by Lilia Walsh
One of the prime destinations of the Midwest, Chicago bears multiple repeat visits. However, once you’ve hit the classics like the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute and the Shedd Aquarium, it can take some digging to get to the more interesting and lesser-known destinations.
Chicago is home to a ton of specific, niche museums. Smaller and less overwhelming than the flashier top ten, these idiosyncratic chicago museums make for an interesting visit, and the sense that you are really getting to know the nooks and crannies of the windy city.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
This center and museum is the only non-profit in the US that is focused entirely on the work of self-taught and outsider artists. The exhibitions display a rotating assortment of more then 1,100 works of art. One of the more well known outsider artist Henry Darger, lived in a one room apartment in Chicago for most of his life, writing and illustrating a15,000 page saga detailing the adventures of the mythical ‘Vivian Girls’, which was discovered after his death. The Intuit Center came into possession of much of his work and furnishings, and has re-created his room in the museum, giving you a glimpse into Darger’s extraordinary and strange mind.
International Museum of Surgical Science
This small museum on Lake Shore Drive is the perfect size, specific enough to be fascinating, but not too large and overwhelming that museum-fatigue sets in. The museum is a strange but effective mix of scientific and surgical ephemera, and art based on the body. There are iron lungs, old-school surgical equipment, technical analysis of viruses and infectious diseases, plasticized circulatory systems (a la ‘Body World’) and enormous cringe inducing gallstones. The museum also features a hall of larger-than-life sculptures which commemorate pioneers in medicine and surgery from ancient Egyptian times to the present. Additionally, the museum hosts contemporary artists-in-residence who create works about science and the body, inspired by the holdings of the museum.
WARNING: This is not a museum for the squeamish, unless you think you can stomach seeing a plasticized body cut into one inch slices and spread the length of a room, you should steer clear. (Like that one scene with the horse from the movie The Cell, with J-Lo)
National Museum of Mexican Art
Hardly unknown, this museum is nonetheless far enough off the tourist track to be missed by most out-of-town visitors. This small, beautiful museum houses an awesome collection of contemporary works by Mexican artists and artifacts and crafts from Mexican culture, including an impressive array of Day of the Dead memorabilia. The bonus of visiting this museum is getting to have a fantastic lunch afterwards at one of the restaurants in this vibrantly Mexican neighborhood. Keep and eye out for the murals of our lady of Guadalupe, listen out for the Spanish spoken by the residents, and watch your feet as you step over Mayan-seal man-hole covers.
This ‘museum’ is a McDonald’s restaurant circa 1955, which has been built based on the original blueprints of the first McDonald’s Restaurant opened by the McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc. The giant sign outside the museum is original, as is the equipment in the kitchen, dating from the days when fresh potatoes were peeled and sliced on-site. You can’t go inside the restaurant, but you can walk around the building and look in the windows. If checking out this museum gets you salivating, you can walk across the street to the modern, full-functioning McDonalds across the street, where they will let you inside. Unfortunately the prices are modern too, not quite the 1955 bargain of 39 cents across the street.
Smith Museum of Stained Glass – Navy Pier
In general Navy pier is a touristy carnival, not known as a quite place to quietly appreciate fine craftsmanship, but if you’ve ridden the Ferris wheel, and are generally warn out by the crowds of hapless tourists, its time to visit the pleasant surprise that is the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. There are colorful windows by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Tiffany Studio, and glass portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King and Michael Jordan, all beautifully backlit in a dim room for your maximum viewing pleasure.
The museum is also free, a welcome exception to Navy Pier’s other attractions.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
There are lots of FLW sights to see in Chicago, including the Rookery building, and the Robie house, but if you are a die hard fan, you’ll have to tour the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, which was Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and workplace for the first 20 years of his career. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has restored the home to the way it appeared in 1909, the last year the family called it home.
Busy Beaver Button Co
This company produces custom buttons for customers in Chicago and all over the US, but their enthusiasm for buttons has spilled over into a small button museum at their headquarters in on West Armitage Avenue. If you can’t make it in person, the Busy Beavers have also been working to put their museum online.
The Money Museum – Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago
Do you love money? So does the Federal Reserve. If there isn’t enough green in your pocket, you may be able to get your fix at the Money Museum, where you can look at a giant cube made out of one million dollars and try to convince yourself you are a high roller. There are also displays of historical currencies and counterfeits, good training grounds for the aspiring counterfeiters.
Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birth Home in Oak Park
This Victorian home is where the famous writer was born and raised, where he played high school football before launching himself as a writer and journalist. Some people think that the exhausting level of frilliness enforced in this Victorian home by Hemingway’s mother is what drove him to his later machismo and passion for bullfights and safaris. Perhaps you too can gain a greater understanding of the complicated man himself, by touring with one of the very knowledgeable tour guides.
The nearby Hemmingway Museum rounds out the experience, presenting writing samples spanning Hemingway’s entire life. If you are Hemmingway obsessed, this museum is a godsend. If you’re bored to tears in Oak Park, as Hemmingway was, you may be similarly be inspired to pursue grittier adventures elsewhere.
National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum
This small museum brings new light to the effects of the Vietnam War on out veterans. By focusing on art, the museum attempts to make something huge and distant into something highly moving and personal by displaying artworks made by veterans. The centerpiece of the museum is a stunning ceiling installation composed of more than 58,000 glittering silver dog tags, which each memorialize a fallen US solider.
RIP: Chicago once also housed another museum which was truly rad: The Hologram Museum, but it has unfortunately closed.
Roadtrippers is the first and only complete road trip planner that lets you map out your route, find places relevant to you and create a travel itinerary that gets you on the road for the trip of a lifetime. Discover your America at Roadtrippers.
“Explore, Dream, Discover.”