These museums are anything but musty and dusty.
Imagine a collection of almost all local art, shown off in a historically significant building: displays of locomotives and railcars paired with a scenic railroad; a county’s history, pulled from people’s attics and basements; a salute to art inspired by water; and a place just for fans of Vikings — the football kind, that is.
Groups can have these and other memorable experiences at museums throughout Minnesota.
Rourke Art Gallery and Museum
Going local is nothing new at the Rourke Art Gallery and Museum in Moorhead.
Housed in a restored 1915 post office, the last of downtown’s “grand” buildings, the Rourke exhibits art by area artists instead of work from afar. “We’re trying to do the opposite of that,” said exhibition manager Cameron Peterson.
Its nine exhibition spaces are used in two ways. The Rourke rotates pieces from its 4,000-piece permanent collection as any museum would. Most works are by Midwestern artists, although there are a few ringers, like an Andy Warhol. Other spaces operate as an art gallery, with works by local artists on display and for sale.
“We are not just a museum,” said Peterson. “Through our galleries, we support local artists to give a new artist a start or display shows of regional artists.”
Art rotates frequently, so most months visitors will see something new. And lest you think there might not be enough local talent to round out shows, consider this: In 2019, 95 area artists participated in the museum’s annual invitational. This year, that show, with the theme “Within One’s Own Skin,” opens June 18.
“I like to promote that one for group tours,” said Peterson. “It is a good chance to see a variety of styles and techniques and interpretations of a theme.”
James O’Rourke, who founded the museum in 1960 and led it for many years, also wanted his museum to be run by artists rather than art administrators. His wish is currently granted: Peterson is a printmaker, and executive director Jonathan Rutter is a painter.
The Rourke is open to the public Friday through Sunday, and Wednesdays and Thursdays by appointment. Admission is free, and guided tours cost $2 per person.
Lake Superior Railroad Museum
At most railroad museums, you gaze at massive locomotives and dream of where they might take you. But at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the historic Duluth Union Depot, you can ride the rails.
“We have an excursion railroad right out our back door,” said Ken Buehler, executive director and general manager. “It’s rare to have both a museum and a scenic excursion train.”
It’s also unusual for the train to go somewhere. Unlike most rail excursions — Buehler said his former wife used to describe scenic railroads as “four miles into the woods and four miles back” — the North Shore Scenic Railroad travels 28 miles north to Two Harbors. It wends its way up to the Lake Superior shore town; through the city, neighborhoods and north woods; out to the lakeshore; and back into the woods.
The trip takes about two hours, depending on how much it slows down at scenic points. “You cross seven trestles and bridges,” said Buehler. Some span chasms carved by rivers. And, of course, Lake Superior often steals the show. “When you’ve got that view, you slow down,” he said.
Buehler suggests that before they hop on the train, groups spend at least an hour at the museum, chosen as the top transportation museum in the country in 2017 by USA Today. There’s a lot to see — more than 20 locomotives — all of which run and can be used for the excursion train and more than 40 other cars and pieces of equipment. Groups can arrange for a behind-the-scenes tour of a dining car owned by U.S. Steel. They’ll also want to visit the immigrant waiting room, where thousands of newcomers entered the state to work in its iron ore mines. It was, at the time, the Midwestern version of Ellis Island, Buehler said.
As the train takes a group up the lake, their motorcoach can travel the road to Two Harbors and meet them when they disembark there. Depending on the timing, the group can dine in Two Harbors or have a box lunch as they head on up the road to Split Rock Lighthouse and other scenic spots.
The Minnesota Vikings joined an elite group in 2018 when they became only the fourth NFL team to have their own stand-alone museum.
And what a museum it is, a 14,000-square-foot shrine to the home team on the Vikings’ new headquarters campus in Eagan, a Minneapolis suburb. Not far off Interstate 494, it is 15 minutes from Mall of America and the airport. That makes it a natural stop before and after games during the season, said the museum’s Jessica Faucher. “A lot of fans come in for a Sunday game on Saturday and stay over on Monday, so they might come to the museum on those days.”
For this museum, finding qualified tour guides was no problem. “Fans approached us about volunteering,” said Faucher. “They’d say, ‘I love the Vikings, I’m a lifelong fan; I want to do more.’”
