I know a lot of people who think museums are boring. Perhaps it was one too many field trips to fine art museums where teachers demanded single file lines and stiff curators constantly shushed anyone talking above a whisper. I personally love museums – of any kind. But I also stop to read every historical marker I pass and in Virginia, that makes me a very slow walking companion.
Museums are so much more than just paintings and sculptures. Museums find the “art” in everything. These 13 places are proof that museums can be fun, playful or just bizarre. So whether you have a passion for history, literature, nature or fiberglass dinosaurs, there really is something out there for everyone. Only in Virginia….
1. Old Jail Museum, Warrenton
Just in case you were wondering how far the standards of incarceration have come in the last 200 years, The Fauquier History Museum (formerly the Old Jail Museum) in downtown Warrenton, is the site of the old Fauquier County prison complex. The museum features two jails, the first, built in 1808, later became the jailer’s home when the second jail was built in 1823. After wandering through exhibits that look into the history of jails in America from pre-colonial times through the 20th century, visitors can explore the grounds, including the original exercise / hanging yard. You just can’t argue with that kind of space-efficiency.
2. Historic Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, Luray
If you’re not a car guy but maybe more of a goat-cart kind of fellow, you’ll love the diversity of the Car and Carriage Museum in Luray. With more than 140 transportation-related items on display, the museum takes you on a walk – or drive, as it were – through the history of moving things in America. The display includes carriages, a Conestoga wagon, early automobiles, antique luxury cars and the oldest automobile in operating condition – an 1892 Benz. If you’ve already taken a tour of the Luray Caverns, you’ll be happy to know, admission to the museum is included in the Caverns’ ticket price.
3. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond
If you’re from Virginia, and we’re assuming most of y’all are, you know that the Civil War was a great big ol’ huge chunk of our history. Nowhere can you learn more about it than at the Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond. Many of the generals, including R.E. Lee himself, were Virginians and much of the war’s history took place here. The museum houses uniforms, flags, weapons, historical documents and the majority of General Lee’s military campaign belongings. Nearby is the second site, the White House of the Confederacy, a fully restored look at where Jefferson Davis lived as President of the Confederacy. A new sister site in Appomattox shows the surrender of Lee to Grant, as well as life during and after the war. The museum is one of Frommer’s Top Destinations of 2014 and winner of Tripadvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for three years running.
4. Virginia Living History Museum, Newport News
Some people just aren’t that into history…or they get bored with exhibits…or they start whining and want a snack as soon as we get there. Or maybe I am just describing my kids. Either way, the Virginia Living History Museum is the one place that everyone can agree on with word-class animal and plant exhibits, a planetarium and conservation education. Featuring 250 living species native to Virginia, including many endangered species like red wolves, loggerhead turtles, moon jellies and more, the museum offers everything from standard exhibits to hands-on, interactive displays. There’s truly something for everyone.
5. Dinosaurland, White Post
Ok, so maybe this is more of an exhibit than a museum. But you simply can’t pass the Disneyland-style sign and NOT stop. I mean really. Who can resist giant fiberglass dinosaurs locked in battle? And if that doesn’t grab your attention, then surely the 70-foot long giant squid will do the trick. A 20-foot high King Kong gorilla, perhaps? For more than 50 years, Joe Geraci’s Dinosaurland has entertained visitors, rubber-neckers and locals alike. The park is now run by his daughter who keeps the legend alive with a fully-stocked, dino-themed gift shop that welcomes shoppers to enter through the gaping mouth of – you guessed it – a dinosaur.
6. Shenandoah Caverns, Quicksburg
Giant Bacon. And now that I have your attention, let’s talk Shenandoah Caverns. The caverns, like their not-too-far-off neighbor in Luray, are a natural masterpiece of formations and underground passages. And Shenandoah Caverns is home to the Giant Bacon formations – formed by dripping minerals that settle to resemble everyone’s favorite breakfast treat. The caverns are not necessarily a museum in themselves, but thanks to owner Earl Hargrove, outside the caverns is just as awesome as inside. After the tour, walk through the Yellow Barn, a museum of agricultural and rural life, and see the 35-foot high treehouse that is home to 5-foot squirrels (not real ones, thank goodness). You’ll also find 27 full-size float parades from The Rose Parade, Inaugural Parades and more. Finally, check out Main Street of Yesteryear for department store window displays from the 1940s and 50s. Let’s just say that what nature did to make the caverns entertaining, Mr. Hargrove did for the rest of the site.
7. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, Arlington
Just say no to drugs, but absolutely say yes to visiting the DEA Museum. Just across from the Pentagon, it’s a truly fascinating look into the DEA, drug addiction and drug law enforcement in America. The museum showcases anti-drug campaigns, “good” vs. “bad” drugs, illegal drug use from opium dens in the 1800s to “designer drugs” of today, and displays countless drug law enforcement artifacts. Exhibits include a replica pharmacy, a head shop and a crack house. Be sure to stop by the gift shop for your very own DEA paraphernalia – that’s your Christmas shopping sorted right there.
8. Isle of Wight Museum, Smithfield
Remember how just the other day, you were wondering where you could go to see the world’s oldest ham? Look no further than the Isle of Wight Museum. Home of P.D. Gwaltney’s famous “pet” ham (he made a collar for it and took it to shows – no joke), this museum highlights the history of Smithfield ham – as well as the region’s other rich cultural history. But back to the ham. Since it was discovered, overlooked in a smokehouse in 1902, the ham has been featured in the Guiness Book of World Records and remains the oldest edible ham in the world. Walking tours and ongoing educational lectures series are also available at this delightful stop in southeast Virginia.
9. Camera Heritage Museum, Staunton
For all things photography, this museum is a must. Because so many camera collections are private, the Camera Heritage Museum is one of the few public collections of cameras and photography-related artifacts available. Cameras on display range from 19th century models through modern-day equipment. Stop in to learn about the history of cameras and photography, view antique photographs and see highlights from local photographers.
10. American Armoured Foundation Tank Museum, Danville
Starting as the private collection of William Gasser, the Tank Museum claims to have the most expansive collection of international tank and calvary artifacts available. Since Mr. Gasser donated his collection to start the museum in 1981, it has displayed 500 years of tank and calvary history, including exhibits devoted to guns, tanks, WWI and WWII – and of course, Elvis’s military years and Marilyn Monroe.
11. Edgar Allen Poe Museum, Richmond
Poe may have led a notoriously questionable –and undoubtedly dark – life, but the museum in his honor makes up for it. Located in downtown Richmond, just a few blocks from his childhood home, the small brick house museum has been open since 1922 and continues to show the world’s finest Poe collection with furniture, artwork, family photographs, first-edition books and manuscripts. The “Poe Shrine” can be found behind the house in the Enchanted Garden, an historical garden inspired by his poems. I’m not sure what sort of omen it is to get married at the Poe Museum, but the garden frequently hosts weddings, as well as a monthly “Unhappy Hour.” I am sure the two are not related.
12.National Firearms Museum, Fairfax
15 galleries, 85 exhibit cases and 3,000 firearms. That’s a lot of guns. The National Firearms Museum takes you through the 700-year old history of firearms and provides education on manufacturing, use and collecting from early times until now. The exhibits include life-sized dioramas of a riflemaker’s shop, as well as WWI and WWII war scenes. If you’re really only in it for the celebrities, don’t worry. “Hollywood Guns” shows actual firearms used in movies and television over the last 80 years. For the fancy gun aficionado, “collector’s guns” are on display showing incredible craftsmanship and artistry.
13. Walton's Mountain Museum, Schuyler
This is where the magic happened. Located in real-life hometown of Earl Hammer, Jr., who wrote the books that inspired “The Walton’s”, Walton’s Mountain Museum is in the old Schuyler High School and offers replicas of John-Boy’s bedroom, the family’s kitchen and living room and of course, Ike Godsey’s Store. Since it opened in 1992, the museum’s admission price has helped the Schuyler food bank and volunteer fire and rescue squad. Visitors can browse through exhibits from the show, original manuscripts and other historical displays from the area.