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Are looking for things to do on your upcoming trip to Chicago? Or are you a local looking for a new & different museum experience? Here are my suggestions as a blogger & local tour guide for the past 20 years of the top 10 obscure Chicago museums. If you are a museum-goer, you probably already know about the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium which all reside in our Museum Campus on the beautiful Lake Michigan Lakefront.
Also well known, are the Museum of Science & Industry (MSI) and the Art Institute of Chicago. Download the Art Institute app, trust me it’ll make 1 million sq ft of art much more manageable. They all can get really busy, so go early and they can get expensive. Here is a link to save you almost 40% on a multiple museums package.
And now for you more adventurous travelers/locals looking for more unknown museums, here are my top 10 Chicago museums that don’t make the top lists but are just as fantastic as the big ones, plus smaller crowds. Some are free while others charge an admission fee. I’ve added links to each so you can check. Please note some of these museums offer virtual exhibits as well as in-person exhibits.
how to get there
To get to each location go to the cta trip planner and plug in your starting point & then destination to see multiple cta bus & train routes. I use this myself all the time and highly recommend it to get around Chicago via public transportation. Or take a Divvy bike. Another option is Google maps which provides driving, public transportation, or bike directions.
#1 The International Museum of Surgical Science
1524 N Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60610 – plan your visit
A few years ago I had a client (a surgeon from Australia and his teenage daughter) book a tour by car and this was one of the sights they wanted to see. It was my first time visiting this museum and I found it a bit gruesome but fascinating, particularly the historic, medicinal art & artifacts. One of the coolest museum gift stores.
The International Museum of Surgical Science, a division of the International College of Surgeons (ICS), maintains over 10,000 square feet of public galleries committed to the history of surgery, and an exquisite permanent collection of art and artifacts from the history of Medicine. The Museum supports its Mission through medically themed exhibitions and programs, in addition to a strong contemporary art exhibition program.
The Mission of the Museum is to enrich people’s lives by enhancing their appreciation and understanding of the history, development, and advances in surgery and related subjects in health and medicine.
Portraying, through exhibits and other appropriate media, the art and science of surgery and related subjects; providing programs and services for the education and enjoyment of the public, students, and the medical profession; preserving our collection for the education, inspiration, and aesthetic enrichment of future generations; and gaining recognition as a leader among medical and health museums worldwide. Photo & text description courtesy of website.
While you are here other suggestions to check out: Take the Lake Shore Drive underpass and go check out North Ave beach/beach house or walk along the lake to Oak St beach. Be careful & don’t forget to share the path with the bikes. One of the best views in the city.
#2 The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago/MCA
220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 – plan your visit
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is one of the world’s largest museums dedicated to contemporary art. Here, the public can experience the work and ideas of living artists and understand the historical, social, and cultural context of the art of our time.
Since our inception in 1967, it has been our mission to exhibit new and experimental work in all media, paired with ambitious learning programs. In 1974, the MCA expanded its mission to include collecting and preserving contemporary art for future generations with the inauguration of a collection that has grown to include more than 2,000 works.
The MCA engages audiences of today and tomorrow, working closely with our community to create space for dialogue, learning, and growth. Learn more about who we are, the museum’s commitments, and our Community Partnerships and Engagement program. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are here, more suggestions for you: Summer Tuesdays (June 7 to August 31 at 5:30 pm) come alive on the MCA’s Anne and John Kern Terrace Garden with free music highlighting artists from Chicago’s internationally renowned jazz community. Click here to see the schedule & reserve tickets.
#3 Driehaus Museum
40 E Erie St, Chicago, IL 60611 – plan your visit
a museum in a mansion
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum engages and inspires the global community through exploration and ongoing conversations in art, architecture, and design of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions are presented in an immersive experience within the restored Samuel Mayo Nickerson Mansion, completed in 1883, at the height of the Gilded Age. The Museum’s collection reflects and is inspired by the collecting interests, vision, and focus of its founder, the late Richard H. Driehaus.
