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Chicago's Best Museums and Exhibits
The museums in Chicago, Illinois are some of the top attractions for those living in the Midwest as this city is chock full of some of the best museums in the world.
If you live in or near "The Windy City," you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to take a day trip to each of these museums. However, if you're an out-of-towner, you will have to plan ahead.
You'll want to know about the museums the city has to offer so you can pick one you will enjoy. Whether you're interested in science, art, or history, Chicago has it all! Be careful when making plans to visit multiple museums in one day as each Chicago museum is chock full of sights that can fill an entire day (or more!)
This guide contains a list of the best museums and information about each so planning a trip will be fun and easy!
The Shedd Aquarium is one of the most popular destinations in Chicago as it is officially known as the most popular cultural attraction in the entire city. This huge aquarium is also one of the most visited aquariums in the entire US and was, at one time, the largest.
The Shedd Aquarium is located in a section of Grant Park called Museum Campus Chicago. Museum Campus Chicago also houses Adler Planetarium and The Field Museum.
There are many exhibits at Shedd Aquarium which include the Wild Reef exhibit, the Amazon River exhibit, and the Oceanarium.
The museum also features free days where they allow visitors access to the exhibits free of charge, so those planning ahead may want to see if their trip to Chicago will be on a free day. Many other museums of Chicago also offer free days so this is a good thing to keep an eye out for.
Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago, like the Shedd Aquarium, is located in Grant Park, but it actually is not a part of the Museum Campus section of the park. The Art Institute is actually located right in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue. Something very special about the Art Institute of Chicago is that it is not solely a museum, it is also an art school.
There is a wide range of exhibits here, but the Art Institute of Chicago is known for housing an impressive number of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces. Other exhibits include Native American art, European & American Decorative arts and Asian art. This huge museum is actually the second largest museum in the United States and houses over 260,000 pieces of art.
Some of the most notable pieces in the museum are six of Claude Monet's Haystacks paintings as well as several of his Water Lilies paintings. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat, At the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris Street; Rainy Day by Caillebotte, and American Gothic by Grant Wood are all featured in the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists in the collection include Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas.
Museum of Science & Industry
The Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago is known for being the largest museum in the western hemisphere and is located in a building that was previously known as the Palace of Fine Arts.
This museum has a large number of exhibits including a coal mine, a real German submarine that was captured during WWII, a huge model railroad, the Pioneer Zephyr diesel train, and the spacecraft that NASA used for the Apollo 8 mission.
Some other popular exhibits at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry include Yesterday's Mainstreet which is a mock up of what a city street in Chicago looked like in the early 1900s. This exhibit contains many old shops of Chicago where museum-goers can look into windows and see the types of goods that were for sale in this era. The cobblestone street that visitors go down are complete with fire hydrants and streetlights of the era. There is also both a working cinema at the exhibit and an ice cream parlor that visitors can enjoy while going through Yesterday's Mainstreet.
Another exhibit at the museum, Body Slices, is a hallway two human cadavers have been sliced and visitors can see the different parts of the body that are displayed. One of the newest exhibits is Science Storms which opened in March of 2010. This exhibit features a water vapor tornado, a tsunami tank, a Tesla coil, and more.
The Adler Planetarium, built in 1930, is the first planetarium built in the Western Hemisphere. Those visiting multiple museums in Chicago in one day are in luck as Adler Planetarium is located on Museum Campus in Grant Park along with a handful of other popular Chicago museums.
This museum is located on Northerly Island in a gorgeous domed building whose design won the gold medal from the American Institute of Architects. The building was also later named a National Historic Landmark.
The planetarium houses three full-size theaters where museum-goers can experience beautiful sky shows. Other exhibits at the museum include Planet Explorers where children can get a hands-on experience on a journey through the universe. The Galaxy Wall exhibit features the largest, most complete view of the Milky Way galaxy. The Shoot for the Moon exhibit shares the stories of America's space exploration.
The Field Museum
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, located on Museum Campus in Grant Park, was first started in 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago. The museum was also originally housed in the Columbian Exposition's Palace of Fine Arts (where the Museum of Science & Industry is housed today,) but was moved to its present location in 1921.
Perhaps the most famous exhibit here is Sue which is the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex that has been found.
The Field Museum is also known for its extensive human anthropology exhibits which include artifacts from ancient Egypt, Tibet, and the Pacific Northwest. The taxidermy exhibit is also highly popular which includes the man-eating Lions of Tsavo and a variety of other large animals including African elephants.
The Grainger Hall of Gems features a large collection of diamonds and gems from around the world and contains an exhibit of Chinese jade artifacts that date back over 8,000 years.
Another highly popular exhibit is Inside Ancient Egypt where 23 human mummies can be found as well as a tomb with hieroglyphs that date back over 5,000 years. The McDonald's Fossil Prep Lab is a great learning experience as visitors can watch paleontologists clean and prepare real fossils.
DuSable Museum of African American History
The DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in 1961, is the first museum of African American history, culture, and art.
When this museum first opened, it quickly became a popular cultural resource for African Americans in Chicago and became a major hub of black social activism as it was the host of many events including political fundraisers and festivals. In 1973, the Chicago Park District donated a building in Washington Park to house the growing museum.
Popular exhibits at the DuSable Museum of African American History include the African Presence in Mexico which highlights African contributions to Mexican culture; Tracing the Civil Rights Movement 1848 to 1968 which gives visitors a look into the history of the civil rights movement in America; Red, White, Blue & Black which highlights the history of African Americans in the Armed Services; and the Harold Washington Story which gives visitors a look into the life of Chicago's first African American mayor.
Which Chicago Museum is Your Favorite?
Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum, known as the Chicago Historical Society until 2006, is located in Lincoln Park. The museum was founded in 1856, but sadly most of the museum's early collection was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. One important historical piece lost in the fire was the original Emancipation Proclamation that was signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Shortly after the fire, the Chicago Historical Society started collecting new pieces for its museum that were again lost in a fire in 1874. Thus, a fireproof building was built on the museum's original site, which opened in 1896. However, this new building was only used by the museum until 1932 when it moved to a new site so it could hold the massive collection the museum purchased from Charles Gunther.
Exhibits at the Chicago History Museum include the first passenger car to operate on Chicago's "L" system; Pioneer, which is the first locomotive ever operated in Chicago; and many pieces dedicated to Chicago history. Also, the museum is set to receive a postcard collection depicting Chicago's history from the Chicago Postcard Museum.
Polish Museum of America
The Polish Museum of America is located in West Town which is the historical Polish Downtown neighborhood. In the neighborhood surrounding the museum, visitors can peruse Polish delis and shops. The museum is one of the oldest ethnic museums in America and pays homage to the large number of Poles who call Chicago their home.
Poles make up one of the largest ethnic groups in Chicago and the city has over 185,000 Polish language speakers which are some of the reasons Chicago bills itself as the largest Polish city outside of Poland.
The museum houses many exhibits which include Polish artifacts, artwork, and folk costumes. Each year the Polish Museum of America hosts a number of events and special exhibitions with an aim to share Polish history and culture. These programs include lectures, movies, performances, and school meetings.