Many have followed the team since its inaugural 1961 season and they keep up with the latest Vikings news.
A short film in the 360-degree theater makes a good introduction; a virtual reality experience allows fans to feel like they are standing on the field on opening day, surrounded by stands packed with cheering fans. Many stories are told of those who made the Vikings a team to be reckoned with. “Our story and artifacts gravitate toward people involved in the legacy since the inaugural season of ’61, especially coach Bud Grant,” said Faucher.
Memorabilia collected over the past few years visually tells the story not just of Vikings football but also of the sport’s history in Minnesota. Who knew, for example, that a Vikings predecessor, the Duluth Eskimos, helped save the NFL?
After a guided tour, groups are welcome to see more on their own or to plunge into piles of purple-and-gold Vikings paraphernalia in the Vikings Locker Room gift shop. “We’re quite proud of our purple and gold,” said Faucher.
Minnesota Marine Art Museum
Like the license plate says, Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. The state is also the birthplace of the Mississippi River; dozens of other rivers spider-web its earth as Lake Superior pats the top of its head. Even if it isn’t coastal, Minnesota has liquid assets.
“Most people in Minnesota have a strong connection to water,” said Dave Casey, assistant curator of education and exhibitions at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) in Winona.
That is why an art museum whose collection is tied to water makes sense here. “Great art, inspired by water,” is how the museum describes its collecting principles as it sits within sight of the Mississippi River.
That guiding principle yields a surprisingly broad collection. There’s the expected, like Emanuel Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” from 1851. This painting hung in the White House for 30 years before it was purchased by MMAM. There’s also the edgy and unexpected, such as an upcoming exhibition of Hawaii photographer Christy Lee Rogers’ surrealistic underwater images. She was named the 2019 Sony World Open Photographer of the Year. “Her underwater photographs of people in motion in colorful dresses look like 17th-century baroque paintings,” Casey said.
Artists not thought of as marine artists also hang here: Georgia O’Keeffe, three generations of Wyeths, Vincent van Gogh, John James Audubon, even Pablo Picasso.
“No one would think of him as a marine artist, but you will see water pop up in his work,” said Casey.
The museum is best known for its Hudson Valley School collection but is also rich with works of the impressionists and an expanding contemporary collection.
With group discounts, the $5 admission is a bargain for six galleries of impressive art. Tours can be self-guided, but by calling at least three weeks in advance, a group can arrange for a more enlightening tour, about an hour long and led by Casey, other staff or docents. Each chooses which paintings to discuss, giving every tour a different twist. Afterward, visitors can tour the museum on their own or duck into a well-stocked gift shop that sells items tied to the museum’s collection and made by local artists.
History Museum of East Otter Tail County
For a primer on how to start a local history museum, visit the History Museum of East Otter Tail County in Perham. “The collection started with the historical society asking people in the community to donate items,” said Mary Pfeffer, one of eight museum volunteers.
People complied. They dug into closets, attics, basements and garages, and what they shared is the foundation of a quaint collection that captures the significance of this corner of Otter Tail County.
What do visitors get to see? Home movies, filmed by a resident in the 1920s; instead of actors, regular townspeople are the cast. There’s a working Edison phonograph and its cylinders, Native American artifacts donated by a local who collected them from area tribes, old signs and scrapbooks, books, vintage clothing and photographs.
Today, this county of 1,000 lakes is known for tourism, but its past was more complicated, said Pfeffer.
“The town was built by the railroad, so there is a lot of railroad history,” she said. “We were also part of the homesteading movement, so a lot of our early settlers were homesteaders. After the Civil War, logging was a big thing.”
There’s an exhibit about the country schools and photos of famous businesses, like the Schroeder Brewery and the brick yard that manufactured the town’s distinctive yellow bricks. “There’s a little bit of everything,” said Pfeffer.
The museum is in a stone building that was a church then a library. Its small gift shop features items from the Otter Tail area.
Take a deep breath as you step out of the museum, Pfeffer said, and you’ll realize that Perham still has plenty of hustle. Depending on which way the wind blows, the air is scented with dog food, licorice, potato chips or sour milk on its way to becoming cheese, all products made in this industrious area.