As we noted in part I of this blog post, Houston has a great range of interesting and captivating museums and galleries which we have enjoyed visiting over the years. Houston, the fourth largest city in the US by population, doesn’t have the reputation of being a tourist hub, but perhaps that perception now needs to be reviewed. With over a 150 museums and galleries in the Greater Houston area, there are plenty to choose from. Just make sure that you have the use of a car!
We hope that you enjoy the second half of our personal top twenty favourite museums and galleries in H-Town.
Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
We were lucky enough to visit the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern not long after it opened as a magnificent public space, which has gone on to house an ambitious program of changing art installations since 2016. The cistern is a former drinking water reservoir built in 1926 for the City of Houston. After operating for decades, an irreparable leak was discovered and after a few years, the reservoir was decommissioned in 2007. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership then decided to develop the cistern and re-purpose its 87,500 square feet (or the size of 1.5 football fields) into a completely unique art space. Even when there are no exhibitions, there are regular tours of the cistern, so there is always something for the visitor to see.
Our trip to the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern coincided with the performance of the inaugural exhibition, titled Rain: Magdalena Fernandez at the Houston Cistern. The artist projected geometric patterns across the 221 25-foot tall, slender concrete columns and accompanied this with a soundtrack of rain and thunder, which we found very effective, especially since the Cistern has an impressive 17-second echo. This exhibition finished in June 2017, but keep an eye on the Cistern's website for details of upcoming art installations.
*Update* - we were very happy to see that the Cistern has re-opened for public and private tours since June 3rd, 2020.
One of the most recent additions to Houston’s list of attractions is the Color Factory. Interactive and Instagrammable, this exhibit bursts with colours in designs by a variety of artists. The exhibit is complete with a ball pit, balloon room and ribbon room making it a great experience for all ages, as can be demonstrated by the massive smile on our two-year old’s face as well as my own! The self-guided exhibit typically takes about 60-90 minutes to walk through with dozens of photo opportunities. The Color Factory opened in 2018 with a month-long intended runtime, but its popularity has allowed it to stick around much longer. Make sure that you also partake in eating their exotic delicacies that complement the colourful scenes – macaroons, black ice cream, mochi ice cream etc, really add to the fun experience.
The Downtown Aquarium in the heart of Houston is part attraction and part restaurant. The aquarium’s exhibits include ‘Louisiana Swamp’, ‘Shipwreck’, ‘Rainforest’, ‘Sunken Temple’ as well as the ‘Discovery Rig’, where you can handle stingrays and horseshoe crabs. As well as the expected aquatic exhibits, this family friendly attraction also boasts a Ferris wheel and white tiger exhibit. The restaurant features a spectacular wall-to-wall aquarium view, which complements the surf-and-turf menu. Although we didn’t stop for a meal during our visit, we have previously eaten at its sister facility in Kemah and can recommend its food. During dinner, keep an eye out for scuba divers feeding fish in the restaurant-set tank!
National Museum of Funeral History
Don’t let the subject matter of National Museum of Funeral History put you off as this exhibition is very interesting and actually has several fun sections for visitors. The museum is also surprisingly large, covering 35,000-square-feet. We set aside an hour to walk round this museum, but found that we were having to rush some of the later parts of the presentation, so look to have at least an hour and a half to fully experience all that is on offer. The museum is home to the country's largest collection of funeral service artifacts and features renowned exhibits on one of man's oldest cultural customs. For its hallmark exhibit, Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes, the Museum collaborated with the Vatican to highlight the ceremonies surrounding papal funerals.
Our favourite exhibits, however, were ‘Icons in Ash’, which presents portrait artworks created with cremated ashes, and the eye catching ‘Fantasy Coffins’ of Ghanian artist Kane Quaye. The poignant and dignified ash portraits were created by artist Heide Hatry. Following the death of her father and a dear friend, Hatry had the inspiration to make portraits of them using their cremated ashes. The meticulous layering process that she refined over many months yielded an uncanny result, of depth, warmth, and presence. Meanwhile the colourful and fun coffins made by Quaye and his workshop include representations of a fishing canoe, eagle, bull, Mercedes Benz automobile, mother hen, leopard, fish (snapper, tuna), jumbo jet airplane, house, crab, and lobster. It seems a shame that they could be buried in a grave six feet under!
Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston, the Official Visitor Center of NASA Johnson Space Center, is Houston’s No. 1 attraction for international visitors. The museum boasts the largest collection of space artifacts in the southwestern United States, with more than 400 space artifacts including flown spacecraft, the largest collection of moon rocks on public display and multiple major seasonal exhibits a year. The highlight for us had to be the full-sized shuttle replica mounted on a shuttle carrier aircraft. Visitors can enter both vehicles and the exhibitions within gave us a sense of wonder. We also took the tram tour, which gives you access to various buildings of the Johnson Space Center, providing a really interesting behind-the-scenes look. The queues for this tour can get quite long, so we’d advise getting to the Space Center early and doing the tour first. The first stop of the tram tour is Rocket Park, where we saw one of only three of the remaining Saturn V rockets, which is a must see when visiting the center.
A trip to the Space Center Houston is easily a full day experience, especially if you have little ones with you. The center is in Clear Lake, which is at least a half hour drive from Downtown Houston. We combined our astronomical trip with a short drive (about ten minutes) to the Boardwalk in Kemah, where the fun was continued well into the evening, crammed as it is with restaurants and entertainment venues.
Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land
The Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land is a mini version of the main museum in central Houston and has a number of different themed halls. There is the Hall of Technology, the Life Science Hall, Ythan’s favourite – the Paleo Hall – with its dinosaur replicas and skeletons, and Discovery Works exhibition, which offers fun hands on displays which are great for kids.
Depending where you are staying in Houston, a trip to Sugar Land, which is now a city in its own right in the metropolitan area of Houston, could take anywhere between a twenty- and forty-minutes' drive. It may seem a little out of the way, but a trip to this museum can easily be combined with a visit to the Rosenberg Railroad Museum (see below), the Fort Bend Children's Discovery Center, George Ranch Historical Park and historic buildings at Fort Bend Museum, although seeing all five would probably take a couple of days.
Rosenberg Railroad Museum
The Rosenberg Railroad Museum preserves the railroad history of Fort Bend County. The exhibits at Rosenberg Railroad Museum include a comprehensive gallery of artifacts from the railroad’s past, as well Tower 17, and the 1879 Quebec business car. The highlight for our little apprentice train driver, however, was the large, red caboose, which you could enter (cabooses provided shelter for the crew at the end of a train and gave them a lookout to ensure the train carriages were moving in good order).
While in the small town of Rosenberg, make sure that you check out the quaint retro stores around 3rd Street, which is just around the corner from the museum. The murals around this area are also quite impressive. We can also recommend being transported back in time and eating at the Another Time Soda Fountain and Café, which is opposite the museum.
Holocaust Museum Houston
We debated including this museum on our list purely on the basis that we visited prior to its relocation and expansion within Houston’s Museum District. However, we are sure that if the new Holocaust Museum Houston is just a fraction of how informative and moving the original museum was, then it will be a must visit when travelling to Houston. The Holocaust Museum Houston focuses on the stories of Holocaust survivors living in the Houston metropolitan area. Two of the more significant exhibits are a 1942 World War II rail car of the type used to carry millions of Jews to their deaths, and a Danish rescue boat of the type used to save more than 7,200 Jews from almost certain execution.
Byzantine Fresco Chapel
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel is just a short walk from the Menil Collection and hosts regular art installations. The chapel, however, was originally built in 1983 to house two dismantled Orthodox frescoes which originally came from Cyprus. The frescoes were restored and put on display, but by 2012, it had been agreed to return the frescoes to Cyprus. On our last visit to the chapel, we were lucky enough to catch the Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project on display. This quirky presentation consisted of more than 450 reproductions of a lost 1885 painting of 4th century Roman Saint Fabiola by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner. The project was initiated by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs in the early 1990s and we were amazed by the small, but perceptible differences in each painting, which was reportedly an exact copy of the original.
Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall
The Dan Flavin Installation was unveiled at Richmond Hall just two days before his death in November 1996. It is a very simple artwork, consisting of many different coloured vertical fluorescent-light tubes, but is very eye-catching, with it being described as both a carnival and a cathedral.
Join us next time when our family adventures take us to the free Houston attractions post. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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