Last Updated on March 12, 2023
Looking back, I’m surprised at just how many Iowa museums I visited during my time living in the Midwest! I share 18 museums in Iowa, covering a whole range of different interests: transport, history, art, science and nature, sport and children’s museums. There’s something for everyone!
Disclosure: I visited several of these museums while on press trips with various Iowa CVBs. As always opinions are my own.
- Museums In Iowa
- History (People & Places)
- Science & Nature
Museums In Iowa
Iowa 80 Trucking Museum
💰FREE (donations appreciated)
Iowa 80 Truck Stop is said to be the largest truck stop in the world, it even has it’s own trucking museum! The Iowa 80 Trucking Museum is free to visit, however donations are appreciated! The museum shows a collection of old trucks that date back to the early 1900s!
100 years ago and the trucks literally had bench seats and wooden knobs on the tyres as a way of being able to get traction. Top speeds seemed to average around 35mph! Can you imagine how long deliveries would take nowadays if trucks only did 35mph?!
John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum
I was surprised when I found out that the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum was free to visit…even more so when a guided tour is free too! (If you do take the tour, you are expected to fill in a quick survey about the museum experience). I arrived just as a tour was leaving so decided to tag along. It lasted almost 2 hours!
Even though I don’t come from somewhere with a huge farming industry (sorry John Deere, I see more New Holland tractors at home!) I found the museum interesting to see how it has changed and evolved across the years.
In 1918 John Deere acquired the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. Since then Waterloo continues to be one of the main manufacturing locations of John Deere tractors.
National Farm Toy Museum
The National Farm Toy Museum in Dyerville, is a collection of farm related toys, from tractors to farm equipment. Exhibits have included a handmade wooden toy collection by Bernie Kluesner and 100 years of John Deere tractors. The museum is open daily.
During the first weekends of June and November, they host the National Farm Toy show. 2020 was the 35th anniversary! It’s held in some of the buildings surrounding the museum as well as in pop up gazebos in the car park. There are collections to view along with toys to buy.
National Motorcycle Museum
The National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa opened in 1989. It started life as a collection of 40 motorcycles, but it is now home to over 500! The museum was originally located in downtown Anamosa but relocated to a larger building in 2010 along US 151. As well as displaying motorcycles through the ages, there is also memorabilia, toys, posters and photos.
A current exhibit (correct of Jan 2023) is the 1920’s Era Gas Station. A gas station was restored and reconstructed inside the museum. It displays gravity pumps, oil tanks and an attendants office.
Each year the Midwest Hillclimber’s Motorcycle Hill Climb takes place a short drive away from the National Motorcycle Museum. 2022 was the 72nd event!
History (People & Places)
Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home
🗺Charles City, IA
It is Located on the outskirts of Charles City is the Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home. Carrie Lane Chapman Catt was a large influence in the woman’s suffrage movement in the early 1900’s. This resulted in the 19th amendment in women being given the right to vote in the USA. The house has many displays and exhibits about what it was like living during this time and of Carrie’s life.
The Girlhood Home is open to the public Memorial Day to Labor Day. Entrance is free. To find out more, visit the Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home website.
Kinney Pioneer Museum
🗺Clear Lake, IA
I only got to experience a small (but very large!) section of the Kinney Pioneer Museum. It celebrates trade and life in Iowa through the years. Their collection is very impressive and includes cars, replicas of old stores with authentic items and furniture, a collection of cameras, old fashioned clothes and toys and so much more…including a ‘two legged pig that walked like a chicken’!
I didn’t even get to see the outdoor ‘living history’ Pioneer Village! I really loved the music box (which sounded like an ice cream van) and was like an even older version of a jukebox that played records! It’s a bargain to visit too. Adults are $5 and child entrance is $2. It’s open during May and September between 1pm – 5pm (closed Mondays).
Music Man Square
🗺Mason City, IA
The musical ‘The Music Man’ was written by Meredith Willson who was born in Mason City, and you can even tour his boyhood home! The Music Man came out in 1957. River City is based on Mason City. When you visit Music Man Square, you are greeted with a set recreation of a 1912 streetscape INSIDE the building complete with a street made out of wooden blocks. Mason City resident streets were made out of wooden blocks back when horse and carriages were used, as they dampened the noise of the hooves.
