50 Midwest Museums We Love | Midwest Living

50 Midwest Museums We Love

Seeking a world of discovery? Embark on a Midwest museum getaway! Spend the day interacting with paintings, planets and U.S. presidents at small-town gems or big-city draws.
  • Greenfield Village

    Dearborn, Michigan: The Henry Ford

    This world-class destination in Henry Ford’s hometown includes the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village (pictured) and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. The museum showcases remarkable artifacts, such as the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat for a white man. Ride a Model T through Greenfield Village’s seven living-history districts, and watch the assembly of Ford F-150s at the Ford Rouge Factory. Admission charged. thehenryford.org

  • Cleveland: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

    Cleveland’s Rock Hall continues to energize the Lake Erie shoreline after more than 20 years. Rock fans make pilgrimages to this I.M. Pei-designed museum to spend a day learning about the genre’s evolution and the artists’ spirits, sounds and antiestablishment points of view. Boatloads of memorabilia, film clips and music fill airy galleries. Admission charged. rockhall.com

  • Kansas City, Missouri: Nelson-Atkins Museum

    Recognized as one of the leading art museums in America, this cultural powerhouse packs in more than 34,000 works of art. Asian and African art, European masterpieces, American classics, photography, sculpture—whatever your interest, you’ll find something to admire. For an in-depth experience, grab an MP3 player and headset in the lobby for a free audio tour about the collections, architecture and sculpture garden. Free. nelson-atkins.org

  • Chicago: The Field Museum

    Located in the city’s sprawling Museum Campus, this treasure trove of science and anthropology is home to Sue, the world’s largest T. rex skeleton, plus the stunning Grainger Hall of Gems. Thanks to reciprocity agreements, you might score free admission if you show a membership card from another science museum. fieldmuseum.org

  • Walker Art Center
    Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center.

    Minneapolis: Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

    Established in 1927, the Walker was the first public art gallery in the upper Midwest. Today, it’s a top destination for viewing contemporary art and media. Next to the center is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the largest urban sculpture parks in the country; the garden, which includes the iconic Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen Spoonbridge and Cherry, is getting a complete renovation and is expected to reopen in summer 2017. Admission charged for art center. walkerart.org

  • Omaha: The Durham Museum

    There’s a definite wow factor as you enter Omaha’s grand former Union Station, an Art Deco beauty with 65-foot-tall ceilings, copper-and-glass chandeliers and patterned terrazzo floor. Life-size sculptures of passengers deliver a recorded history of the station, and kids have a blast climbing aboard an old streetcar and passenger trains. Cap off the visit with a phosphate or malt at the soda fountain and candy shop. Admission charged. durhammuseum.org

  • Des Moines: Des Moines Art Center and John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

    An outstanding collection at the art center features modernist works by Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and others. Large, airy exhibit spaces reflect the styles of three architects: Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier. Venture downtown to see more than two dozen oversize sculptures at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (pictured). Free. desmoinesartcenter.org

  • Cincinnati: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

    Situated along the Ohio River (a former dividing line between freedom and slavery for African-Americans) this multilevel museum captures the history of slavery and the struggle for freedom. One of the most powerful of the state-of-the-art exhibits is a slave pen moved here from a Kentucky farm. The sobering messages aren’t easy to hear, but they are lessons to remember. Admission charged. freedomcenter.org

  • Detroit: Motown Museum

    The unassuming house that gave birth to the Motown sound preserves the relics of that era. The basement recording studio remains intact, complete with the original piano, drums and microphones. Displays showcase original costumes, photos and record sleeves; a film by Motown founder Berry Gordy relates how his $800 investment became $20 million in just seven years. Admission charged. motownmuseum.org

  • St. Louis: City Museum

    The word “eclectic” doesn’t begin to describe the zany world inside a former shoe factory. Kids and adults navigate their way through an Enchanted Caves area built into the factory’s spiral conveyor tunnel system. Some of the spirals have been transformed into giant slides—one that’s 10 stories tall. Other attractions include an aquarium, a rooftop Ferris wheel and an interactive sculpture called MonstroCity where kids crawl, jump and climb through a maze of materials. Tip: Wear long pants to avoid scrapes and bruises. Admission charged. citymuseum.org

  • Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Heritage Center

    Bismarck, North Dakota: North Dakota Heritage Center

    This recently expanded center traces state history from dinosaur days to the present. Exhibits include fossils and sea creatures that lived in the area 80 million years ago, along with artifacts used by Native Americans who inhabited North Dakota from 13,000 years ago to the 1860s. Don’t miss the 20-foot-long hand-painted mural depicting an Indian Village in 1550. Free. history.nd.gov

  • Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry/J.B. Spector

    Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry

    You’ll need a full day to cover this massive museum. Get a quick hit of education and entertainment at Science Storms, where 50 interactive stations offer hands-on chances to control a 40-foot tornado and create a tsunami in a 30-foot wave tank. Other attractions include a ride into a coal mine and a tour aboard a real German U-boat. Admission charged. msichicago.org

  • Wichita, Kansas: Old Cowtown Museum

    Experience the rowdy spirit of Wichita’s early days, when longhorns were herded to Chisholm Trail railheads. The museum preserves the 1870s lifestyle with a history museum, working farm and a business district that includes a blacksmith’s shop, a newspaper press, and spring and summer gunfight shows. Admission charged. oldcowtown.org

  • Minneapolis: Mill City Museum

    This eight-story former flour mill is home to an interactive journey through the industry that fueled the growth of Minneapolis. A fire in 1991 ravaged the building, leaving behind an open courtyard framed by original brickwork and limestone walls. Inside, ride a freight elevator up and down the Flour Tower for an engaging multimedia look at milling history. Admission charged. millcitymuseum.org

  • Pontiac, Illinois: Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum

    Museums like this one in an old firehouse are the watercoolers of the road, the place to meet fellow travelers and pick up tips on what to see along the Mother Road. View thousands of artifacts and memorabilia, and don’t miss the largest Route 66 shield in the world, painted on the back of the building. Free. il66assoc.org

  • Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts

    With more than 60,000 works, Detroit’s art museum is one of the finest in the country. Among the museum’s best-known pieces is Detroit Industry, a series of murals done by Mexican artist Diego Rivera in the 1930s (pictured). Visit on Friday evenings to enjoy live music, art-making workshops and guided tours, all included in the price of admission. dia.org

  • Kansas City, Missouri: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

    Films, photos and artifacts tell the story of the Negro National leagues that started in a YMCA in Kansas City in 1920 and spread throughout the United States, Canada and Latin America through the 1960s. It's designed like an old brick baseball stadium, complete with antique turnstiles. Highlights include 12 life-size bronze sculptures of Negro League players, 11 of whom have been honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Admission charged. nlbm.com

  • Photo by Ginger Crichton

    Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson Museum

    It’s perfectly fine to let the kids don some biker duds, swing up on a motorcycle and pretend to rev away in The Experience Gallery. If you can tear them off the Evel Knievel video game, that is. Elsewhere in the museum, the bikes on display range from hulking World War II-Era machines to sleek modern cruisers; check out the “exploded” bike in the Engine Room for a 3-D look at how all the parts fit together. Guided tours are available. Admission charged. h-dmuseum.com

  • Indianapolis: The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

    Most people don't come to Indy with Native American and Western art in mind, but this jewel in White River State Park is worth a visit. The collections here include ancient and modern art. Plan to visit in June during the annual Indian Market and Festival, where 130 Native American artists, storytellers, dancers and singers converge. Admission charged. eiteljorg.org

  • Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

    Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art

    A $350-million expansion and renovation completed in 2013 has made this world-class museum better than ever. An airy new atrium, an increase of 33 percent in gallery space and updates throughout show off the stellar collection of more than 46,000 pieces. Featured artists include Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and Grant Wood. Free. clevelandart.org

  • Kansas City, Missouri: National World War I Museum

    Inside the front doors, 9,000 silk poppies each represent 1,000 lives lost during World War I. The moving experience continues with interactive exhibits and recorded testimonies that share the war experience from the viewpoint of soldiers, their families and the civilians living in affected countries. Take an elevator followed by 45 stairs to the top of 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower for sweeping views of downtown. Admission charged. theworldwar.org

