Amazing museums are everywhere, and one of the best places to find them is on college campuses. It makes sense—not only do you have a built-in population of people looking to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around them, but a number of colleges were also founded by explorers or entrepreneurs who collected items during their travels. Many collections are also the result of donations from successful alumni who have chosen to bequeath their estates or specific items to their alma maters.
In Elkins, WV, for example, the Stirrup Gallery, located on the campus of Davis & Elkins College, houses an eclectic collection of items donated by Hosea M. Darby, a successful architect and builder who gave his home and collection to the college in 1943. The museum is home to more than 10,000 items ranging from prehistory to the Civil War, including one of the top five collections of powder horns in the United States as well as one of the top 20 Roman coin collections in the world. Weapons collectors will appreciate the 100-gun firearm collection, and those with more eccentric tastes, like me, will find much to admire—where else can you pose beside an ivory narwhal tooth or hold a handmade armadillo basket? What’s really surprising is that this collection, including more than 800 items of original Indian pottery dating from 100 B.C. still exists—for years it was stored in closets and empty rooms on campus before finally being amassed into its present location in the Myles Center for the Arts.
At the Palmer Museum of Art, located on the Penn State campus, visitors can enjoy an eclectic collection that includes everything from ancient Peruvian ceramics to Italian Renaissance paintings to modern American photography, and that’s just a start. You know even before you enter the museum that it’s going to be a little different; two large bronze lion paws created by Pittsburgh sculptor Paul Bowden perch on pedestals outside its doors, a somewhat fanciful tribute to the stone lions that you often see outside public buildings. Visitors can wander through 11 galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden at the Charles W. Moore-designed building, as well as attend any of the nine rotating exhibits each year—and it’s all free. I was especially taken with a Vik Muniz digital C-Print entitled Sarah Bernhardt, from Rebus (2010); from a distance, it looks like a painting, but up close, you can see that the woman is made up of thousands of small toys including dominos, chess pieces, Legos, toy soldiers and more. If you’re in State College, PA, this is definitely a museum you shouldn’t miss.
For fans of Appalachian folk art, the Art Museum of West Virginia University, located on the Evansdale Campus in Morgantown, WV, is a must-visit; it’s only been open a little more than a year, but has already amassed a very impressive collection of local and regional art. The first thing you’ll notice—because there’s absolutely no way to miss it—is a two-story high, red, black and white mural by twin brothers How and Nosm, who have earned a reputation for creating large-scale graffiti art. The gallery showcases work from self-taught artists in Appalachia, and what I particularly liked was that profiles of the artists were included alongside the work; the descriptions gave a lot of insight into the artists’ backgrounds and what influenced their art, which includes carvings, paintings, textiles and "found art" sculptures.
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