There’s lots of Meredith Willson and Music Man memorabilia. The film also won the very first Grammy, which is also on display. I then found out that Meredith Willson wrote the Christmas song ‘It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas’! Upstairs has real music rooms and a recording studio that can be hired! The Candy Kitchen also has great ice cream.
National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
🗺Cedar Rapids, IA
The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library originally began life as the Czech Fine Arts Foundation in 1974. It was founded by descendants of Czech immigrants who wanted to preserve and share Czech culture and heritage. Over the years they have collected a wide range of artefacts which feature in changing exhibits on a range of subjects.
They also hold various events throughout the year where people can learn about the Czech language, traditional dishes and styles of art. Along with annual events such as the Hody celebration (celebration of feasts) in May, BrewNost beer festival in September and the Old World Christmas Market in December. The museum is open daily (closed on some public holidays) and the library is open Tuesday to Sunday.
Old Capitol Museum
🗺Iowa City, IA
In 1839 Iowa City was chosen as the capitol of Iowa. Construction on the Old Capitol building began in 1840. However in 1857 (1 year after Iowa officially became a state), the State capitol moved to Des Moines and the Old Capitol was then the first permanent building of the University of Iowa.
Visitors can go on a self guided tour and discover how the building was used throughout its history. Rooms include: the Supreme Court Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the House Chamber and more. There are various information panels throughout the building. It is also home to temporary exhibits.
Surf Ballroom & Museum
🗺Clear Lake, IA
This music venue originally opened in 1933 but is especially known for its connection to ‘the day that music died’. It’s the last venue that Buddy Holly played before he died in a plane crash. It still operates as a music venue as well as an a wedding and conference space.
They also have a small museum about the history and the artists that have played the Surf Ballroom over the years. There is a suggested donation of $5 to take a self guided tour of the venue. Volunteers are around to answer any questions that visitors may have. There are signed guitars, old concert posters and more. For groups with over 30 people, guided tours can be arranged.
Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
🗺Mason City, IA
The Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City looks similar to the style of an English Tudor house! The inside of the museum feels HUGE, despite the outside looking so small!
There are several different galleries but my favourite was the ‘Bil Baird: World of Puppets’. Bil Baird was a puppeteer that grew up in Mason City. A well known part of his collection are those that appeared in ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ scene in the Sound of Music film. His puppets are amazing, there are several other ‘groups’ from his Wizard of Oz and Winnie The Pooh productions, along with some others!
The art museum is closed on Sunday, Monday and legal holidays.
Figge Art Museum
(Closed on Mondays)
The Figge Art Museum is located right on the Mississippi River in Davenport Iowa. I visited on a Saturday and the museum was very quiet and peaceful. As a lover of photography, the photo based exhibits were my favourite. I really liked the “Portrait of Maquoketa” exhibit but unfortunately it was only a temporary exhibit (Oct 2016 – Feb 2017)!
The Spirit of Haiti is full of brightly coloured paintings that almost make you feel as if you are right there in the Caribbean! There is also a Grant Wood exhibit, an Iowan artist from the early 1900’s, a fun little booklet is available for free and allows younger visitors to recreate some of his works of art…of course I picked one up too…!
Science & Nature
Putnam Museum & Science Center
Museum Entrance Only – Adult: $9 | Child: $8 ($5 extra for Giant Screen Movie)
Giant Screen Movie Only – Adult: $9 | Child (2-18): $8
The Putnam Museum is great for both adults and kids. I LOVED the hands on science exhibit which explained how things work such as: mechanics, electricity, animation etc. Other exhibits include History and the Natural World.
The NatGeo Giant Screen Theatre shows both 3D and 2D movies. When I visited, I saw a 3D film about the life of Monarch butterflies and their migratory patterns. For the travel obsessed, there are also movies about airplanes, the oceans and various countries around the world!
Visitors can either purchase museum entrance tickets or just the giant screen movie ticket. Adult tickets are $9 and children (2-18yrs) are $8. If you plan on experiencing the whole museum, the giant screen can be added to the museum entrance for just $5. The museum is open daily.
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, is one of only a handful of establishments that is accredited by BOTH the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The museum is split into a couple of different sections. The Woodward Wetland & Mississippi River Center focuses on the wildlife found along the length of the Mississippi River. As well as fish, there are otters, alligator snapping turtles and American alligators exhibited.