  • Photo courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

    Canton, Ohio: Pro Football Hall of Fame

    This shrine to the game is one of those places that die-hard football fans put on their bucket lists. The Hall of Fame Gallery (pictured) shows off bronze-sculpted busts of the men who have become legends in this game, and touch screens in the Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery let visitors design a Super Bowl ring. Football’s biggest prize—the Vince Lombardi Trophy—is also on display. Admission charged. profootballhof.com

  • Wabasha, Minnesota: National Eagle Center

    Most people come here to watch eagles from the two-story windows overlooking the Mississippi River. But leave time for the programs about resident eagles, too. The “eagle ambassadors” spread their wings from their perch on the arms of naturalists as you learn about eating and nesting habits. Admission charged. nationaleaglecenter.org

  • Lisa McClintick

    Ashland, Nebraska: Strategic Air and Space Museum

    Anyone fascinated by space, flight and the military will enjoy this museum located off I-80 near Lincoln. Walk among more than 30 sleek aircraft, including a B-17 Flying Fortress and a MiG-21 fighter jet. Exhibits highlight Nebraska contributions to flight, and a Vietnam Memorial Wall packs an emotional punch. Kids love the planetarium, motion simulator ride and space shuttle slide. Admission charged. sasmuseum.com

  • Branson, Missouri: Titanic Museum

    Beyond the fake iceberg puncturing the bow of the ship-shape building lies a sober story of history’s most famous disaster. Visitors get up-close looks at a deck chair, menu card, life jacket and other salvaged items. Re-created rooms show the glory of the central staircase, a first-class cabin and the tilt of the sinking ship’s deck. Admission charged. titanicbranson.com

  • Indianapolis: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

    Dinosaurs guarding the entrance and peeking into the windows are just the beginning of the playful exhibits at the world’s largest children’s museum. Board an airplane and soar over the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in the Take Me There: China exhibit, or opt for more low-flying fun on a beautifully restored 1917 carousel. Admission charged. childrensmuseum.org

  • Medora, North Dakota: North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

    This downtown Medora museum provides a thoughtful tribute to the way of life in North Dakota’s wide-open spaces. Visitors start with a film then wind their way through an exhibit space that includes clothing worn by cowboys and Native Americans, beautiful saddles preserved under glass and fine art celebrating cowboy culture. Admission charged. northdakotacowboy.com

  • Hannibal, Missouri: Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

    See the buildings Mark Twain made famous in his books. Just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi, the complex consists of eight buildings, including the Mark Twain Boyhood Home, Huckleberry Finn House and Becky Thatcher House as well as the Museum Gallery, which houses 15 paintings Norman Rockwell created for special editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Wander the riverfront to see life-size statue of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Admission charged. marktwainmuseum.org

  • Springfield, Illinois: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

    Plan to spend three to four hours to see it all. A re-creation of the one-room cabin Lincoln lived in (with eight family members, no less) is fascinating. Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, filled with dress-up clothes, thrills kids. Expect emotional moments in the Gettysburg Address room and alongside the casket. Admission charged. alplm.org

  • Photo courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

    Dubuque, Iowa: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

    The experience at the riverfront museum includes a touch tank of Mississippi snails, the chance to tour a 1934 steamer and views into six big aquariums full of river creatures. An indoor waterfall greets visitors to The Diamond Jo National River Center, a space celebrating all of America’s great waterways. Admission charged. mississippirivermuseum.com

  • Photo courtesy of the Flint Hills Discovery Center

    Manhattan, Kansas: Flint Hills Discovery Center

    Visitors get knee-deep in grassland heritage and beauty at this interactive experience. The Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time film sends gusts through the theater during windswept scenes. An Underground Forest goes beneath the prairie to show the grasses’ root systems and the critters burrowed there. Admission charged. flinthillsdiscovery.org

  • Lisa McClintick

    Vermillion, South Dakota: National Music Museum

    A Stradivarius violin, a 16th-century Italian harp and enough vintage brass to equip a parade of marching bands are among nearly 15,000 instruments at this museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota. Frequent concerts and recording sessions in the museum’s concert hall provide opportunities to interact with musicians and scholars from around the world. Admission charged. orgs.usd.edu

  • Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago

    Architecture, medieval armor, photography, European sculptures and Impressionist art are just a few of the collections inside the eight-building complex in the heart of the city. Renovated older galleries span 5,000 years, while the Modern Wing showcases 20th- and 21st-century art. Download the museum’s free app to get the most out of your visit. Admission charged. artic.edu

  • Kalamazoo, Michigan: Air Zoo

    You don’t have to love airplanes to be thrilled by this collection of more than 50 old and new aircraft. Retired pilots serve as docents and love to share their knowledge of the World War II-Era fighters and bombers. Kids race to a collection of amusement rides, commanding the joystick on circling biplanes and soaring through the sky inside flight simulators. Admission charged. airzoo.org

  • Jamestown, North Dakota: National Buffalo Museum

    A giant bison sculpture greets you outside this museum—but just as unusual are the real albino bison. This museum has long been known for its albino cow, White Cloud. Meet her along with her daughter, Dakota Miracle, before exploring the exhibits focusing on the history and significance of bison in the Plains culture. The museum is part of the Frontier Village complex of historical buildings in Jamestown. Admission charged. buffalomuseum.com

  • Brookings, South Dakota: Children’s Museum of South Dakota

    Visitors can splash through a stream, dodge a roaring T. rex and fish for trout in the outdoor prairie play area in Brookings. And there’s more to do at the cool indoor exhibits: Climb through clouds, make pretend ice cream cones or anchor a TV show. The best part? The interactive exhibits are as much fun for the adults as they are for the little ones. Admission charged. prairieplay.org

  • Paradise, Michigan: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

    The bell from the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald draws most people to this museum, located on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Whitefish Point Light station also contains accounts of shipwrecks and the restored keepers’ quarters. Outside, walk the shoreline where native Ojibwa and the first Europeans gathered nearly 400 years ago. Admission charged. shipwreckmuseum.com

  • Lawrence, Kansas: Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics

    Sights at the institute’s Visitors Hall include a soaring stained-glass American flag, two 11-foot columns salvaged from the World Trade Center and exhibits about the senator’s life and career. The visual spectacle continues outdoors with towering limestone walls and a 32,000-square-foot reflecting pool. Free. doleinstitute.org

  • Photo courtesy of the International Wolf Center

    Ely, Minnesota: International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center

    Watch the resident pack up close at northern Minnesota’s International Wolf Center (pictured). Observation windows allow visitors to look into a spacious enclosure that serves as the wolf pack’s home. Admission charged. wolf.org

    If you’re visiting the nearby North American Bear Center in winter, the bears will be hibernating, but you can still explore the interactive displays that cover myths and truths about the animal. Admission charged. bear.org

  • Photo courtesy of the Center of Science and Industry

    Columbus, Ohio: Center of Science and Industry (COSI)

    With interactive exhibits covering themes like space, energy and the oceans, there’s a world of activity for the whole family here. Standout experiences include a Mars Rover simulator and a high-wire unicycle that lets even the most unbalanced rider pedal across an 84-foot-long cable. Don’t miss a documentary on the National Geographic Giant Screen. Admission charged. cosi.org

  • Indianapolis: Indiana State Museum

    This family-friendly museum inspires a fresh appreciation for Indiana and its history. The first floor of exhibits focuses on Indiana's environmental and geographical history; the second floor highlights the history of Indiana's people. Take a whiff of spices used by pioneer women and learn about the railroads' impacts on the region. Admission charged. indianamuseum.org

  • Kearney, Nebraska: The Archway

    Soaring three stories above Interstate-80 just east of Kearney, the massive Archway catches visitors' attention with its log towers, huge steel girders and glittering winged sculptures. Inside, a two-level museum with interactive exhibits and dioramas chronicles the Platte River Valley’s rich history as the gateway to the West. Admission charged. archway.org

