Five Immersive Midwestern Museums For Museum Haters
Updated: May 2
Dutifully reading about local history? Been there, done that.
I like my museums a little more immersive, thanks.
Seeing a city from a giant praying mantis, a Ferris Wheel or a boat marooned on a rooftop in a place where you can run and jump and make as much noise as you want?
Now we’re talking. Sign me up.
If you think that museums are quiet places where you can look, but can’t touch, think again.
These five Midwestern museums encourage you dive in (often physically) and use all your senses to explore the exhibits. This personalized, immersive experience makes it fun to learn new things — including a new sense of what the city is really like.
Here are five of my favorite hands-on museums in the Midwest. And just to make things even more fun, I’ve included foods created in each museum’s home city for you to try while you’re in town, so you take the sensory immersion to the next level, eat local and make your day trip, weekend getaway or Midwestern vacation even more interesting.
The City Museum in Saint Louis, Missouri:
See: There is simply no photo that could possibly do justice to the mad genius of the City Museum. This is a place where you can tunnel through walls, crawl through caves and sail down a 10-story slide. Getting lost is practically the point and even the most ambivalent museum goers will leave grinning. This is a place where I saw grown men attempting to climb walls and families playing “Marco Polo” when they realized the slides they selected started in the same spot, but deposited them on entirely different floors of the building.
It’s worth paying a little more for rooftop access. It’s basically an all-access that enables you to try the slides, scamper up the giant praying mantis and see the city from the Ferris Wheel.
Eat: Legend has it that fried ravioli, gooey butter cake and classic ice cream cones were all created St. Louis – and all by accident. It’s only responsible to try them all, right?
The Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul, MN:
See: At the Science Museum of Minnesota, you can pump water from an aquifer hundreds of feet under the ground, examine specimens under a microscope, project your face on a giant astronaut or see the city from a tugboat 75 feet in the air. This description kind of makes it seem like the museum is only for kids, but it’s a blast for all ages. You’ll also find a resident mummy, occasional sleep overs amongst the dinosaurs and a fan favorite Omnitheatre where films are projected onto a 90-foot dome screen.
If the museum seems vaguely familiar and you’re not sure why, it might be because it had unexpected burst of notoriety when one of its T-shirts appeared in an episode of “Stranger Things” in 2017. After selling over 40,000 units of that particular brontosaurus shirt design, the museum has a few new styles in the mix.
Eat: Minnesota favorites like bars (a cross between a cookie and cake), Jell-O salad and the Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) are reimagined in St. Paul.
See: The Harley-Davidson Museum appeals to anyone who appreciates motorcycles, elegant design, fast machines or learning how things work. Rev a Harley engine (and learn why it makes that distinctive sound), rummage through vintage toys and create and customize your own Harley. You and even climb on a motorcycle yourself. (Don’t forget to get a photo or two.)
True Harley fans will love seeing the huge variety of bikes on display. The collection includes historic motorcycles and as well as bikes that riders have customized themselves. (My favorite is bedazzled with thousands of glittering crystals.)
Eat: Cheese curds and frozen custard are Wisconsin classics and a Friday-night fish fry is a Milwaukee tradition during Lent. You don’t have to be Christian – or even religious – to dig in.
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL:
See: The Field Museum is a classic – but it’s anything but stuffy. Even the standard exhibits here are colorful and engaging enough to intrigue even the smallest museum goers, but there are lots of opportunities for hands-on learning. You can sit inside a Maori Meeting House, touch the tools and toys inside a Pawnee earth lodge and watch scientists at work in their labs.
SUE T-Rex (the museum’s most famous resident) has been relocated to a new digs since the photograph above was taken. But its overall coolness quotient (SUE has no gender) remains.
Eat: Deep-dish pizza, a Chicago style hot dog (no ketchup!) and a quirky caramel corn and cheddar corn mix are classic Chicago tastes.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, IN:
See: Kids (even the grown-up ones) dig The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where you can study pop culture, hang out with dinosaurs and superheroes and stroll through the immersive streets of modern Greece or a model of the International Space Station.
Archeology buffs can stop by the working lab, reconstruct a terra cotta warrior and view artifacts featured in the Indiana Jones moves. The littlest guests will like the climbing the interactive outdoor treehouse and seeing their favorite pups in the Paw Patrol exhibit.
One of the most striking elements in the museum is a massive glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly. (It’s featured in the image at the beginning of this post.) The colorful installation is made up of more than 3,200 pieces of hand blown glass and stands five stories tall.
Eat: For a taste of the Hoosier State, try sugar cream pie (Indiana’s unofficial state pie), chili mac (or goulash) and huge breaded pork tenderloins.
What about you? What museums, foods or hotels on this list are you most intrigued by? What are your favorite unconventional museums? What unusual foods does your state or province boast? What are the coolest places to stay in your city? Which of these museums have you visited?
What should we see or do when we’re there?
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