Up for a terrific tri-city museum tour? Three new museums in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Jamestown, are worth the trek to western New York. First, learn the fascinating history of the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape to freedom across the Niagara River in Niagara Falls. Then travel half an hour to Buffalo where “it’s a new day for play” at the massive four-storey $29-million children’s museum. After another 90-minute drive, you’ll land in the small town of Jamestown, home of comedy queen Lucille Ball, who inspired the creation of the world’s first museum devoted to comedy.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
Voted one of the Top 10 new attractions in America in 2018 by USA Today, this experiential museum is situated on the Canada-U.S. border and documents the importance of the Niagara River as a crossing point for slaves. It tells the story of the lesser-known, mostly anonymous, “conductors,” who played a pivotal role in helping freedom seekers escape to Canada. These heroes included African-American waiters—former slaves who became free men—who worked at luxury hotels in the city and formed the core of Underground Railroad activism during the early to mid-1800s. They helped guide the slaves of southern hotel visitors to the base of the American Falls and into small rowboats for the short but perilous journey to Canada—it was a dangerous ride since bounty hunters and federal agents regularly patrolled the area. Boats were the only way to get across the river (although some desperate slaves attempted to swim) until the Suspension Bridge (now the Whirlpool Bridge) was built in 1848. Harriet Tubman, known as the “Moses of her people,” helped steer fugitives to Canada across this wooden suspension bridge, often by hiding them in fruit wagons and railroad cattle cars.
The museum inspires visitors to consider the modern-day injustices that stemmed from slavery and features photos of leaders such as Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who have fought for a more equitable world in its emotionally moving “Freedom Gallery.”
Buffalo’s Explore & More Children’s Museum
This is one museum that takes play seriously. There are four floors to explore and seven educational play zones with hands-on exhibits, many of which detail the unique aspects of Buffalo. In the Moving Water zone, kids are introduced to the history of the city’s waterways, starting with a two-storey waterfall that cascades into a water table where they can learn about the Erie Canal, how locks work and how electricity is produced. In the Farm to Fork zone, children are shown how to plant and harvest and can load a small-scale truck to take produce to the market. There’s even a life-size model of a cow with rubber udders that shoot out water and lets kids try their hand at milking. Children can nurse teddy bear patients back to good health in the hospital station and spend time in an art studio, cooking gallery and “Tinkering Tank,” a giant workshop complete with pint-sized tools.
The museum celebrates the people that have helped put Buffalo on the map, including one Belva Lockwood, the first woman to campaign for president— in 1884.
Starting in January 2020 the museum will install an indoor treehouse-style play area designed for all children—regardless of physical or developmental challenges. A wheelchair lift will allow kids with accessibility needs into the interior of the treehouse.
National Comedy Centre in Jamestown
Jamestown, New York, population 30,000, seems an unlikely spot for a $50 million museum of comedy, billed as the first of its kind in the world documenting the performers—from Charlie Chaplin to The Three Stooges to Ellen DeGeneres—who have made us laugh over the past 100 years. But it’s the birthplace of Lucille Ball who always dreamed of making her hometown a celebrated centre for the art of comedy. (A much smaller museum dedicated to Ball’s life and work has been operating in the city for almost 25 years and is located just three blocks from the new museum.)
The National Comedy Center offers an incredibly personalised interactive experience, allowing visitors to identify which comedians and shows they love and then storing this information on a computer chip in a wristband that’s worn throughout your visit, ensuring the experience is tailored to individual preferences.
Some of the entertainment is suited to grownups—the collection of artifacts includes Jerry Seinfeld’s famous “puffy shirt” and there’s a “Blue Room” with adult humour that’s off-limits to kids—but there’s plenty to keep school-age children amused, including the opportunity to create a cartoon, add sound effects to movies, make a meme, insert themselves into the classic chocolate-factory “I Love Lucy” scene, try their hand at reading a stand-up script on stage, play with props such as chattering teeth and whoopee cushions, add sound effects to film clips and play Laugh Battle where the person who laughs last wins.
TIME magazine named the centre “one of the world’s greatest places” and Condé Nast Traveler says it’s “one of the best museums in the country.” You’ll want to give yourself at least four hours to explore the 37,000 sq ft of exhibition space. And just like the best of comedians, this museum will leave you laughing all the way home.
The author travelled to western New York and was a guest of Visit Buffalo Niagara and Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau.