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Rethinking the modern museum

For some of us, the thought of visiting a museum brings back memories of standing passively in front of exhibits, carefully or perhaps cursorily examining a painting or artifact before filing solemnly to the next display case.

But increasingly, museums are providing their patrons with much more to do than just look at collections. While art or relics may still be the primary reason to visit a museum, there is no need to worry that you will get bored just standing around trying to read yet another tiny wall plaque. Scavenger hunts, snowshoe treks, teddy bear teas, art-making sessions, concerts, films, and basket-weaving classes are just a sampling of the extra activities that local museums now offer.

Howard Mansfield examines a John Singleton Copley paining during the "full moon tour"

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Howard Mansfield examines a John Singleton Copley paining during the "full moon tour"

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For example, at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, snowshoeing is a perennially popular activity in the winter, when the museum provides professional guides to lead patrons around the grounds while also offering pointers on snowshoe technique.

“I think people enjoy the snowshoe tours because they offer a unique perspective on deCordova’s Sculpture Park in the middle of winter,” said Julie Bernson, deputy director for learning and engagement at the museum. “Many people think of coming to see the Sculpture Park only in the warmer months, but the snowshoe tours offer an opportunity to see how spectacular it is in the snow in the middle of winter. Seeing the sculptures with snow as the background changes how we experience them.”

At the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, snowshoeing is also an option for winter visitors, but so is sledding and cross-country skiing on its gently sloping grounds. Those who prefer to stay indoors may attend this winter’s “Food for Thought” film series, which features four documentaries exploring current issues along with soup made by a local chef. Fruitlands also provides hands-on courses in book binding, drawing, and basket weaving.

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Gore Place, once the home of an early 19th-century Massachusetts governor, Christopher Gore, has a long tradition of extending its offerings beyond the elegant Federalist mansion that is its centerpiece to the surrounding grounds. Visitors who wish to spend some time traversing the Waltham property on foot or by snowshoe can opt to sign out an explorer’s backpack full of tools and clues for exploring the outdoors.

Another popular event at Gore Place is the regularly scheduled moonlight tours, where the lights are turned off and visitors can imagine life in the mansion for the governor’s family — and household staff — in the days prior to electricity.

“We know that once people come to Gore Place, they love it, but we also know that a mansion tour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” said Thom Roach, the facility’s director of programs. “That’s why we offer a variety of ways that people can experience the mansion, farm, and grounds. Even the people who already love touring historic houses appreciate special themed tours like ‘Living in the Dark.’ It gives them the chance to come back and experience the mansion in a new light.”

The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham takes exploratory learning a step further with its Hidden History Tour, a self-guided letterboxing-style adventure in which participants are given a list of clues that they can follow all over the city to find hidden treasure boxes with stamps inside.

Danforth Art in Framingham believes that the best way to foster an appreciation of art in young children is to give them plenty of opportunities to make something themselves. So the Danforth holds “Drop Into Art” family events the first Sunday of every month, when patrons of all ages can take part in art projects that reflect the theme of one of the museum’s current exhibitions.

“Education director Pat Walker and I see this as a wonderful opportunity to merge museum and studio art activity, making Danforth Art a special place where art can be both viewed and created,” said Katherine French, the museum’s executive director. Staff and volunteers oversee the projects and offer guidance when needed, but for the most part the guest artists are allowed to let their creativity run wild.

The Concord Museum, on the other hand, takes a more refined approach, inviting young visitors to beat the winter blahs of late February by bringing their favorite stuffed animal along to a Teddy Bear’s Tea, at which they can partake of old-fashioned elegance while sipping tea and sampling sweets. The museum also offers an afternoon tea throughout February and March for adults.

Clinton’s Museum of Russian Icons is a treat at any time, with its stunning collection of Russian religious art, dolls, and samovars, but the occasional concert series is an added attraction. On Saturday, clarinetist Georges Devdariani and soprano Maria Lyudko celebrate the 400th anniversary of the start of the Romanov dynasty with a concert that includes ancient Russian church chants; works in honor of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great; romances by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff; and music by Italian and French composers.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@ gmail.com.
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