Last Updated on March 12, 2023
There are hundreds of museums in the Midwest, covering a wide span of subjects and interests. From transport, to science and nature, art, history and more. In this post I share my personal favourites of what I consider to be some of the best museums in the Midwest USA!
Best Museums In The Midwest
- Best Museums In The Midwest
- Transport Museums
- Interactive Museums
John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, IA
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 I arrived just as a tour was leaving so decided to tag along. It lasted almost 2 hours!
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. 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.
Some of the exhibits are interactive and a few of the tractors can be sat on. If you do take the tour, you are expected to fill in a quick survey about the museum experience.
Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, IA
Opposite the Iowa 80 Truck Stop, the ‘world’s largest truck stop’, is the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. It’s free to visit however donations are appreciated. The museum shows a collection of old trucks that date back to the early 1900s!
If you think of trucks and vehicles nowadays, they are designed for maximum comfort. Seats that have lumber support, temperature control, entertainment systems, all things that make long journeys slightly more comfortable. Rewind back to 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!
Harley Davidson Museum, WI
Milwaukee is the birth place of the Harley Davidson motorcycle, a company that’s now well over 100 years old and still going strong. Harley Davidson was founded by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. In 1901, William drew the blueprints for an engine that could be attached to a bicycle. It took a further 2 years for the finished product to be complete.
Right at the start of the Harley Davidson Museum there’s a simple illuminated 10 x 15 foot rectangle on the ground. It represents the size of the shed where the first Harley Davidson motorbike was built.
The first floor has a display of bikes from the first 5 decades of the company, the ground floor covers from the 1940s to present day. It’s worth speaking to the staff, their knowledge is incredible! One lady told us that the company has actually kept one of every model that’s ever been made!
Kenosha History Center, WI
Together, the Southport Light Station Museum and Kenosha History Center detail Kenosha’s manufacturing/shipping industry and the story of the lighthouse keepers.
Kenosha used to have a huge manufacturing industry, being home to companies such as: Simmon Mattresses, Kenosha Engine which became Nash Motors, followed by the American Motor Corporation and then Chrysler and the Macomber & Whyte Rope Company.
Goods were shipping right from Lake Michigan and travelled through the river ways and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Lighthouses were important for keeping the cargo ships safe.
The current Southport Lighthouse was built in 1866 and was in service until 1906. It was the 3rd lighthouse to be built in that location. The first 2 were built on sand so gradually subsided over the years. The tower you can see today is 55ft tall and has 72 steps leading up to the lantern room. For an additional fee, visitors can go up the tower. On a clear day you can see the Chicago skyline in the distance.
Kenosha is home to 5 museums altogether: the Southport Light Station Museum and Kenosha History Center plus the Civil War Museum, Kenosha Public Museum and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum.
Music Man Square, IA
🗺Mason City, Iowa
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 in the musical 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 within the museum. The film also won the very first Grammy, which is also on display. Upstairs has real music rooms and a recording studio that can be rented.
Midway Village Museum, IL
Back in the late 1800’s, the Nelson Knitting company, based in Rockford Illinois, started creating pairs of socks that didn’t have seams on the heels. These were popular with workmen as the heel seams of previous socks used to rub in the wrong places!
In the 1930’s the company started producing red heel socks. It was during the Great Depression that ‘sock monkeys’ really took off. Money was tight and people would make monkeys for their children out of worn out red heal socks, pretty creative if you ask me! Before the red heel socks were produced, people actually made dolls from the socks!
The Rockford ‘sock monkey socks’ actually started to be sold with the ‘how to make a sock monkey’ instructions inside the packaging during the 1950s. There’s a permanent display in the Midway Village Museum about the history of the Nelson Knitting Company and the sock monkey, which features the evolution of the sock monkey and the culture that this icon turned in to! Once a year in Rockford Illinois, the Midway Village Museum hosts the Sock Monkey Madness Festival.
Along with the main museum building, there’s an outdoor (seasonal) ‘Victorian Village’ with 26 historical buildings documenting the era. Guides conduct one hour tours dressing in Victorian clothing.
City Museum, MO
🗺St Louis, Missouri
It’s hard to find the words to describe just how crazy the City Museum in St Louis is. It’s definitely not your typical museum. It’s literally a giant mash of sculptures, where everything can be climbed on/up/through or slid down! This is the work of Bob Cassilly and his team of 20 other artists and sculptors.
The City Museum opened in 1997 and is built in a disused building that was part of the International Shoe Company Factory. Sticking to its roots of being a shoe factory, the City Museum is home to an old fashioned WORKING shoelace making machine. It’s actually really cool seeing how the cords are braided together to create a lace.
One of the most impressive parts of the City Museum is the 10 storey spiral slide. It is reached by passing through the Enchanted Caves which are big enough for adults to walk around without needing to crawl!
My favourite part of the City Museum was the outside ‘Monstrocity’. It features two old aeroplanes where the path takes you across the wing! I even climbed up and sat on the roof of one! (Everything is kinda climbable but they do say ‘COMMON SENSE PREVAILS’.
Putnam Science Museum, IA
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 (both local cities in the Quad Cities, as well as further afield to Ancient Egypt) and the Natural World.
The museum also houses a Giant Screen Theatre that 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!
Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, WI
🗺Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
We came to the conclusion that to get the most out of the Tommy Barlett Exploratory you’d need to be an adult or an older child. There are almost 200 science experiments and brain teaser type puzzles that I think would be lost on a younger visitor. So it’s one of best things to do in Wisconsin Dells for adults.
We spent 2 hours playing with the hands on exhibits and had a great time. As well as the science exhibits, there’s whole area of the museum is dedicated to space exploration and the space station. The majority of the museum is inside (great for Midwestern winters!), but outside is a ‘Giant Lever’ where you can lift a 5000lb car and a ‘High Wire SkyCycle’!
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, IA
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque 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 2 main sections, the National River Center and the Mississippi River Center (which focuses on the history and wildlife found along the Mississippi).
One part of the museum is the ‘Gulf of Mexico’ exhibition. All rivers eventually end up in a sea and the Mississippi River’s final destination is in the Gulf of Mexico! The River Museum is home to a giant floor to ceiling salt water aquarium, full of tropical fish and even a sea turtle!
Permanently docked at the Dubuque Harbor is the William M. Black paddle steamer boat. It was once upon a time used to dredge the Mississippi River. It was built in 1934 and is now a National Historic Landmark. It is open for guided tours during the weekend. The tour literally takes you around the whole boat, you get to see everything from the engine rooms, to the helm, right up to the cabins where the crew used to sleep!
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