Museums Without Walls: Visit Art and History Outdoors

Museums Without Walls: Visit Art and History Outdoors

The North Carolina Museum of Art’s Museum Park presents art across 160 acres of fields, woodlands and creeks

There’s no shortage of things to do when you visit North Carolina, but when it’s time for a break from hiking and nature watching, gallery hopping and downtown shopping, surfing and sandcastle building, pay a visit to one of the many museums and historic sites across the state. All are excellent, but only some extend the exhibits out of doors.


Island Farm
Roanoke Island
Talk to costumed historians on this living-history farm on an Outer Banks island. Learn what daily life was like in the mid-1800s as you explore more than a dozen buildings including the farmhouse, a reconstructed slave cabin, the cookhouse, blacksmith shop, chicken coop and barns. If the season’s right, you may get the chance to help in the garden, weeding, watering, planting or harvesting crops.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Roanoke Island
Here, you can visit portions of the first English settlement in the New World and hear the mysterious story of the ill-fated Lost Colony, a group of 116 men, women and children who disappeared from this site in the 1580s. While you’re here, head next door and catch a performance of The Lost Colony, the longest-running outdoor drama in North Carolina.

Beaufort Historic Site
Beaufort, North Carolina’s third-oldest town, dates back to 1713, and in a 12-block area, you can visit Beaufort Towne, at the heart of which is the Beaufort Historic Site. A jail, apothecary and doctor’s office, courthouse and homes give visitors a sense of what the state looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearby is the Old Burying Ground, the town’s oldest cemetery.

Tryon Palace
New Bern
The home of Royal Governor William Tryon was completed in 1770, and today, visitors to the stunning Tryon Palace can explore the home, gardens and nearby North Carolina History Center. Costumed docents lead tours and historic interpreters perform a variety of daily tasks and interact with visitors. The gardens are magnificent and show what the palace was like in the time of Tryon and his governorship.

Battleship North Carolina
Across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington, you’ll find the Battleship North Carolina, a World War II battleship that’s a floating museum and monument to the service and sacrifice that came from that conflict. Walk along the deck, explore below decks to see where the men lived and worked, and come away with an appreciation for life onboard a battleship.


Art in the Park
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
At the North Carolina Museum of Art, you can visit some fantastic works in the museum, but outside, there are even more. Surrounding the main gallery are a number of sculptures (and the building itself is a work of art), but Art in the Park – nearly three miles of walking trails lined with sculptures and other artwork – is a must-see.

Prairie Ridge Ecostation
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh
In downtown Raleigh, you’ll find the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, a stunning museum filled with fossils, artifacts and hands-on science exhibits, but the nearby Prairie Ridge Ecostation is simply marvelous. This 45-acre Piedmont prairie includes grasslands, streams and ponds, a forest and several opportunities to grow a deeper understanding of the natural environment.

Discovery Place Nature
This museum gives kids and adults the chance to get close to nature with a Butterfly Pavilion, exhibits featuring a variety of insects, and the Paw Paw Nature Trail, which leads through a century-old forest. See wildflowers, barred owls, squirrels, turtles and more as you stroll the Nature Trail.

Old Salem Museums & Gardens
Walking along the cobblestone streets of Old Salem, surrounded by homes and gardens that date back to the original Moravian settlement, visitors will get a feel for life in this beautiful, hard-working town. Historic interpreters in period dress work in gardens and kitchens and tell visitors about daily life and the culture of early Moravian settlers and founders of Salem.


Cradle of Forestry
North Carolina is the birthplace of American Forest Conservation, and today, the Cradle of Forestry tells the story of this ongoing legacy. The Forest Discovery center gives visitors an overview of the history of forestry through interactive displays, but the Adventure Zone and Forest Festival Trail take visitors out into the woods to learn more about the forests.

Hickory Ridge Living History Museum
Learn firsthand what it took to carve out a place in the wilds and woods of the mountains at this museum. Here, historians in period dress give visitors a feel for the life of early mountain settlers as they go about a typical late-1700s day. Watch blacksmithing and candle-making in the act, taste some hearthside cooking and witness the daily chores it took to keep a homestead running. Built on the site of the outdoor theater for Horn in the West, the country’s oldest Revolutionary War drama, a visit here makes taking in the play a breeze.

Oconaluftee Indian Village
Tucked in the Smoky Mountains, the town of Cherokee is the ancestral home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and at the Oconaluftee Indian Village, you can experience what Cherokee life was like in 1760. Authentic dwellings and meeting halls, a number of artisans and craftspeople making everything from beaded belts to flint arrowheads to clay pots; ceremonial dances and countless Cherokee in traditional dress bring Oconaluftee to life. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Cherokee, stick around for a performance of Unto These Hills, a long-running outdoor drama that tells just that.

Jason Frye is the author of two North Carolina guidebooks and lives and writes in Wilmington.

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