See that colorful sculpture above? That's more than art, that's a coffin. It's part of the fantasy coffin collection created by Ghanaian sculptor Kane Quaye at the National Museum of Funeral History. That's one of the reasons we like Houston's small museums - they offer the unexpected. Sure the blockbuster shows by the big outfits in the Museum District are wonderful (art by Picasso, Charles Marville, Soto, along with giant dinosaurs, elaborate Egyptian sarcophaguses, collections of famed jewels, what's not to like?), but they aren't often off-beat. Small museums can afford to be off-beat. They have a specialized audience who already loves them. True, the admission lines at the smaller museums don't wrap around the block like they do occasionally at the big three, but that's part of their appeal - no long lines or wall-to-wall visitors.
There are lots of museums that didn't make this list; Czech Center Museum Houston, Houston Maritime Museum, the Police Museum. All of them interesting with unique offerings, but this is a list of the top ten so we had to narrow it down.
10. National Museum of Funeral History 415 Barren Springs, 281-876-3063
The "A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins- Kane Quaye" exhibit is enough reason to visit the National Museum of Funeral History (the figures include a KLM airliner, Mercedes Benz, fish, canoe, leopard, chicken, bull, crab, eagle, lobster, shallot and Yamaha outboard motor). Add to that the collection of ornate hearses, the display of antique embalming equipment, the history of Popes' funerals and a really good bash at Halloween and on the Day of the Dead, and the museum earns its reputation as a must-see stop in Houston. The museum's slogan is "Any Day Above Ground Is a Good One." Come on, that's a pretty good slogan.
9. The Printing Museum 1324 W. Clay, 713-522-4652
The Printing Museum (which recently changed its name from the Museum of Printing History), is somewhat less macabre than the Funeral Museum, but it has wonderfully varied and rotating exhibits that make it worth a regular visit.
There are the expected antique printing press, newspapers from the turn of the 19th century and the like but it's the fact that the museum mixes those with etchings, photographs and prints from contemporary artists that gives it extra depth and context.
Along with exhibits, the museum offers workshops and classes. There's a printmaker as an artist-in-residence.
8. San Jacinto Museum of History Few museums can boast a battleground location, but the San Jacinto Museum of History can. It's located on the site of the Battle of San Jacinto (1836, you know the one where Texas won its independence and all that?) The museum has rotating exhibits of artifacts from the early and mid-1800s that were found on the grounds or nearby (see the Moore gun above). The film Texas Forever!! The Battle of San Jacinto screens every hour. The Museum makes up the first floor of the San Jacinto Monument and next to the Battleship Texas. Pack you lunch and make a day of it.
7. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum 1834 Southmore, 713-942-8920
Ever heard the expression "I'm gonna get me some grub?" Chances are you never thought about it much but Captain Paul Matthews, of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, can explain the origin of the saying and he often does as he gives tours to school kids and history buffs.
"You see those holes there in the biscuits? That's where bugs and grub worms would crawl into," explains the upbeat Matthews. "And what did those bugs and grub worms give the soldiers? Protein! Where do you think 'I'm gonna get me some grub' comes from? You're looking at it right there!" says Matthews, who has a gift for tying pop-culture references ranging from slang to Tupac Shakur. He's captivated by - and more importantly captivating about - the Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American fighting regiment that was active from 1866 to 1951. The Museum won our MasterMinds Award in 2012 for its outstanding work and vision.
6. The Heritage Society 1100 Bagby, 713-655-1912
The Heritage Society Museum is just one of the components located in the complex it calls home. There's also Sam Houston Park (one of the prettiest spots downtown), and a collection of historic homes (there's the Yates House originally owned by the Reverend Jack Yates and the Nichols-Rice-Cherry House, one-time home to William Marsh Rice).
The museum has a standing collection of artifacts from life in Texas in the 19th century and has frequent touring exhibits. In the past, the museum has played host to an exhibit about Houston's earliest restaurants, antique dolls and a collection of antique glass bottles found in the Houston area.
5. The John C. Freeman Weather Museum 5104 Caroline, 713-529-3076
The Gulf Coast has a history of extreme weather, from Hurricane Carla to Hurricane Ike, so it makes sense that we have the country's first weather museum, don't you think? We think of the John C. Freeman Weather Museum as the little museum that could. Sitting in the shadow of its bigger, shinier cousins, the Weather Museum is housed in what was once a private two-story home with each of the downstairs rooms dedicated to a weather topic such as the Cyclone Room, the Weather Wizard Corner and WRC TV Studio (where visitors can become faux meteorologists and tape themselves delivering an emergency conditions weather report).
4. Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts 6815 Cypresswood Drive, Spring, 281-376-6322
The Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts has proven its dedication to local artists and collectors. Many of its exhibits are based on the private holdings of local residents such as "Northwest Houston Collects: Selections from the Home of Ginger and Fred Palumbo," an exhibit of paintings by two Texas artists, Emma Lou Powell and Diana Powell, grandmother and mother respectively of collector Ginger Palumbo. We've also seen "Wetlands Portfolio: Photography of Joel K. Barr," a selection of images by Lone Star College professor. The building might not be as impressive as its Museum District cousin, but it's a lot less imposing, too.
3. Houston Museum of African American Culture 4807 Caroline St., 713-526-1015
The Houston Museum of African American Culture is perhaps the most improved museum on this list. There was a time when it had little programing or much in the way of exhibits. That's changed. Director John Guess, Jr. has snagged prime touring exhibits such as the spectacular "Ellen Kaplowitz Kingdom of Gold: Photographs of Ghana" exhibit. The museum's focus is on African American culture but it works to include people of all backgrounds and cultures. There's a good film series at the museum.
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2. Holocaust Museum of Houston 5401 Caroline, 713-942-8000
The Holocaust Museum of Houston has perhaps the most somber mission of all the museums on our list; to eradicate hate and prejudice. It has a permanent exhibition, "Bearing Witness: A Community Remembers," which includes artifacts, photographs and film footage document life in pre-war Europe, the Holocaust and its aftermath. Among the items on display are a 1942 Holocaust-era railcar and a 1942 Danish rescue boat. Art exhibits bring the story of the Holocaust to life in a different way, with paintings, drawings and sculpture by survivors, their children and others inspired by the Nazi's "Final Solution." Past shows include exhibits by Samuel Bak and Hans Molzberger.
1. The Station Museum of Contemporary Art 1502 Alabama St., 713-529-6900
The Station Museum of Contemporary Art won our respect and admiration with exhibitions of international artists such as Mel Chin's "Do Not Ask Me" in 2006, the group show "Iraqi Artists in Exile" in 2008 and Andrei Molodkin's "Crude" in 2011. More recently the museum has focused on local artists, and that has only helped it rise in our estimation. There was the 2012 exhibit "HX8 (Houston Times Eight)," the first in a series of shows by local painters, photographers, sculptors and videographers including Daniel Anguilu, Forrest Prince, Floyd Newsum and Prince Varughese Thomas. That was followed by the show "Call It Street Art, Call It Fine Art, Call It What You Know," which built on "HX8" with work by street artists Skeez181, DUAL, The Death Head, ACK! and KC Ortiz. "Collective Reaction: 7 Exhibitions" is currently on view until mid-August.