In 1942, Alfred North Whitehead said of Boston that it had come to occupy a position in the 20th century similar to that of Paris in the Middle Ages. It had become, he observed, the "capital city" of Western learning. One of the reasons behind the British philosopher's observations lay in Boston's many remarkable museums.

Indeed, the preservation and exhibition of artistic, historical, and scientific objects have reached impressive heights in and around Boston. Whatever a tourist's interests, he will find a wide variety of museums to match them.

One might begin with a leisurely stroll through the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a great mansion in the Fenway area of Boston, designed after a 15 th-century Venetian palace. Planned by Mr. Gardner herself, the museum houses an impressive and eclectic collection of art -- original works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Vermeer, as well as John Singer Sargent's portrait of Mrs. Gardner.

An exquisite lace collection, a 14th-century Syro-Egyptian bowl, a bronze vessel from the Shang Dynasty (1200-1100 BC), and a goldover-porcelain Empire tea set from France, displayed against a backdrop of Whistler pastels, can be viewed within the museum's many galleries.

Within walking distance of the Gardner museum, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts of fers, to give just a sampling, Egyptian and Near Eastern art, a textile collection which includes embroideries, printed fabrics, weavings, and costumes from all over the world, and works by French Impressionists, Spanish and Italian painters, as well as American artists such as John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart. (Stuart painted the famed George and Martha Washington portraits, which will be housed alternately every three years between the Museum of Fine Arts here and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)

Did you know that an electric eel is capable of producing more than 600 volts of electricity . . . that there are 250 known species of sharks . . . that an octopus changes color according to its modds? The New England Aquarium, on Boston's historic waterfront, provides a home for these and many other creatures. Some 7,000 salt- and fresh-water fish are displayed in multi-level tanks, while a four-story-high ocean tank spellbinds children and adults alike with its contents: giant sea turtles, sharks, striped bass, moray eels, and an occasional diver descending 23 feet into the tank at "chow time" to feed them.

A children's aquarium allows youngsters to touch and examine living sea urchins, and sea lions thrill viewers seated around the edge of a 110,000-gallon pool.

Not to be overlooked is the fascinating chicken-hatching exhibit at Boston's Museum of Science located on the Charles River Basin. In sharp contrast, the visitor can only gape in amazement at the 20-foot-tall model of a flesheating Tyrannosaurus rex. Energy and environment exhibits, a tool display, and life-size models of spacecraft are interesting, too.

An additional attraction is the Hayden Planetarium, featuring such special programs as ". . . and a star to steer her by," (though June 23), which illustrates navigational techniques used in the great age of sail, and "The Stars Tonight" (also through June 23), where visitors learn to identify various planets and stars.

The Museum of Transportation, located in a renovated 188 wool warehouse on the waterfront, offers "Boston/A City in Transit." Its main exhibit encompasses more than three centuries in its historical analysis of the city.

The history of a simple village by the sea that grew to become a bustling city is traced through a study of its changing transportation systems. The days of clipper ships, Model T's, and horse-drawn milk carts may be long gone, but they come to life once again on a tour of the museum. The visitor can examine a 1914 Benz tourer with mahogany lapstrake body, wicker dashboard, and hammered German silver hood, walk through a Boston City square as it was in 1895, or ride a hovercraft.

The Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum just half a block away helps visitors relive the historical event by throwing tea chests overboard.

"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!/Long has it waved on high,/And many an eye has danced to see/That banner in the sky;/Beneath it rung the battle shout, /And burst the cannon's roar; -- /The meteor of the ocean air/Shall sweep the clouds no more! . . ." So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes of "Old Ironsides," the UUS Constitution, in his 1830 poem.

Located in the Charlestown Navy Yard, visitors can tour the restored ship and the USS Constitution Museum, view a collection of scrimshaw and sailors' crafts, and muskets, uniforms, and flags from the Constitution, climb up her fighting top, and swing in a sailor's hammock. In May, a new exhibit, "The Building of Old Ironsides," will open in the museum.

Just 200 yards from the USS Constitution, a multi-media presentation of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major battle of the American Revolution, can be seen in the Bunker Hill Pavilion.

Two museums in the Lexington and Concord area just west of Boston provide a good reason to extend one's travels a bit. Lexington's Museum of Our National Heritage, located on a 22-acre site, focuses on the development of america from its founding to the present. Such exhibits as "All Sorts of Good Sufficient Cloth: Linen-making in New England, 1640-1860," "American-made Dolls, 1850-1979, " and folk art of 19th-century America can be enjoyed there.

The Museum of the Concord Antiquarian Society houses 15 17th-to mind-19th century period rooms containing artifacts of Concord history, including one of the Paul Revere lanterms that hung in the Old North Church on the night of his famous ride.

Just a stone's throw away in neighboring Sudbury is Longfellow's Wayside Inn, the oldest operating inn in the country. It contains some period rooms, including the Longfellow Parlor, furnished in 18th-century pieces, many of which are mentioned in his "Tales of A Wayside Inn."

Here, too, on a little hill nearby, stands the Redstone School to which Mary's lamb followed her to shcool in Sterling, Mass., (the nursey rhyme is a true story). It was moved to Sudbury school system. An 18th-century the Sudbury school system. An 18th-century reproduction grist mill, powered by waterfall, uses millstones to grind flour and meal for the Wayside Inn Kitchen.

Surrounded By Chinese export porcelains, paintings, silver and hand-painted wallpaper from China displayed in the family mansion of one of America's foremost China traders, Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes, visitors of the Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, just south of Boston, examine maps and charts laying out the trade routes of goods shipped between the two countries. Four decades of Yankee trade with Canton during the 19the century provided the museum with some of its most exquisite pieces.

The Blue Hills Trailside Museum, also in Milton, sponsors night prowls for owls, children's nature programs exploring birds, animal signs, amphibians, and reptiles, maple sugaring-offs, and programs on the care of injured wildlife.

Most of the museum are accessive via public transportation.

For futher information, call the following numbers: Isabell Steward Gardner Museum, (617) 566-1401; Museum of Fine Arts, 267-9300; New England Aquarium, 742 -8830; Museum of Science and Hayden Planetarium, 1942-6088; Museum of Transportation, 426-7999; Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum, 338-1773; Union USS Constitution Museum, 242-0543; Bunker Hill Pavilion, 241-7575; Museum of our National Herirage, 861-6559; Museum of the Concord Wayside Inn, 443-8846; Museum of the Americcan China trade, 696-1815; Blue Hills Trailside Museum, 33-0690.

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