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Colleges offer plenty to see and learn tuition-free

Go to Babson. See the world.

It’s a catchphrase seemingly more suited to a travel guide than a college guide.

But Babson’s Wellesley campus is home not only to a top business school, but also to a three-story, 25-ton depiction of Earth — once the largest, and still one of the largest freestanding globes on, well, the globe — free and open to the public.

New England’s myriad colleges and universities conceal countless treasures like this, from landmarks and historic sites and gardens and greenhouses to collections of mounted dinosaurs, culinary objects, ship models, items from Arctic explorations, space flight, and politics, Civil War photographs, Stalinist-era murals, military art, musical instruments, and Hollywood memorabilia.


Most are free and open to the public, and summer is the best time to see them, when the campuses are lightly populated, less visited, and there may be more parking. But don’t wait; higher education’s financial spiral may someday make campuses less accessible, or compel admission charges. Brandeis already infamously tried to sell its art collection; the resulting outcry at once showed what colleges and universities are up against and how much people value what they offer.

New England college and university art museums rival some of the best in the world. Some of their quirkier holdings, however, are less well known and equally worth the trip.

The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, for instance (closed for inventory but reopening in September), has the world’s largest collection of culinary objects, from a ring used by a baker to put his seal on fresh loaves of bread in 67 AD Pompeii to a 17th-century cannibal dish from Fiji — complete with a four-pronged flesh-picker — to the first electric toaster, sold in 1906, and even a description by the Earl of Sandwich detailing his invention of the luncheon food that bears his name. During an all-night card game, he writes, he asked for a second slice of bread to accompany his cold lamb so he wouldn’t get grease on the cards.


The nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., exhibits some of the spoils of war, including Mussolini’s telephone and a piece of Hitler’s desk swiped as souvenirs at the end of World War II. At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, there’s an archive of materials used in the Nuremberg trials after that war, with chilling photographs of evidence against the Nazis.

The world’s largest collection of military art, the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University in Providence, features prints, drawings, and watercolors by ordinary soldiers and official wartime artists of the D-day flotilla converging on the beaches of Normandy, sketches of a German prisoner-of-war camp by a pilot shot down over Munich, and an album of works painted by a French soldier on the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

President Lincoln’s rough draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and a death mask taken after his assassination are at the John Hay Library, also at Brown (and also closed until September, for renovations), one of the largest collections of materials relating to Lincoln and named for the alumnus who served as Lincoln’s personal secretary. (It also has one of the world’s largest collections of comic books.) A piece of the skin of the Spirit of St. Louis autographed by Charles Lindbergh is in the principal depository of Lindbergh’s papers, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, in New Haven, which also has the tie he wore on his trans-Atlantic flight. Yale’s Collection of Musical Instruments has Marie Antoinette’s harpsichord. And Benjamin Franklin’s telescope and a compass owned by Galileo are in the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, hidden in the basement of a science building.


Boston University is all about 20th-century celebrities, including Hollywood and Broadway stars. It holds Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes, the laurel wreath Claude Rains wore in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” Rex Harrison’s Tony Award for “My Fair Lady,” and Gene Kelley’s Oscar for “An American in Paris.” Bette Davis, who grew up in Somerville and Newton, contributed her school report cards and her leather-bound copy of the “All About Eve” script, opened to the party scene in which she says: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

You’ll find the largest institutional collection of western Mexican tomb figures in the United States at, of all places, the University of Maine at Orono — large ceramic figures buried with the dead between 300 BC and 200 AD. The Amherst Center for Russian Culture at Amherst College has Stalinist-era murals. The Middlebury College Museum of Art in Middlebury, Vt., boasts a unique collection of early experimental photography, including an 1851 daguerreotype of the moon. And in Hanover, N.H., the Dartmouth University Rauner Special Collections Library has the anomometer reading from the world’s greatest gust of wind: 231 miles per hour, recorded on Mount Washington on April 12, 1934.


Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is home to the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to the Arctic and polar regions, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, named for two alumni who were the first to reach the North Pole. It has one of the five sleds they took with them and their snowshoes, pickaxes, fur clothing, photographs, personal journals, maps, and instruments. Clark University in Worcester displays the gawky metal tower faculty member Robert Goddard used to launch the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket — and the space age — along with nozzles and fins used on later Goddard rockets, some with tin cut from coffee cans, and a copy of his autobiography that was taken to the moon.

The MIT Museum has, among other things, the world’s largest collection of holograms. Artifacts chronicling famous MIT pranks, which were previously in the museum, are now on display a few blocks away, in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center. And the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School is one of the world’s greatest collections of medical rarities, including 1898 X-rays of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, showing not only the Russian imperial couple’s hands but the jewelry they were wearing, early foam rubber breast implants, and a colony of the mold from which the first penicillin was developed.

One of the world’s best, and nation’s oldest, collections of ship models, the Hart Nautical Gallery, is hidden in the maze of buildings that is MIT, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne displays a room-sized Lucite “ocean” with 95 ship models depicting 100 years of shipbuilding, including the Thomas B. Landers, the world’s first seven-masted schooner; because there weren’t enough nautical names for seven masts, the sailors named them the days of the week.


Into politics? The congressional office of the late five-term House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill has been reassembled at his alma mater, Boston College. The robe and desk of the first Jewish justice of the US Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis, are on display at the university named for him. And Williams College in Williamstown is the only place outside the National Archives that has original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Some university and college campuses are best enjoyed outdoors. Wellesley’s 15 linked greenhouses simulate every climate on earth, from desert to rain forest. The greenhouses at Smith College in Northampton hold 2,500 types of plants, and are encircled by Frederick Law Olmsted gardens. Back on the Babson campus is a tree grown from a branch of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree; founder Roger Babson attributed the boom-and-bust cycle of the modern economy to Newton’s law of action and reaction, and also imported his study, now in the school’s Horn Library, from the physicist’s home in London.

There’s one campus where the view is the thing that’s not to be missed. Tufts has turned the roof of its library into a garden, and it has extraordinary views of the Boston skyline. It’s free and open to the public.

And these are the kinds of tourist attractions that might teach you something.

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.