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An overwhelmingly large painting in an overwhelmingly large museum. We need a change of pace!

The Louvre. The British Museum. The Smithsonian. Huge names. Huge museums.

Sometimes, they really are too much. And it’s easy for them to dominate your attention. But today I want to encourage you to look for the little museums in your travels.

When I pay to go somewhere, it’s easy for me to feel like I’ve obligated us to look at Every. Last. Thing. And then, before we’ve realized it, we are spending all our time in dimly lit halls, peering at who-knows-what.

I’ve learned to look for the small museums for get our “fix” for the vacation. As a bonus, it’s far easier to get my crew to agree to an hour or two in a museum rather than a very daunting “Let’s spend the day!” On the way, we’ve learned that the out-of-the-way museums can offer experiences that the big guys can’t compete with.

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Darcy gets ready to help with the glass blowing.

Off-beat topics: One favorite is the Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts. We almost drove right past it, and what a loss that would have been. The kids got to blow glass themselves, and we got an up-close look at the whaling industry and life on Cape Cod through a nearly-extinct industry. The size of the museum meant it only took about an hour, maybe slightly more, but the docents were so enthusiastic about their subject you couldn’t help but get interested.

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Truly shocking that she didn’t have nightmares for days after this one!

Odd locations: How about under the streets of Paris? We explored the catacombs of Paris with the kids, complete with ossuaries and chapels. A larger museum couldn’t have accommodated the creep factor we had in that place!

Singular focus: While the kids haven’t been to this one, Bill and I love the Picasso museum in Barcelona. The emphasis is on Picasso’s training and painting process, and you can tackle the whole thing in about 90 minutes. It’s a great introduction to his art. The Rodin museum in Paris is similar in its narrow focus and small size. Most of these small museums have to limit their collection to only one or two big ideas, which makes their exhibits easy to grasp and remember.

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At the Tennessee Aquarium.

A regional approach: My favorite aquarium is lovely Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which we prefer even over the local, and world-famous, Georgia Aquarium. Chattanooga’s offers a real focus on the waters of the Southeast in a way that you can cover in a couple of hours. It’s thoughtfully arranged to guide you through their various exhibits. It doesn’t try to impress you by being the biggest or the showiest. It just presents what it knows and loves, and does it very well, giving us tons of local flavor. (ha, not fish flavor!)

Star treatment: Small museums typically have just a couple of super-star items, where a huge museum might have stack after stack of mummies or Monets. The Michael C. Carlos Museum has a wonderful antiquities collection and is one of my local favorites. They have about eight or so mummies, and each one is treated like a star. In larger museums these remains of less-famous people might rate barely a glance, but here they get top billing. And we get a chance to see these antiquities without huge lines, up close and personal.

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The V&A. Not small, but you can make it small by being smart in how you see it.

Another way to break a bigger museum down is to just take a look at one or two special exhibits. The girls and I did this at the Victoria and Albert in London. The V&A specializes in the decorative arts (my favorite) but we decided to only attend the special wedding dress exhibit they had going on. It was really beyond wonderful, and even my non-fashionistas loved it. We had decided up front that we really weren’t going to look at anything else that day, and we ended up creating our very own small museum inside the quite large V&A. I’m not sure I would have had the heart to do this at the Louvre, but this would be a great approach to take at the Smithsonian!

There are so many more museums I could list, but I’d love to hear about your favorite small museum.