The Museum is located just steps from the Magnificent Mile. The exquisite building was saved twice, first by a collective of over 100 Chicago citizens in 1919, and then by philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus, who sponsored its restoration from 2003-2008. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are in Streeterville, other suggestions for you: Walk northeast to have a drink & take in the view over at the 96th Floor Signature Lounge of the John Hancock Tower.
#4 National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W 19th St, Chicago, IL 60608 – FREE – plan your visit
In 1982, Carlos Tortolero organized a group of fellow educators and founded the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which opened its doors in 1987. The goal was to establish an arts and cultural organization committed to accessibility, education, and social justice. The museum also provided a positive influence for the local Mexican community, especially since many other art institutions did not address Mexican art.
Over the years, the institution has grown, its audience has broadened, and its reach now extends across the United States and beyond. To support this evolution, in 2001, the museum expanded to a 48,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Pilsen, and in 2006 we unveiled a new name, the National Museum of Mexican Art.
To stimulate knowledge and appreciation of Mexican art and culture from both sides of the border through a significant permanent collection of Mexican art, rich visual and performing arts programs, high-quality arts education programs and resources, and professional development of Mexican artists. The Museum welcomes all people and strives to foster a world where all are included. Photo & info courtesy of website.
#5 Busy Beaver Button Museum
The Button Museum is free and open to the public Monday – Friday from 10 am to 4 pm, or by appointment. To learn more or visit us virtually, you can find us online at buttonmuseum.org.
Preserving Button History
Who doesn’t love buttons? Says the recovering graphic designer! Similar to the poster genre, buttons combine art & the history of what was happening in the world at that specific moment in time. This has been on my list for a very, long time. Going soon!
After years of growing their personal collections, siblings Christen and Joel Carter decided to show an American history through pinback buttons. In August of 2010, they created the Busy Beaver Button Museum and opened it to the public. As of 2014, the Museum is a 501C3.
Housed within Busy Beaver Button Co.’s office, the Button Museum is the world’s only pin-back button museum. You’ll not only see buttons from every year since the pin-back’s patent in 1896, but you’ll also see precursors like the inauguration buttons of George Washington and an Abraham Lincoln campaign pin.
Organized by category and date, the Button Museum hosts more than 30,000 pins of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and features categories like political, art, advertising, sports, social cause, music – it’s almost endless! These button artifacts represent the cultural and personal histories of the past. By viewing these everyday wearable objects, museum attendees are able to see first-hand how the people of each era were commenting on noteworthy events. Photo & info courtesy of website.
While you are here, other suggestions for you: Go check out the Logan Square neighborhood.
#6 Chicago Architecture Center (CAC)
111 E Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60601 – plan your visit
Opened to the public in 2018, our riverfront location is in the heart of the city, where Michigan Avenue meets the Chicago River, featuring nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space filled with super-sized models—and views—of iconic skyscrapers.
Center exhibits focus on Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods, housing types, leading architects, and future projects, and include the largest scale model of the city, with more than 4,250 miniature buildings, interactive touchscreens, and a cinematic backdrop animating key moments in its history.
explore the center
The Chicago Architecture Center—where the stories of the city begin—encourages visitors of all ages. Learn how Chicago became “the city of architecture” with exhibits about its many diverse neighborhoods, housing types, leading architects, and current projects.
The Center is also your gateway to more than 50 CAC walking tours plus Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruises aboard Chicago’s First Lady. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are here other suggestions to check out: Cross Michigan Ave & check out the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. Click here to read my blog post. Grab a drink & take in the spectacular Chicago River views at the LondonHouse rooftop.
#7 McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum
99 Chicago Riverwalk, Chicago, IL 60601 – plan your visit
The landmark five-story bridgehouse is alive with stories of the past, details of the bridge, and vivid stories about the many people inspired by the potential of the Chicago River.
Friends of the Chicago River opened the seasonal McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum in 2006 to provide new access and understanding of the dynamic relationship between Chicago and its river. Today, the Bridgehouse Museum stands as the cultural anchor of the new Chicago Riverwalk and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every summer.
Exhibits celebrate Chicago’s river and world-famous movable bridges, and visitors learn why it is important to protect the river and how to participate in its renaissance. On bridge lift days every spring and fall, the museum’s gear room truly comes to life, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the moving gears as they lift the massive Michigan Avenue bridge leaf, allowing boat traffic to pass through the heart of Chicago – a spectacular, deeply authentic Chicago event.
The Bridgehouse Museum furthers the mission of Friends of the Chicago River. Photo & info courtesy of website
#8 The DuSable Museum of African American History
740 E 56th Pl, Chicago, IL 60637 – plan your visit
The DuSable Museum is proud of its diverse holdings that number more than 15,000 pieces and include paintings, sculptures, print works, and historical memorabilia. Special exhibitions, workshops, and lectures are featured to highlight works by particular artists, historical events, or collections on loan from individuals or institutions.
In 1961, with a few dedicated colleagues and a dream, the artist/educator/writer/activist Margaret Taylor Burroughs established our nation’s first independent museum celebrating Black culture. The Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art was inaugurated that very year in the Burroughs’ home on Chicago’s iconic South Side. Burroughs was proud that the Museum was “the only one that grew out of the indigenous Black community.”
At its 60th anniversary, the Museum—since named to honor Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, the Haitian-born founder of Chicago—has welcomed millions of visitors to its home in Chicago’s historic Washington Park to experience its innovative and timely exhibitions and powerful and transformative educational programs, which together place the African American narrative firmly within the broader context of U.S. history. The DuSable is a convener; a point of connection; and a place where difficult conversations lead to reconciliation and renewal. And, as a beacon of strength and a refuge of reason, the Museum is a vital part of a socially equitable reconciliation of our nation’s historic divisions.
At this time of profound transformation, the DuSable is taking steps to solidify its position as a place where together, we can make good history. As part of this effort, it is focusing its outreach efforts on a sustainability campaign that will allow the Museum to imagine its next five years, while preparing it for its next sixty. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are in Hyde Park, other suggestions: Meander through the University of Chicago Campus.
#9 The Oriental Institute Museum
1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637 – plan your visit
Since our founding in 1919–a time when the Middle East was called the Orient—the OI has been a leading research center for the study of ancient civilizations. With 350,000 artifacts, excavated mainly by OI archaeologists, the OI Museum invites you to learn about the beginnings of our lives as humans together. Through galleries devoted to Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the Levant, come take a look into the ancient past. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are here, other suggestions: Take a tour of the FLW Robie House.
#10 WNDR Museum
1130 W Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60607 – plan your visit
We are all artists.
Consider WNDR to be a cultural and artistic hub that is constantly changing to fit the needs of the world around it. We are a campus of creativity and curiosity. WNDR reimagines the traditional museum experience through interactive, immersive experiences from artist, collectives, and studios locally and globally.
WNDR remains committed to presenting unexpected, fully immersive art experiences, and reopens with 20+ NEW installations. Home to Chicago’s first-ever Infinity Mirror Room by iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, WNDR places works from Keith Haring and Alex Israel in conversation with thought-provoking, interactive technologies and stunning installations that do not require touch.
Please note, WNDR is a high sensory experience that may contain flashing lights, sounds and other high sensory elements. Click here to read my blog post on the WNDR Museum. Photo & info courtesy of website
While you are in West Loop, other suggestions for you: What to do in the West Loop.
Hope you enjoyed my top 10 obscure Chicago museums. It was hard to trim the list down to just 10 so stay tuned for another post on more super cool, quirky museums. Please leave me a comment about where you went & what you liked about it. Or any that I missed that you would like to share?
Until the next adventure my friends, be well & stay safe!