The museum world goes gaga over blockbuster art exhibits such as the Henri Matisse retrospective that recently closed in New York. But if you're a culture lover who enjoys viewing more than paintings and sculpture, museums across the U.S. are offering a vast smorgasbord of treats this year.
Some new exhibits celebrate our roots, whether through folk art, America's industrial heritage, or the interests of founding father Thomas Jefferson. Many invite you to do more than admire, with a growing emphasis on hands-on displays. Also on the agenda are some impressive new institutions, such as the $67.5 million Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, which opened Jan. 24.
Bill Clinton's preinaugural pilgrimage to Charlottesville, Va., came too early for the really big event there. An unprecedented show called "The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello," Apr. 13 through Dec. 31, will be the centerpiece of a year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of his birth. The nation's third President was an inveterate collector, and the show reunites more than 150 of his paintings, furniture pieces, books, maps, instruments, and natural-history specimens. Drawn from more than 50 museums and private collections, they'll go where Jefferson placed them, recreating Monticello as it has not been seen for generations. You'll find, for example, the mahogany lap desk on which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and his unusual revolving Windsor chair.
If you can't make it to Monticello, you can catch three related exhibits in New York: his manuscripts, now on view at the J.P. Morgan Library; documents and portraits of Jefferson at the New York Historical Society, opening in March; and "Thomas Jefferson and the Design of Monticello" at the Equitable Gallery, beginning Oct. 7.
LOVE LETTER. Down the road from William Jefferson Clinton's new digs, check out the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, which has just reopened--beautifully restored--after three years of renovation. In honor of the occasion, the institution is showcasing a collection of treasures from the Vatican. "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and the Rebirth of Rome," open through Apr. 30, commemorates the role the five-century-old library played in lifting Rome from plague and schism to the glory of the Renaissance. From a love letter Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn to a drawing of sunspots by Galileo, the show is filled with documents rarely seen by laymen--and never in America.
Denver and Cincinnati also boast reopened treasures. The Denver Art Museum's "Centennial Celebration," starting Feb. 6, features expanded Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and Asian galleries. The Cincinnati Art Museum, reopening after a two-year, $10.5 million facelift, showcases architectural details of its Romanesque 1886 main building that had been obscured for more than 40 years.
If Denver piques your interest in Hispanic culture, head south to New Mexico. "Across Generations: Hispanic Children and Folk Traditions," Jan. 24 through July 5 at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, shows how crafts pass from one generation to the next. The exhibit features the work of 51 children, including three-year-old Lena Rae Crdova. She learned to carve wood by imitating her grandmother, who makes large religious figures called bultos in Cordova, N.M.
But why only view someone else's creativity? The $45 million Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, which opened last October, is true to the trend of providing an interactive experience. Touching is especially encouraged in two discovery galleries for children crafted by Edwin Schlossberg, a New York designer. The centerpiece is a multigallery "Walk Through Time in Georgia" exhibit that explains changes in the natural environment over the eons, including a multistory dinosaur display.
For more hands-on fun, take a ferry from downtown Manhattan to the new Liberty Science Center in Liberty State Park. A great place for kids, the museum presents imaginative interactions with the world of science. An insect zoo has live specimens you can hold, while a mirror maze and 100-foot touch tunnel toy with your senses. An eight-story domed screen is featuring a film about the body, To the Limit, which shows the breathtaking feats of a mountain climber, a ski racer, and a ballerina.
Hands-on displays and heritage also join forces at a new permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Divided into three parts, "Made in America" combines some of the museum's long-standing collection of
industrial artifacts with new displays.
The first section, "Making Things," amounts to a historical factory tour through mass- and craft-production methods. "Making Power" traces power-generating technology and includes a touch-screen computer where you can simulate controlling an electric power plant. "Making Choices" literally bridges the first two exhibits--on a raised platform--and uses videos and in- teractive computers to show how industrial decisions reverberate through society. Along with hardware, the show examines the human side of manufacturing.
An exhibit now in the second of a six-year tour takes up the themes of the Fernbank Museum and Henry Ford's "Made in America." At "Science in Toyland," kids can explore the principles behind, say, making a top spin longer. It will be in St. Paul, Minn., Boston, and Fort Worth in 1993.