The Museum of American Heritage

The Museum of American Heritage is a delightful little gem near downtown Palo Alto. It’s a beautiful historic home that’s been converted to a museum inside and a peaceful garden outside. There’s also a classroom space out back where they host special events. The volunteer docents were cheerful, kind, and knowledgeable, but didn’t hover as we explored the museum at our own pace. It’s one of those places that’s been around for a while, but even as a local, we somehow never knew about it. Now that we do, we will definitely be back!

What do they have there?

The museum is dedicated to showcasing innovations that shaped America from approximately 1750 to 1950. It reminds me somewhat of History San Jose, but on a more intimate scale. Here, each room of the house has a different focus. The kitchen is like a time capsule of early 1900s American home life. (Did you know built-in kitchen cabinets are a recent invention?) Other rooms showcase classic woodworking tools, a home office/study with a very cool old typewriter, and an old general store that reminds me of The Waltons.  As a designer, it was especially cool to see the old packages on the shelves and notice which brands/logos have evolved and which have remained nearly unchanged for a half-century or more.

While most of the museum is about looking, some parts are hands-on. Some of the woodworking tools are mounted on the wall so you can turn the cranks and see how they work. Next to the general store room is a room filled with Erector Sets and other building toys meant to be operated. There is also a kids’ hands-on play room near the study with a train table, children’s books, and a typewriter that’s meant to be used. Have your kids ever had a chance to see a manual typewriter?

Out back, there’s a print shop with several beautiful older printing presses which are demonstrated about once a week when the volunteer is there to run them. There’s also a garage with a beautifully restored Model T Ford from 1915!  The gardens outside have been restored to be historically accurate and include a 1942 “Victory Garden,” medicinal herbs, water-wise Mediterranean plants and gorgeous redwood trees. It would be worth going back in blooming season (rather than February) to see more of the gardens.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, a large front room houses rotating exhibits about American innovation. When we went, it was a fascinating display of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse’s work on electricity and their mutual rivalry along the way. This exhibit is gone now, but you can check out their website for the next topic. There’s always something new coming!

 

Beyond the museum itself, there’s a classroom space out back that hosts special events for children and adults, both on weekends and for field trips during the week. When we were there, they were having a big Lego building fest. Examples of other offerings include crystal radio building classes, science enrichment workshops, and public lectures. (Note: While the museum is free, some of these events are not.) Check out their events page for upcoming special events, annual events, and past examples.

Ages

Overall, this museum is not targeted at young children. I’d say 4th graders through adults would get the most out of this trip.

Location

The Museum of American Heritage is in Palo Alto at 351 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto, California 94301, just a couple blocks over from the main downtown space on University Avenue. (Here’s the map.) It’s about 20-30 minutes north of San Jose.

It’s directly across the street from Heritage Park and the not-yet-open Palo Alto History Museum.

It’s mostly on-street parking unless you’re there for a special event, in which case there are some spaces available behind the house. The on-street parking is free (but of course watch out for permits or time restrictions, since this is a neighborhood) but has no disabled slots. It would have been impossible to use the wheelchair lift in the place we ended up parking on the street. If you need disabled parking, the museum’s website says to call ahead (1-650-321-1004) to arrange for a spot in the back lot.

If you’re nearby, it would be easy to walk or bike here. If you need public transit, it looks like about a 12-minute walk from the CalTrain station or very close to a Route 35 bus stop. Keep in mind that the museum is usually only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 to 4, so time your trip accordingly. 

Weather

The museum is indoors, so it would be fun any day. Of course if you’re looking at the gardens, it would help to pick a non-rainy day, probably in spring or early summer to see the most blooms. (I’m the furthest thing from a plant expert, so call the museum to ask what’s blooming if you’re specifically interested in the gardens.)

Cost

There’s no admission fee for the museum (as of 2018), but a $5 donation per visitor is appreciated. School field trips or group tours have a small fee ($3-5) per person. You can also join as a member, which provides a large part of the museum’s funding and gets you special access to their events and newsletter.

Length of Time

Visiting the museum will take you about 1-3 hours, depending on how much detail you read in each exhibit and how long you want to spend in the gardens.

Wheelchair Access

The museum is entirely wheelchair accessible! This was a major surprise for a century-old home. I give big kudos to the museum operators for making this happen so naturally. There are clear signs about where to enter. (The wheelchair entrance is through the kitchen door from the side porch, which has a ramp, rather than from the front door, which has big stairs.) Inside the house, the whole museum is on the main floor and all the displays are wide enough for a wheelchair to navigate without issue. The print shop, garage, classroom, and gardens are also accessible. How delightful!

