As befits a city with a long history of innovation, culture and notable residents, there are dozens of fabulous museums in Rochester and the surrounding area. There are the collections that you might expect – like the Memorial Art Gallery – and less obvious ones such as the Jell-O Gallery in the nearby village of Le Roy (this is where the popular American dessert was invented). There are museums in specially designed buildings that are almost exhibits in themselves, and others in historic houses. I managed to visit a few during my recent trip: this is just small selection of the many and varied museums of Rochester.
George Eastman Museum
It seems appropriate to start with the George Eastman Museum, as Eastman was so important to the history of Rochester. In 1888 he founded the Eastman Kodak Company which at its peak employed 60,000 people in the city. The company was designed as a way of making photography inexpensive and accessible to the general public, pioneering a series of early cameras with the slogan “You Press the Button, We do the Rest”. Eastman was also a great philanthropist, endowing several establishments in Rochester, mostly connected with music or education.
There are two distinct parts to the George Eastman Museum. The first is a specially designed section that houses the world’s oldest photography collection. It has a large selection of early cameras – not just from Kodak – as well as negatives, films, books and archival material. But it is not just about photographic process and equipment: there are also exhibitions of contemporary photography.
Adjoining the photography museum is George Eastman’s house, designed to his own specification between 1902 and 1905. The house and gardens are very grand, and occasionally eccentric. As you walk around you get glimpses of the man himself: two organs attest to his love of music, and an elephant’s head is a trophy from his later life interest in hunting. I was particularly interested in the room that had been turned into a Camera Obscura, and families will enjoy the Discovery Room with lots of activities for children.
Memorial Art Gallery
The Memorial Art Gallery is Rochester’s main art museum, covering more than 5,000 years of art history. For me the most interesting part was the ground floor with American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, and indigenous art from around the world, including Native American artefacts. I particularly liked the entrance hall with its imaginatively arranged selection of portraits of different eras and styles.
Upstairs is a collection of ancient, European and Asian art. This is an interesting collection, although perhaps not particularly impressive if you are familiar with European museums. Elsewhere there are temporary exhibitions: at the time of my visit there was an eye-catching mural entitled “Her Voice Carries”, an illustration of five influential Rochester women.
As you enter the museum have a look at the building: built in the early 20th century this was once a girls’ dormitory, part of the University of Rochester. Nearby is a small park with outdoor sculptures. And, if you’re hungry, you can enjoy a meal in the museum’s Brown Hound Restaurant.
The Strong National Museum of Play
The Strong National Museum of Play is a unique concept: a place where visitors can play, and learn about the importance of play – in education, in creativity, and in everyday life. Based around the personal collection of Margaret Strong, a Rochester resident who died in 1969, this is the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls and games.
The Strong Museum is an obvious destination for families, with lots of hands on displays. There is an old-fashioned fairground carousel, and a miniature Wegmans supermarket where children can load up their shopping trolleys and check them out at the register. There are playhouses and interactive exhibits: I particularly admired the giant walk through kaleidoscope.
But, as the inspirational quotes dotted around the museum remind you, play is not just for children. Unaccompanied adults can – and do – enjoy the museum. For myself, I was so busy playing the pinball machines and the video games that I forgot to take any pictures of them…
National Susan B Anthony Museum and House
A Quaker by birth, Susan B Anthony was devoted to a number of causes, including temperance and the abolition of slavery. But she is best known as a pivotal figure in the US women’s suffrage movement. The house in which she lived is now the Susan B Anthony Museum, and is dedicated to her life and work.
Visitors learn more about Susan B Anthony as they tour the house. They see the room in which she was famously arrested for voting in an election in 1872, and the rooms where she and her fellow campaigners worked. The house itself is interesting, as it has been painstakingly restored to be as close as possible to the home in which Susan and her sister Mary lived.
Make sure you leave time for a walk around the neighbourhood. The house is in a Preservation District, full of beautifully maintained buildings from the 19th century. Close by is Susan B Anthony Square, dating back to the 1830s. At the centre of the square is a large statue of Susan deep in conversation with Frederick Douglass, another social reformer.
Genesee Country Village and Museum
A little further afield, about 20 miles from Rochester, is the Genesee Country Village and Museum. This is a living history museum, the third largest in the US. Organised in three sections, the Village covers 600 acres and includes 68 historic buildings. The first part is the Pioneer Settlement (representing the era from 1780 to 1830), complete with working farmstead and heritage breed animals. Then there is the Antebellum Village, with mid-19th century buildings including churches, shops and a pottery. Finally there is a small area with buildings from the Turn of the Century.
Visitors can walk around the Village and chat to the staff who wear period costumes and carry on historic trades (we talked to a potter, a tinsmith and a woman who was busy bottling peaches). There are activities for families, and you can even spend a weekend here. When you’ve finished exploring stop in the Freight House for delicious cakes and pastries freshly made from traditional – and secret – recipes. Or enjoy a glass of beer or cider brewed on the premises.
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