Chicago's 5 Best Museums You've Never Heard Of
Approximately 40 million people visit Chicago each year. Most of them will visit at least one museum during their stay, and it will probably be one of the Big Five: Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.
But Chicago is home to scores more museums than just these chart toppers. Here are five fabulous lesser-known Chicago museums (in alphabetical order):
Chicago History Museum
Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.
With the goal of illuminating the past to compellingly inform the future, the Chicago History Museum showcases and interprets 22 million pieces of authentic Chicago and U.S. history. This modern museum houses 6 permanent exhibits, a well produced 27-minute movie, and an array of short term exhibits.
Chicago: Crossroads of America is a favorite permanent installation for families. Exhibit visitors can board "L" Car Number 1, visit a jazz club, and check out period fashions in a storefront window of Marshall Field's (Chicago's former beloved "emporium" - never called a department store). Younger kids enjoy interactive activity stations; older kids appreciate the teen-produced audio tour of the exhibit.
Kids especially love Sensing Chicago, another permanent installation. Here, kids can ride a high-wheel bicycle, sit in the bleachers of Comiskey Park, and even become a Chicago-style hot dog. Lots of great photo opps and fun!
- Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30-4:30. Sunday Noon-5:00.
- Allow: 3 hours
- Admission: Adults $16, Seniors 65+ $14, Students age 13-22 with i.d. $14, Children 12 and under Free. (All paid admissions include audio tours.)
- TIP: at the time of this writing, Groupon has been regularly offering $8 admission tickets.
- Coat check: Free
- Food: The North & Clark Café offers on-site lite fare, Monday-Saturday 9:30-3:00, and Sunday noon-4:00.
- Parking: Public parking is located one block north of the Museum at Clark and LaSalle Streets; enter on Stockton Drive. $9 with Museum validation.
Chinese-American Museum of Chicago
Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd St.
The mission of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago is to promote the culture and history of Chinese-Americans in the Midwest. And it does not fall short on that mission.
Great Wall to Great Lakes, the permanent exhibit on the museum's second floor, tells the story of Chinese immigration to the United States -specifically to Chicago- from the mid 1800s through today. A tour of this exhibit is best begun by watching the very well made 16-minute video, My Chinatown, for a digestible overview of the immigrant experience. After the video, artifacts, photos and short placards give a more detailed look at the realities of immigration, as well as touching on the era of Sinophobia (fear of Chinese people/culture) in the U.S.
Rotating exhibits on the main floor have covered topics such as Chinese Rites of Passage (a current exhibit with fabulous displays on the Chinese rituals for birth, marriage, longevity and death), Traditional Chinese Festivals, and Untold Asian Stories of Chicago's Two World's Fairs, among others.
In addition to the fabulous exhibits, a true highlight of this museum is its staff. Docents stroll the floors, regularly checking in with visitors, sharing additional information on the exhibits. And front desk staff engage kids in play of traditional Chinese children's games (including the "real" playing of Chinese Checkers, which turns out to be much more complicated that the Americanized version!).
This is a museum not to be missed, especially for families who love world cultures!
- Hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:30-1:30. Saturday & Sunday 10:00-5:00. Closed Mondays.
- Allow: 2 hours
- Admission: Donations encouraged, with a suggestion of $5 adults, $3 children/seniors.
- Coat check: No coat check, but coat rack is available.
- Food: None on site, but there are many great restaurants in the neighborhood.
- Parking: The museum has a small, 3-car parking lot adjacent to it. Otherwise, area street parking is $2/hour.
→ Learn more about Chicago's Chinatown in our post, "Ancient Chinese Symbolism in Modern Chinatown Chicago." ←
DuSable Museum of African-American History
DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740E. 56th Pl.
Named for Chicago's first permanent non-indigenous resident (John Baptiste Point du Sable, commonly believed to have been African-Hatian), the DuSable Museum of African American History highlights African and African-American achievements, contributions, and experiences through exhibits of history, culture and art.