Vision & Hearing

Not surprisingly for a historical museum, many things are don’t-look-touch and some are protected under plexiglass. Even the hands-on parts are mostly about turning a crank or lever or switch and seeing what happens. For this reason, I think this museum experience would be rather limited for someone with a vision impairment. The lectures and workshops might be quite engaging, however.

For all the same reasons, it’s easy for someone with a hearing impairment to enjoy the museum. We found it to be pleasantly quiet (think of it as the exact opposite of something like The Tech) so there wasn’t even much background noise to filter out. I don’t know how this would work for the lectures or workshops; you’d have to contact the museum to find out.

Sensory Processing

This is a very calm museum, as you might expect from a century-old home. Its displays are visually interesting without being busy. It’s neat without being sterile. What stood out the most to me was actually the sensory simplicity of the displays. Whereas most museums these days seem to be trying to one-up each other on the flashy interactive big-screen displays, the information here is all done with nice little posters and plaques. Not only does this help with costs (since it’s a donation-based, volunteer-run museum), but I actually found it much easier to read the information that way. I really enjoyed getting to read the information at my own pace without bright flickering screens distracting at every turn!

Food

There is no gift shop or snack shack here, and no food or drink allowed inside the galleries (true of most museums), so plan to have lunch beforehand. The park across the street would be a great picnic spot in nice weather, or there are several restaurants nearby.

Would we go back?

You bet! We chose to visit this time because it was the last weekend of the Thomas Edison display, but we look forward to going back for future exhibits and maybe some of the special events. It will also be interesting to see the gardens at a different time of year. If you have a couple hours to spend on something interesting, the Museum of American Heritage will make you smile!

CuriOdyssey

CuriOdyssey at Coyote Point is a sweet little combination zoo and science museum. It’s a nonprofit that’s part of the Coyote Point Recreation Area. We particularly enjoyed the peaceful vibe in the zoo and the joy of the children in the science museum.

CuriOdyssey sign

In a Nutshell

Their zoo is small but diverse, including bobcats, eagles, skunks, otters, and other critters, most of whom came to them as rescue animals and cannot be re-released into the wild for various reasons. Because it is smaller than other zoos, you can get very close to the animals and talk freely with the docents and keepers. Although it doesn’t take as long or have as many animals as some of the Bay Area’s larger zoos, I found it to be just as satisfying of a visit because of this more personal feeling. It’s cozy.

CuriOdyssey zoo: owls

CuriOdyssey zoo: raccoons

CuriOdyssey zoo: golden eagle

Their science museum has very engaging hands-on exploration displays on various topics. Some are permanent and others rotate through over time. Check their website for a list of current exhibits. The target audience for this part appeared to be approximately ages 5-12, but I still had fun exploring them as an adult and many younger children were highly engaged as well.

CuriOdyssey science museum: child's hands in wet sand

CuriOdyssey science museum: gears

Location

Coyote Point is in San Mateo off Highway 101. It’s about 30-40 minutes north of San Jose.

Google map to CuriOdyssey

There’s a parking lot just outside the entrance to CuriOdyssey. If that’s full, there’s overflow parking in the lot near the marina. It’s a bit of a walk from that lot back up the hill to CuriOdyssey, but there is a wheelchair-accessible route you can use.

We parked in the overflow lot because the sign said the main lot was full, but when we got there, we found that there were two disabled slots open even though the rest of the lot was full. If you need disabled parking, the main lot would be worth a try even if the sign says it’s full.

Their website has specific directions for driving, biking, walking, or taking public transit. You can technically take CalTrain or SamTRANS, but it’s not a direct route at all and involves a pretty long walk from the station to the park.

Weather

I think almost any weather would work here. The zoo is about 2/3 outdoors and 1/3 indoors but is all heavily shaded and sheltered by big trees and enclosures, so it was comfortable even on a cold January day and would be fine on all but the hottest summer days. Just be sure to dress accordingly. I would imagine it could be less fun in the rain, but they do field trips year-round and just ask students to dress for the weather rain or shine, so maybe it would work. The science museum is entirely indoors so it would be comfortable anytime.

