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The 10 Best Museums In Chicago

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 30, 2014 7:30PM

Whether attending one of the classic cultural establishments connected by the Museum Campus or finding some smaller museums and galleries in Chicago's outlying neighborhoods, we all love a day at the museum.

Following are 10 museums and galleries we could waste a day looking at art, artifacts, sculpture and fossils.

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Photo credit: sbooththesalient

The Art Institute of Chicago
For fans of fine art, the Art Institute is like being a kid in a candy store with something palatable for everyone, from the serious art observer to people playing hooky from school or work, Ferris Bueller-style. If you love Impressionism, then you can spend some time exploring the detail of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Do your tastes run toward surrealism? Then head to the Art Institute’s current Magritte exhibit. If you want a detailed look into architecture, then check out the current “Architecture to Scale: Stanley Tigerman and Zago Architecture.” Or spend an afternoon getting lost in the Modern Wing and enjoy lunch or dinner at Terzo Piano. If you leave the Art Institute bored or having learned litte, you have no one to blame but yourself. —Chuck Sudo

The Art Institute of Chicago is located at 111 S. Michigan Ave.


Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Sometimes a museum doesn’t have to feel like a museum at all. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park proves that nature wasn’t meant to be read about or watched on a documentary. It’s best to experience it. Beautiful, blooming nature trails surround the museum, newborn turtles explore their new world in its interior and butterflies dance through the rooftop garden. More traditional, still life exhibits like the museum’s extensive nature photography and taxidermy collections also lend to a surprising amount of learning. The Butterfly Haven (and the cute quail that scurry through the foliage and keep its bug population under control) alone is worth the $9 cost of admission but if you happen to make it on a Thursday, Illinois residents can skip the admission fee and instead make a donation in their desired amount to the museum. — Katie Karpowicz

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is located at 2430 N. Cannon Dr.


International Museum of Surgical Science
Walking around the International Museum of Surgical Science feels like getting lost in your eccentric great aunt’s mansion, you know the one with the kidney stone collection? Housed in the only Lake Shore Drive home open to the public, the IMSS is for historians, medical professionals and all the curious, oddity-loving, explorers in between. Go on a Tuesday ‘free’ day and amble through the museum’s four floors which display a set of rotating exhibits and staples. Make sure to stop at the full-scale apothecary shop on the first floor, created from two turn of the century pharmacies. Other must-sees include a rare working iron lung in the polio exhibit and the original plaster cast of the death mask of Napoleon. — Allison Kelley

International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.

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The Chicago History Museum (Photo credit: Ryan Tacay)

Chicago History Museum
In Old Town at the corner of North and Clark just down the street from other Chicago landmarks like Lincoln Park and The Second City sits the often-overlooked Chicago History Museum. Formerly the Chicago Historical Society, the museum is the perfect spot for natives and tourists to mingle and learn more about our beloved city. Most of what you’ll find will be artifacts post-1871, thanks to the great fire, which you can learn more about in stunningly detailed dioramas. Most major events that shaped our city are covered from the tragic Eastland Disaster and Haymarket Riot, to Lincoln’s campaign trail and even the Super Bowl shufflin’ 1985 Bears. Other museum highlights include a current exhibit of the photography of Vivian Mair, who brilliantly captured everyday Chicago life in the 1960s and 1970s and a permanent exhibit on Chicago’s rich railroad history. Before you go, check for special discounts, the museum frequently hosts free weekdays and discount days for Illinois residents. —Gina Provenzano

Chicago History Museum is located at 1601 N. Clark St.


Oriental Institute
Fans of the archaeology, history, culture and art of the Near East can have their fill at this museum on the campus of the University of Chicago. James Henry Breasted founded the museum in 1919 as a means of exploring Western civilization’s ties to Mesopotamia, Egypt and other early bedrocks of civilization. The Oriental Institute contains artifacts from all over the Middle East, including an impressive array of Luristan bronzes, a 40-ton human-headed lamassu (winged bull) from Khorsabad, the capital of Sargon II, and various treasures from Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia. The Institute’s exhibits in recent years have focused on the looting and destruction of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq; exploring the connections between the ancient Chinese Silk Road and Indian Ocean traders; observing how Jews, Muslims and Christians co-existed in Old Cairo; pre-Pyramids Egyptian civilization; and even the influence on Breasted and fellow scholar Robert Braidwood on the characterization of Indiana Jones. The Oriental Institute is free to visit, but donations are accepted. — Chuck Sudo

The Oriental Institute is located at 1155 E. 58th St.

