On The Road--With Your Favorite Museum

These tours aren't cheap, but they offer top-notch access

Zoologist William Stanley from Chicago's Field Museum spends much of his time in Tanzanian forests studying mammals in their threatened habitat. But for a couple of weeks each winter, he and another museum scientist lead a group of tourists on a safari in the African country's wildlife-teeming parks.

With his firsthand knowledge of the ecosystem, Stanley provides a depth of information that travelers on other tours rarely get. At campfires each night, he talks about his childhood growing up in Kenya. Stanley, collection manager of the museum's division of mammals, says he enjoys sharing his experiences: "I love to see the expression on people's faces when they first go to the Ngorongoro Crater," a 102-square-mile crater filled with rhinos, cheetahs, and lions.

The Tanzanian safari is one of about eight tours led each year by Field Museum scientists. The giant Smithsonian Institution runs about 250 trips a year. This sort of tourism, though not new, is poised for growth as the baby boomers approach retirement. "They are educated, they are healthy, and they have been lifelong learners," says Amy Kotkin, director of Smithsonian Journeys.

Travelers can select among expeditions to remote locations, city-based excursions, hiking or biking tours, and cruises. In most cases you must be a museum member, but the membership fee is usually small.

The trips tend to be pricier than comparable commercial offerings. The price includes at least one full-time expert, a tour manager, educational materials, high-end accommodations, local guides, and private receptions. Sometimes museums make contributions to institutions they visit. Airfare is usually extra.

For example, a 20-day American Museum of Natural History expedition in June to Siberia, Mongolia, and Tuva costs $8,665, not including airfare to Moscow. The trip features several airplane flights and two helicopter rides, including one over the Gobi Altai Mountain range; lunch in a hunter's log cabin in a lakeside village, and a stay in a barge hotel on a bay. In Tuva, a region in Siberia rarely seen by outsiders, travelers will attend concerts of traditional hoomi (throat) singing, where vocalists produce several distinct sounds at a time, usually duplicating natural sounds such as a rushing river.

Although most programs are geared toward adults, several are designed for families. On the American Museum of Natural History's family trip to China in June, participants will get to tour a panda breeding facility and make Chinese kites.

Museum trips usually are designed around a theme, such as the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore's September excursion, "Andalusia: Treasure of Spain," where the group will accompany a museum curator to examine the influence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures on architecture and art. If flowers make you sneeze, perhaps you should pass on the Smithsonian's "Gardens of the Caribbean: Barbados to Antigua" yacht cruise in February.


A big benefit of museum programs is their access to places not usually on the tourist circuit. Curators and scientists often take travelers off the beaten track to places where they've done research. Having built relationships with experts around the world, tour leaders can gain entry to private art collections, gardens, and archaeological dig sites, and can arrange after-hours visits to museums, opera houses, libraries, and churches.

During a tour of cultural attractions in Central Europe sponsored by the Walters Art Museum, Carol O'Connell of Baltimore, 71, visited a library in a cloister in Prague. She wore special gloves to touch the pages of 15th-century books. "I could see other people looking into the room through a Lucite door, but we were the only ones allowed in," she says.

Museum curators also use their contacts to arrange meetings with renowned scientists and artists. In May, Ian Tattersall, the American Museum of Natural History's curator of anthropology, is leading a trip to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. His former colleague, a renowned Georgian paleontologist, directed the excavation of Dmanisi, where the most ancient human remains outside Africa were found. As a result of that contact, the group will spend at least two days with the Georgian scientist, who in his office will show them the original skulls from the site and give them a private tour of the State Museum of Georgia, which he directs, says Alicia Stevens, director of the museum's Discovery Tours.

When the Oakland Museum of California designs art tours, travelers meet with local artists. In Japan, a group visited the studio of a master carver of theatrical masks. He told them ancient stories as they watched him work, according to Barbara Bigelow, travel coordinator for the museum's art guild.

Program directors say most travelers are middle-age singles and couples, without expertise on a trip's subject matter. Jill Bogard, 53, of Washington D.C., who went on a Smithsonian walking tour of Tuscany in September, says her fellow travelers were from all over the country. "They tended to be educated," she says. "They wanted to know the history of the place and a sense of the culture."

Finding out about available trips requires some legwork, as there is no master list of museum-sponsored travel programs. Some institutions provide limited information on their Web sites, but you still may need to use the site's search engine, or call the museum directly.

If you have a specific cultural or scientific interest, check out specialized museums. For aficionados of Eastern art, the Society for Asian Art, which is affiliated with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, is planning a May trip to Japan where travelers will visit potters, basket weavers, paper makers, and other artisans in small towns. In May, the Jewish Museum in New York will be hosting a trip called "The Jews of Ireland."

If a particular trip catches your eye, examine a detailed itinerary before signing up. "Even if you have a focused interest in art, you need to look at the trip carefully because you may not want to spend all of your time in art museums," says Smithsonian Journey's Kotkin. Prospective travelers also should ask about the tour leader. In many cases, a museum will not send its own curators or scientists but will arrange for an outside expert, such as a professor with extensive knowledge of the destination and subject.

Museums usually work with travel firms to make arrangements, including providing local guides. Make sure that the museum has customized the trip instead of simply putting its imprimatur on an off-the-shelf program. "You want to know if the people in the institution are creating the trips and seeing through all of the details of the program," says Stevens.

Though museum trips are expensive, sailing by clipper ship around New Zealand with a world-class zoologist on board or walking through Rome with an art historian by your side may well be worth the admission price.

By Susan Garland

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