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Hot Days, Cool Museums

A roundup of the 10 most innovative, air conditioned museums in the South.
By Rebecca Lynn Aulph

As summer temperatures continue to heat up, get out of the house and go to a museum that makes you say, “cool!” We’ve got one in each Southern state, featuring everything from Southern art to food and even cowgirls, and each promises to crank the air down low for as long as you want to stay inside.

The Charleston Museum

Commonly referred to as America’s first museum, The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773, when the British still called South Carolina a colony. It’s located in the downtown historic district of Charleston and is the most fashionable museum on our list. Charleston Couture (on display through November 4) and Seasonal Fashion—Summertime in Charleston (on display through August 26) are two exhibits Southern belles won’t want to miss this summer. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 3-12. Arrive fashionably late, if you like. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.

North Carolina Maritime Museum 

Located in Beaufort, the North Carolina Maritime Museum reads extra cool on our thermometer because it’s located in one of the coolest small towns, according to Budget Travel’s recent list. According to Claire Aubel, the museum’s information specialist, “The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort teaches visitors what’s so hot about the North Carolina coast.” Blackbeard landed here nearly 300 years ago, and museum visitors can learn more about the coast’s former pirates through artifacts from his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and take advantage of free admission. Say “Ahoy Matey!” weekdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays from 1-5 p.m.

National Naval Aviation Museum

Open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Florida’s most visited museum features nearly 350,000 square feet of air conditioned displays and is the world’s largest aviation museum. Not only is admission free, but free tours of this Pensacola museum, located at the Naval Air Station, are also conducted throughout the day. On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, the Navy’s Blue Angels hold practices at the naval air station, and the museum’s IMAX theater is one of the largest in the world, currently showing four films during museum hours.

Amazement Square: The Rightmire Children’s Museum

The only children’s museum to make our list, Amazement Square will amaze you with the tallest indoor climbing structure in the nation. Composed of slides, ladders, tunnels and a zipline, the Amazement Tower extends through all four floors of the museum. However, the illuminated staircase and glass elevator provide equally cool ways to tackle this riverfront Lynchburg,Virginia, museum, where anyone can enjoy Child’s Play, an exhibit of ancient toys from Egypt, Greece and Rome. Closed Mondays, Amazement Square amazes children and adults for $8 and seniors for $6, Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays from 1-5 p.m.

Birmingham Museum of Art

Founded in 1951, The Birmingham Museum of Art is celebrating its 6oth anniversary, and everyone’s invited to the party. There’s no need to bring a gift; general admission to the museum is free. While there won’t be clowns and magicians, Warhol and Cars: American Icons, the first exhibit to explore Andy Warhol’s fascination with America’s automotive vehicle consumerism, is on display through September 16. You can purchase your own party gift, a catalog of the exhibit, and enjoy a party game, a free audio tour of the exhibit with your own internet-enabled device. Bring your own headphones or purchase them at the museum. Celebrate at this Alabama treasure Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays from noon-5 p.m.

Extra cool: This museum has a world-renowned collection of Wedgwood china that is the largest outside of England! 

Southern Food & Beverage Museum

New Orleans’ Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) only celebrated its fourth anniversary this month, but the occasion received big recognition. The museum broke ground on a new larger location, where it will move next spring, and Forbes magazine included the museum in its “What’s New in New Orleans” list of  brand-new hotspots to keep visitors cool this summer. According to Kelsey Parris, the museum’s operations manager, “When you get tired of the swampy atmosphere of New Orleans, SoFAB’s an air-conditioned way to learn about the culture and foodways of the city. You’ll learn all about the history and significance of your next meal.” The museum serves up culinary knowledge with exhibits like Bayou Banh Mi, The Story of Coffee in New Orleans and an Absinthe Gallery Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sundays from noon-6 p.m. for $10. Children, students and military get in for $5 and AAA members for $8.

Telfair Museums

The oldest public art museum in the South, Telfair Museums is ordering everyone to gather their troops and head to Savannah this summer. Fans of Girl Scout cookies can come too and enjoy an exhibit that honors the 100-year anniversary of the Girl Scouts and their Founder Juliette Gordon Low. Juliette Gordon Low and her Contemporaries in Savannah’s Art Scene (on display through August 12) examines another side of the Girl Scouts founder. Low was not only a girls’ organizer, but also an arts’ organizer and artist. Admission to the museum’s three sites, which include two historic houses, costs $20 for adults and $18 for seniors, military and AAA members. While children under 5 get in free, a Family Pass costs $40. If you decide to bring your Girl Scout Troop, call 912-790-8800 for group rates. Telfair hours are Mondays from noon-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays from 1-5 p.m.

Extra cool: The Bird Girl statue, made famous in the book and movie version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” now resides here.  

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

Named in part for George E. Ohr, who called himself the “mad potter of Biloxi,” the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum was resurrected after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Artist and Architect Frank Gehry redesigned the museum’s three new buildings, which offer separate experiences connected by a shared brick plaza of live oaks, so the museum itself is a work of art. Its campus also includes the Pleasant Reed Interpretative Center, which illustrates how an African-American immigrant family lived in Biloxi during the “Jim Crow” Era. The museum and its galleries are open to the public Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students and $8 for AAA and military. Children 5 and under get in free. Click here to read our story about this museum’s 2010 opening.

Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Unlike some of the other museums on our list, Nashville, Tennessee’s Frist Center is a non-collecting art institution, which means it doesn’t house a permanent collection and welcomes new exhibits on a regular basis. On view now are Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial, accompanied by Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. Both exhibits celebrate folk and self-taught artists of Alabama and run through September 3. Admission is $10 for adults and $7 for college students, seniors and military. Visitors 18 and under get in free. The museum stays open seven days a week, Monday-Wednesday from 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday from 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1–5:30 p.m. Click here to find out more about Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and its legendary quilts.

National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

Last but not least, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame ranks third on True West magazine’s list of “Top Ten History Museums.” Located in Forth Worth, Texas, the museum’s collection documents the history of over 200 women who exemplify the American West and its pioneering spirit. The museum is home to one of the most extensive collections of artifacts related to women in the American West, and anyone can explore it for $5. Children 2 and under get in free. Plus, if you pay admission to this museum located in the city’s cultural district, you’ll receive half-off exhibit admission to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Get in the pioneer spirit and take a ride to this museum Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays from noon-5 p.m.

Extra cool: This museum also houses a research library of books, videos, archives and oral histories relating to the American cowgirl, open on weekdays on the second floor.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of museums, except Telfair by J. Campbell from Flickr. 


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