Another area of the museum is the ‘Rivers to the Sea – Gulf of Mexico Aquarium’. The Mississippi River’s final destination is the Gulf of Mexico. In this area you’ll find more tropical species of fish, that live in salt water environments. There is a stingray touch tank and visitors can see Dot the sea turtle (Santa SCUBA dives in this tank in the lead up to Christmas!).
As the name suggests, it is a museum along with being an aquarium, so there are lots of exhibits about the history and geography of the Mississippi River. The William M. Black paddle steamer is docked outside the museum, on selected dates it is open for tours. It was built in 1934 and is now a National Historic Landmark. There is also a 4D cinema!
University of Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame & Museum
🗺Iowa City, IA
The University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame and Museum is open daily (times vary) and is completely FREE to visit. The Roy G. Karro Building has 3 floors displaying over 100 years worth of history and Hawkeye memorabilia, the ground floor even has conference and event space!
If you feel like releasing your inner child, or testing out your skills, there’s a mini basketball court on the 3rd floor where you can ‘shoot some hoops’. A large part of the museum of course celebrates football (and a whole range of others) with a list of Hall of Fame inductees of those being recognised for their commitment and dedication to their sport. There’s even some giant bobble heads!
One of the biggest names in the Hall of Fame is Nile Kinnick. The Kinnick Stadium, the Iowa Hawkeyes football stadium, was re-named after Nile in the 1970s. He was a football player back in the 1930s and even won the Heisman Trophy (a trophy annually awarded to the most outstanding college football player in the USA). But unfortunately in 1943, Nile Kinnick died in a plane crash during World War II.
If You Built It Exhibit
Dyersville is the location of the Field of Dreams Movie Site and in recent years has hosted MLB games. The movie site is a popular place to visit where families can play baseball on the diamond or enjoy a free show by the Field of Dreams ghost players during the summer months.
However, in Downtown Dyersville is the ‘If You Build It’ Exhibit, This small museum shares the history of the movie location and behind the scenes stories from the making of the movie. There’s also a gift shop on site where you can buy Field of Dreams and baseball themed merchandise.
It’s best to keep an eye on the ‘If You Build It’ Exhibit Facebook page to keep up to date with opening hours. They are open every day throughout the summer season, with restricted hours during some of the winter months. Admission is $5 and children under 12 are free.
The movie site is 4.4miles (approximately a 10 minute drive) from the ‘If You Build It’ Exhibit. The field is technically open year round from dawn to dusk, however tours of the house only operate at selected times. There’s also a ‘Baseballism’ retail store located at the movie site. See the Field of Dreams website for more details.
Iowa Children’s Museum
The Iowa Children’s Museum focuses on children learning and developing through the ‘power of play’. The exhibits fall into five main categories: Arts & Culture, Financial Literacy, Healthy Kids, School Readiness and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
Learners will find rooms such as: the Art Studio, City Grocery, City Money, CityWorks Children’s Hospital, Pizzeria Pie, Take Flight and more. For example children can role play working in a pizza restaurant in the Pizzeria Pie exhibit. Here they can pretend to serve customers, make pizzas and work the cash register.
The Iowa Children’s Museums has loads of information on how each exhibit can help simulate children. It also includes ‘play prompts’ to help adults to encourage the children and get the most out of the zones. Exhibits are aimed at children 12 years and under.
Entrance of both adults and children is $10. The museum is closed on Mondays.
🗺Des Moines, IA
Selfie WRLD isn’t a typical museum, it’s aimed at those that enjoy using social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. It’s a ‘self service’ photography studio with a selection of interactive back drops, props and a 360 degree selfie booth. As well as mobile phones, DSLR cameras are allowed too, for those that are after higher quality images (no tripods or addition equipment though).
There are several different packages available to book. General admission for a 1 hour time slot is $20 per person (ages 3yrs+). Observers are $10 however this is for people that will not be in any photos OR will not be taking any of the photos. For example, this is good for parents that may want to watch their kids having fun, without actually taking part themselves.
Let’s Go Viral Selfie Museum at the Kennedy Mall in Dubuque Iowa is another similar smaller museum. Selfie WRLD was the first of its kind in Iowa!
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