CuriOdyssey: redowod trees

Cost

When we visited (2018), the tickets were $12.50 for adults and less for children, students, and seniors. See their website for current pricing. There are also annual membership options.

Note: There was also a $6 per car admission/parking charge to get into the Coyote Point Recreation Area. (It’s a county park.) This is waived for CuriOdyssey members.

CuriOdyssey has reciprocal agreements with Happy Hollow, the San Francisco Zoo, and other local attractions, so if you have a membership somewhere else, you may get a discount on your CuriOdyssey admission. See the reciprocal agreement list for details.

CuriOdyssey: waterfall

Length of Time

This will take you a few hours to half a day. We finished the zoo and gift shop in about 2 hours and then walked through the science museum for a little while. (The exhibits looked fun, but as an adult, I couldn’t bring myself to push the happy 8-year-olds out of the way to get a turn, so I mostly observed.) If you have school-age children, you could easily spend another couple hours in the science museum part.

Wheelchair Access

Their website has information for guests with disabilities.

We found the zoo to be easily accessible. The science museum got a little crowded in places, but all of the walkways were wide enough to navigate without issue. Even the gift shop was uncluttered enough to roll through, which isn’t always the case in places like this.

Note: The accessible restroom is outside in the zoo area. The bathroom in the main museum building is wide enough for a stroller or wheelchair to wait in line but has no accessible stalls, so it would only work if you can walk a short distance and don’t mind leaving the chair outside the stall. To their credit, one of the museum docents saw us heading toward the main bathroom and very kindly gave us the heads-up about this. We used the accessible restroom instead and noticed that while it was physically roomy enough and had the typical grab bars and such, the door to the restroom was very heavy and the handle/lock was up very high. It would be difficult to access from a wheelchair without a companion.

Vision & Hearing

The animals at this zoo are mostly quiet (no roaring lions here) and every exhibit has an informational plaque describing the animal’s backstory and natural habits. The science museum was similarly oriented around flat visual plaques and hands-on experiences. Someone with a hearing impairment could participate almost fully in both parts of the park. I think someone with limited vision would probably find the zoo fairly pointless and would have a mixed experience in the science museum. Many of the science exhibits were highly tactile and a few revolved around sound or music, but a lot of the displays involving physics or cause-and-effect mechanisms were inside of plexiglass boxes, so these would be difficult to enjoy without at least near-field vision.

Sensory Processing

The zoo was calm and open, with lots of shade and natural colors. There’s no background music. It also doesn’t smell like a zoo (it doesn’t smell like anything I could detect), mainly because there are no elephants and no petting zoo, only smaller animals in well-maintained enclosures. The only semi-crowded point was when everyone wanted to see the scheduled feedings; otherwise there were people around but we had plenty of space to move freely and didn’t feel crowded, even on a busy day.

I did notice that the whole recreation area seems to be directly under the flight path to SFO, so there were frequently airplanes flying somewhat low overhead. For some children, that’s a bonus feature, but for others, the unexpected extra noise could be a factor. It wasn’t obnoxious enough to be a deal-breaker by any stretch, but if I were traveling with a very sound-sensitive or easily-startled child, I would want to tell them ahead of time to expect the airplane noises outside.

The science museum was much busier than the zoo. The museum is entirely indoors so the excitement of all the children is more concentrated there. It was somewhat loud and could be overloading for some children with sensory issues. For sensory-seeking children, however, the variety of interactive displays could be exactly perfect.

Their website also has a social story to help your child know what to expect before their visit. Kudos, CuriOdyssey!

Food

You can bring your own food or buy food there. They have a little cafe with mostly hot dogs, chips, and fruit available during limited lunch hours on the weekends. The gift shop also carries a pretty impressive variety of packaged snacks and drinks, including many healthy options, some of which were vegan-friendly or allergy-friendly. (You could phone ahead to see what they have in stock that day.) When we went, the classroom space (presumably used by field trip groups during the week) was open and several families were enjoying their homemade lunches at the tables. We did the same. There are also picnic tables outside in the shade in the zoo area. If you want to eat before or after your visit, keep in mind that you are also in a county park, so there there are larger tables and even BBQ grills in the picnic areas closer to the nearby playground.

Would we go back?

Absolutely! This is my third visit to CuriOdyssey and will certainly not be my last. I love the gentle vibe and kind cheerful people we always encounter there. If you’re looking for a new spot to visit, it’s sure to make you smile!

 

 

CuriOdyssey sign: building the minds of tomorrow today