Read Before You Go (May 2017)

It’s common to want to know more about an artist or object on display after you’ve already seen them, but why not take a page out of the Boy Scouts’ playbook and be prepared.

Here are five exhibitions and two museum openings (some opening this month, others ongoing) paired with the books to read ahead of time to get the most out of your museum experience…


California: Designing Freedom
Design Museum (London, UK)
Opens May 24

The design influence of California is a bit inescapable—iPhone in your pocket, succulents on the windowsill, artisan juice shops down the street, festival fashion, and much more—so it’s no wonder its getting its own museum exhibition. London’s Design Museum tackles the state’s influence through the lens of the myriad ways in which it espouses freedom: Frank Gehry’s architecture, Snapchat glasses, self-driving cars, pop art, rainbow flags, etc.

Read Before You Go: California is a big state, so it is difficult for one book to entirely capture its ethos, but Where I Was From by Joan Didion does an admirable job exploring the roots of the state’s drive for self-sufficiency. Emma Cline’s much buzzed about novel The Girls paints a picture of Manson-era Sonoma County, while Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore deals with some of the tech scene’s mentality.

The American Writers Museum (Chicago, IL)
Open Now

This museum dedicated to the craft of American writers has finally opened on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, but it is a far cry from the image of stuffy libraries or archives. With over 11,000 square feet of exhibition space, they have clearly tried to incorporate all the bells and whistles of a modern museum experience—pushing a plaque for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking releases a waft of fresh baked cookies into the air—and overall gives off a populist rather than high-brow vibe.

Read Before You Go: Reread anything by your favorite American author, or perhaps a book about American writers like Hothouse, which explores the compelling history of publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Author biographies are another great choice: try Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s examination of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls, which tackles Walt Whitman and American’s early bohemians.

The Western: An Epic in Art and Film
Denver Art Museum (Denver, CO)
Opens May 27

Through 160 works, this exhibition tries to take a deeper look at the Western genre, even discussing such issues as gender roles, race relations, and gun violence (sounds pretty relevant, huh?) that underlie our understanding of cowboys and the Wild West.

Read Before You Go: The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel goes behind the scenes of the famous John Wayne film, The Searchers.

Vikings: Beyond the Legend
Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver, CO)
Through August 13

Staying in Denver, check out the city’s science museum as they take on the one-dimensional image of the Vikings to get to know the rich culture and society that lay beyond the horned helmets.

Read Before You Go: Before you go “beyond the legend” with this exhibition, it might help to get to know the legend itself a little better. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is an easily digestible intro to the myths of Odin, Loki, and, of course, Thor.

After the Bees
Manchester Museum (Manchester, UK)
Through July

If you don’t know about colony collapse yet, you should, and what better place to start than at this exhibition that showcases the consequences of a world without bees.

Read Before You Go: The Bees by Laline Paull is sold with the lure of being The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games, but with bees! All hyperbole aside, it’s a taut little thriller set in a bee hive.

Museum of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, PA)
Now Open

As if you weren’t able to get your Revolutionary Era fix in Philadelphia before, you really have no excuse now with the opening of this museum right on Independence Mall.

Read Before You Go: There are more than enough good reads about the American Revolution, but perhaps you can use this as an excuse to finally getting around to reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biographies on Hamilton or Washington. If those are too daunting for you, consider Sarah Vowell’s humorous look at the Revolutionary Era with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style
Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Opens May 20

Because summer is approaching and summer means travel, why not look back to a time when getting from here to there was a little more glamorous than middle seats and long security lines.

Read Before You Go: Transatlantic by Stephen Fox is a nonfiction look at Cunard and the age of the great Atlantic steamship. If fiction is more your speed, try The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, which explores a great ocean journey from the perspective of a young, lower-class passenger.