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The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (Photo credit: Jim Watkins)

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
As much as I love a long day spent at some of the massive museums Chicago has to offer, as a resident I sometimes prefer a well curated collection that I can enjoy during a single afternoon or evening visit. So my favorite local spot where I find myself returning to again and again is the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The museum isn’t large but still had a hearty collection that rotates frequently, showcasing well known marquee names alongside local artists of interest. It’s minimal design also makes it an ideal place to just sit and relax, admiring the art and downtown views around you, especially during the Tuesdays on the Terrace series during the warmer months. Besides the well crafted permanent collection, the special exhibits cover a wide range of styles and formats in modern art, from sculpture to visual and even performance art. Not to mention they have one of the most talked about exhibits in the U.S. this year, snagging the only slot in the country to host the David Bowie Is exhibit. Besides the museum itself, their theater is a great space to catch a performance (I enjoyed a mesmerizing and memorable ├ôlafur Arnalds concert there years ago) and their gift shop has a huge selection of books and vinyl toys to pick up while visiting. Although you can visit free on Tuesdays, I’ve enjoyed getting a household membership and spending long Saturday afternoons and weekday nights strolling through the collection, not to mention getting some nice preview perks and discounts. — Lisa White

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave.


Leather Archives & Museum
Tucked away in an unassuming building just off Devon Ave in Rogers Park, is a small museum that houses some of the most detailed history and intriguing artifacts of two very popular niche cultures; the leather subculture and BDSM. Whether you are part of these communities or simply like to learn about new cultures and explore human sexuality, the LA&M is a great educational resource. The museum has multiple galleries that house a huge quantity of leather art (they own the largest collection of Etienne original art and have a nice amount of Tom of Finland works), BDSM devices and tools and items from the history and rise in popularity of leather bars. One of the cornerstones of the LA&M is they allow public access to their library, which houses everything from manuscripts from the Marquis de Sade to vintage copies of Drummer Magazine and over 5,000 video and audio tapes, including interviews with lead figures and historians in multiple kink communities. Obviously since the subject matter of the museum deals at times with material of a strong graphic sexual nature, make sure you are aware what type of exhibit you will be entering by checking out their site before you visit. This isn’t the place to take Grandma when she comes up to visit (unless you have the most badass liberal Grandma around). But it is a wonderful look into two vibrant communities and a great resource. — Lisa White

The Leather Archives & Museum is located at 6418 N. Greenview Ave. Check their website for museum hours, which are limited.


Field Museum The truth of the matter is, Chicago has an amazing array of museums. Picking just one as a favorite or the best seems like trying to pick a best child. But if pressed to choose, I’d say the Field Museum holds a special place in my heart. Born out of the World’s Fair and housing around 26 million artifacts in total (though only a fraction are out for display) this place is full of amazing sights and stories. Maybe you’ve met Sue? Case in point. The Field Museum has so many amazing programs, its own beer, and a gift shop full of things that make our wallets thinner. And because there’s so many artifacts that are never-before-seen, no matter how many times you’ve been here, it has immense potential to show you something new. Add to that all the active science happening every day just beyond Stanley Hall, and the fact that you can get a peek at it, and you’ve sold us, hook, line and sinker. — Marielle Shaw

The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr.


Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
I never tire of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Their exhibitions are always thoroughly engaging, their gift shop always has incredibly unique items (a lot made by outsider artists), and their openings are welcoming and never pretentious or stuffy. And if all that is not enough to make this museum worth frequent visits, they also have a room that is a replica of Henry Darger's Chicago apartment, a cluttered majesty of endless artwork and decor. Their Robert A. Roth study collection is a non-circulating and impressive place for learning more about Outsider Art, and membership is very reasonable. A membership affords supporters and a guest free admission into the museum, access to lectures, a discount in the shop, a complimentary subscription to The Outsider magazine, and more. There is really nothing in the city quite like Intuit, and it is a place not to be missed by artists, researchers, and art enthusiasts alike. --Carrie McGath

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is located at 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.

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Jim Leedy's "The Earth Lies Screaming" at the National Veterans Art Museum. (Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist Photo)

National Veterans Art Museum
The roots of this museum date back to 1981 when four Vietnam War veterans created a touring exhibit called “Reflexes and Reflections.” Former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a longtime patron of the arts, helped the museum find a permanent home in the Historic Prairie District in 1996 before moving to Portage Park’s Six Corners Business district on Veterans Day two years ago. Today the NVAM houses more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, photos, music, poetry and other artifacts, all of them created by combat veterans. Exhibits such as the current “Surrealism & War” explore the relationship between surrealism and the experience of war. The foundation of this exhibit is “The Earth Lies Screaming” by Korean War veteran and surrealist Jim Leedy. Whether you’re a veteran or a fan of visceral art, you’ll leave a visit to this museum having had a profound experience. —Chuck Sudo

The National Veterans Art Museum is located at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.