The most powerful of the museum's permanent exhibits is Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality. Visitors begin at the apex of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, make the voyage to the Americas, then travel through Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and the Jim Crow era. Visitors continue through the Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements, and end with the election of the nation's first African-American President. (Note: parents of young or very sensitive children might wish to take a quick walk through this poignant installation before entering with children, and decide if children are ready for the weight of the experience. We also recommend discussing the exhibit with children afterword.)
Other exhibits include The Freedom Now Mural, carvings of 400 years of African-American history, and A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story, with memorabilia and archival footage of Chicago's first African-American mayor.
- Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-5:00. Sunday 12:00-5:00. Closed Mondays.
- Allow: 60-90 minutes
- Admission: Adults $10, Seniors with i.d. $7, Students with i.d. $7, Children 6-11 $3, Children 5 and under Free. Lower pricing for Chicago residents.
- TIP: FREE on Sundays.
- Coat check: No coat check, but coat rack is available.
- Food: No food on site.
- Parking: No designated museum parking; neighborhood street parking only. Free near the museum.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MEXICAN ART
National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St.
A focal point of the Pilsen neighborhood's Mexican community, the National Museum of Mexican Art is home to one of the largest collections of Mexican art in the country. Seven thousand pieces, covering a time span of 3000 years, make up the museum's permanent collection. Works include textiles, folk art, prints and drawings, photography, and paintings and sculptures.
The NMMA's highlight is its annual 12-week Día de los Muertos installation, which draws artists and patrons from both sides of the border, and beyond. From late September through mid-December, the museum displays altares and ofrendas (altars and offerings to the deceased) on a grand scale. Docents can explain the typical structure of an altar, although artists are very liberal in their interpretations of the traditional set-up.
Beyond the exhibited artwork, the museum’s gift shop feels like an exhibition of its own. The shop offers colorful and eclectic handcrafts, toys and gifts from all over Mexico.
- Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-5:00. Closed Mondays.
- Allow: 60-90 minutes
- Admission: Free. Donations encouraged.
- Coat check: No coat check, no coat rack available.
- Food: None on site, but there are many great restaurants and coffee shops, plus street vendors, in the neighborhood.
- TIP: → Check out our recommendations for area restaurants here. ←
- Parking: No designated museum parking; neighborhood street parking only. FREE near the museum. $1/hour in nearby metered parking.
Swedish American Museum
Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark St.
In the heart of Andersonville, Chicago's historically Swedish neighborhood, the Swedish American Museum celebrates Swedish culture, customs, and traditions; and honors the Swedish immigration experience. A permanent exhibit, 4 rotating exhibits each year, and a children's interactive floor round out this museum experience.
The Dream of America, a permanent installation, displays authentic artifacts reflecting the experience of Swedish immigrants of the 1800s. Steamer trunks, travel documents, and household and personal items brought from Sweden all challenge visitors with the question, "could you leave home today in search of a better tomorrow?" while giving a strong sense of the logistics of such a decision.
For kids, the magic happens on the third floor in the interactive, hands-on Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration. Children reenact farm tasks in a century-old stuga (Swedish farmhouse), board a 20-foot immigrant steamship destined for Amerika, and finally learn about life in a pioneer log cabin.
- Hours: Monday-Friday 10:00-4:00. Saturday & Sunday 11:00-4:00.
- Note: On Monday through Thursday, the third floor Children's Museum is open shorter hours than the rest of the museum, from 1:00-4:00 only. Friday through Sunday hours coincide with museum hours.
- Allow: 60-90 minutes
- Admission: Adults $4, Children/Students/Seniors $3, or $10 per family. Children under 3 are FREE.
- TIP: FREE on the second Tuesday of every month.
- Coat check: No coat check, but there is a coat closet on first floor, coat hooks on third floor.
- Food: None sold on site. Food/drinks can be brought in and consumed in the third floor classrooms when they're not in use.
- TIP: While you're in the neighborhood, keep the spirit of Sweden alive, and grab a pastry at Swedish Bakery. (Closed Sundays.)
- Parking: Limited FREE off-street parking in the museum's lot, half of a block away at the corner of Ashland and Foster. Parking on Clark St. is $2.00/hour. FREE parking can often be found on area residential streets.
- TIP: parking is FREE on Sundays in Andersonville.
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