  • Melanie McManus

    Green Bay, Wisconsin: National Railroad Museum

    One of the largest rail museums in the nation chugs back in time with its collection of trains and railroad memorabilia. An indoor hall houses gems like the train General Dwight D. Eisenhower used to travel through Europe and Wisconsin’s Gratitude Train car, a gift from France to every U.S. state after World War II. From May–October, hop aboard a full-size vintage train car for a 25-minute tour of the museum grounds. Admission charged. nationalrrmuseum.org

  • Kit Bernardi

    Elkhart, Indiana: Midwest Museum of American Art

    Notable American works, including 45 Norman Rockwell-signed lithographs, put this museum on the map. More national treasures inside the neoclassical-style bank building: Western art, American Impressionist paintings, pottery and Pop Art by Andy Warhol. Admission charged. midwestmuseum.us

  • Photo courtesy of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library

    Cedar Rapids, Iowa: National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library

    An imposing 1,000-piece chandelier hangs in the entryway of this expanded museum, which was restored and moved uphill in 2012 after eight feet of water flooded the riverfront location in 2008. An extensive textile collection includes beautiful Czech and Slovak folk costumes, and outside, visitors tour a restored 1889 immigrant home. Admission charged. ncsml.org

  • Middleton, Wisconsin: National Mustard Museum

    A well-curated ode to one of America’s most popular condiments, this quirky museum isn’t just for mustard mavens. The Great Wall of Mustard displays an impressive and diverse variety of mustards, and a collection of antique mustard pots shows the condiment’s sophisticated side. Visitors can watch a video explaining the history of ketchup’s counterpart and pick up cheeky merchandise in the museum store. Free. mustardmuseum.com

  • Saint Paul: Minnesota Children’s Museum

    Kids could spend all day in these seven Saint Paul galleries (though adults may be entertained, too). Babies and toddlers explore the Habitot of forest, caves, prairies and ponds; older kids create storms and crawl through an oversize anthill in Earth World. A seasonal rooftop area encourages art exploration. Admission charged. Note, the museum is in the middle of a $30 million expansion and renovation and will be closed from fall 2016 to early 2017mcm.org

  • Photo courtesy of the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear

    Milwaukee: Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear

    Get a fascinating peek at classic Americana with vignettes and displays that include a turn-of-the-century grocery store, a 1920s-era doctor’s office and an old-timey movie palace at this low-cost museum. The re-created Union Train Depot incorporates audio clips for a you-are-there vibe, and a speakeasy setup gives guests an idea of what life was like in Milwaukee during Prohibition years. Admission charged. chudnowmuseum.org

  • Lisa McClintick

    Chamberlain, South Dakota: Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

    On the grounds of St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain, quilts, beadwork, paintings and sculptures by contemporary Native American artists mingle with trade goods, weapons and other artifacts that help tell the story of the people who once ruled the lands along the Missouri River. Free. aktalakota.stjo.org

Comments (5)

tvjen wrote:
Dayton History at Carillon Park should be in the top 50.
ah-10 wrote:
One few have ever heard of but is amazing is the Thumb Octagon Barn in Gagetown, Michigan. We spent a full six months there volunteering as hosts a few years ago and highly recommend taking the tour. The barn is nearly 100 years old, restored, the largest round/octagon barn in the US, It is an agricultural museum and a stunning piece of architecture. The first impression when entering is almost that of a cathedral. There is also a nearly 100 year old beautiful but plain looking farm house. The history of the place, the builders and the Purdy family, are well worth an all day trip.
rm80780 wrote:
This is a good list based on living in Indy and agreeing with many of the choices based on one's I have seen but where is the Map...Google Map would work?
mflores8101 wrote:
The Toledo Museum of Art should be on this list!! Besides American and European art, there is also Asian and Egyptian art. Because of the endowment of Edward and Florence Libbey, the museum is free of charge. While you're there, go across the street to the Glass Pavilion, where you can watch glass blowing demonstrations. After all, Toledo is known as the "Glass City"!!
indyharcou572189 wrote:
Nice list, and I've been to several of them, but what's missing: The Nation Museum of the US Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. The NCAA Hall Of Champions, Indianapolis Newport Aquarium, Newport, KY And I agree w/ rm80780's comment that a little more effort to include a Google map link to each would be very helpful!

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