Want to take a trip to a distant country, to the far reaches of outer space or even back in time? Good museums can take you there, which is why groups love to visit them. The wealth of knowledge and inspiration museums provide make them a hallmark of group itineraries and tourism in general.
Some museums even offer chances to delve deeper into their collections. At these museums across the country, VIP tours, behind-the-scenes exclusives and other special programs allow groups to explore beyond the typical museum tour.
Musical Instrument Museum
The Musical Instrument Museum, also known as MIM, opened in 2010 in Phoenix. The only global instrument museum, its collection represents over 200 territories and countries. Instruments from all over the world are displayed and can be seen and heard in their original cultural contexts, through video and audio recordings.
In addition to self-guided tours, the MIM offers a VIP tour, which divides groups into smaller groups so they can go behind the scenes.
“It’s led by a specially trained museum guide, so people can ask questions,” said Ida Jones, group sales specialist at MIM. “It’s much more intimate and it includes the places not accessible to the public.”
The VIP Tour covers how and when MIM was founded and the process behind creating exhibits, from signage to displays. The tour also goes backstage at MIM’s world-class music theater, to see its sound system, lighting control booth and distinct architecture. Then, it’s off to the conservation lab, where groups hear about how each of MIM’s instruments are acquired and valued. Sometimes the museum’s conservator is in the lab and can answer questions about an instrument’s restoration.
Following the tour, groups can visit the galleries, which are organized by geographical region, and try their hand at playing instruments in the Experience Gallery.
Galveston Naval Museum
The Galveston Naval Museum is home to two retired marine vessels, the USS Cavalla and the USS Stewart. The USS Cavalla, known as the Avenger of Pearl Harbor, was an attack submarine in World War II; the USS Stewart is one of two remaining Destroyer Escorts from World War II and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Both vessels are rich in history and remembered for their heroic deeds and missions.
Educational tours are available to the public, and groups have a special option available to them: an overnight stay aboard the USS Stewart. At these Galveston Naval Museum sleepovers, groups arrive after the museum closes and have a VIP tour of both vessels. They see areas that aren’t normally open to the public, such as the kitchen, the restored bunks, the bridge in the USS Stewart and the conning tower of the USS Cavalla. Fans of military history and nautical vessels are sure to be enthralled.
“Walking through the museum without a tour guide you learn a lot,” said Anika Matthiessen, education program coordinator at the Galveston Naval Museum. “But having the one-on-one with the docent lets you ask questions. You get to sleep in an area and be in an area you don’t normally get to be in.”
After the VIP tour, groups can spend the night, sleeping in restored bunks in the USS Stewart. The museum will provide a television with movies to watch, and additional educational games and activities are led by staff. The ship’s kitchen can also be used for catered meals. Groups have until 9 the next morning to depart.
Ticonderoga, New York
On Lake Champlain, between New York’s Adirondack Mountains and Vermont’s Green Mountains, Fort Ticonderoga is an 18th-century fort first used during the French and Indian War and later during the Revolutionary War. Today, it is owned by a private nonprofit educational organization and operated as a living history site. Museum staff portray soldiers and perform the daily tasks as soldiers did when they were stationed at the fort. In addition to its historical demonstrations, the museum displays artifacts and weapons from the 18th century. Fort Ticonderoga is known for VIP and behind-the-scenes tours that are customized based on a group’s interests.
“Each experience is curated,” said Ryann Wiktorko, group sales manager and communications specialist at the Fort Ticonderoga Association. “We offer private guides if they request them. Then of course we can accommodate any behind-the-scenes interest.”
Six VIP tours and experiences are offered. One of the most popular is Ticonderoga Guns By Night, a nighttime demonstration of the firing of canons, muskets and other 18th-century weapons. Sunset cruises on Lake Champlain aboard the Carillon, a 1920s style boat, treat groups to lake views, cocktails and stories of the region’s military history. On the Arming the Redcoats tour, small groups handle authentic weapons and artifacts alongside the museum curator.
Other options include tours of the grounds and lectures with coffee and cocktails. Programs vary depending on group size, and museum staff are happy to curate programs.
American Civil War Museum
In 2013, the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy merged to create the American Civil War Museum, a collection of museum sites designed to educate visitors about the Civil War’s causes, course and consequences. The museum opened in 2019 and includes two sites in Richmond — the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar and the White House of the Confederacy — and another site in Appomattox.
Typical group visits are self-guided but can be elevated with an add-on or two. Each add-on lasts approximately 45 minutes and gives an in-depth perspective of some of the museum’s 500-plus artifacts.
“We’re always happy to work with groups and to structure the experience so it fits with what the group is interested in,” said Kelly Hancock, director of programs at the ACWM.
A guided tour of the museum sites is one possibility. A knowledgeable docent leads groups through the museum, giving a history lesson while pointing out relevant artifacts. If there’s a particular subject the group is interested in, the museum can be notified in advance so that the tour can be focused on that theme.
Another add-on at the Tredegar site is the Brown’s Island Tour, which takes visitors off site to Brown’s Island across the street from the museum. There, they learn about the history of the islands in the James River, including stories of boatmen, prisoners of war, the arrival of the Union Army and President Lincoln’s visit to Richmond.
“Visitors might not necessarily know to go over to that island across the street,” Hancock said. “It adds context to the visit to have one of these guided tours.”
Located at Pier 15 in the San Francisco Bay, the Exploratorium is an interactive art and science museum where visitors can immerse their senses. From baffling optical illusions to intriguing demonstrations of light and color, its bright and aesthetically appealing exhibits make the museum a hit with visitors of all ages.
And, when it closes for the day on Thursdays, the Exploratorium offers an opportunity for visitors 18 and older to enjoy the museum from 6-10 p.m. during After Dark Thursdays.
Groups can see the museum turn into a playground for adults as they sip cocktails and enjoy a museum-hosted lecture on topics that range from food and wildlife to physics. Programs and guest lecturers differ each week. After the program, there are 600-plus exhibits to explore, from the Tactile Dome — a maze the requires visitors to use all their senses except sight — to a large-scale kaleidoscope. The Bay Observatory Deck is good perch for bay watching; art installations like Buckyball, a 25-foot-tall LED-lit sculpture, brighten the night.