertown Film Festival, which highlights documentaries and films that involve the ever-more controversial subject of potable water and decreasing water supplies.

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