America’s Heartland has some of the best museums in the country, from the Field Museum in Chicago to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields in Indianapolis. A focus on science, art or history helps these signature museums define the cities in which they are located.
Plan to take your groups to visit some of these museums next time you tour the Midwest.
On the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s Field Museum opened to the public in its current location in 1921. One of the most iconic museums in the country, its collections grew out of the items on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The museum first opened to the public in June 1894 in a different location. The Field has 35 permanent exhibits, including some of the most complete dinosaur skeletons in the country and 23 well-preserved Egyptian mummies. It also features world-class temporary exhibitions.
Groups not only get a discount on their entrance fee to the museum, but they can also organize a group lunch or view a 3D movie as part of their visit. For an additional fee, they can take a docent-led tour of the museum’s permanent collections or take part in a docent presentation of the museum’s many special temporary exhibits.
If groups would like to go beyond the exhibits on display, they can set up a tour of the nonpublic collections areas with a museum curatorial staff member. Visitors can wander through the zoology and entomology departments, where they can see real live bugs, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches, up close and learn about the special worker bugs that help clean animal skeletons at the museum.
Popular exhibits include the man-eating lions of Tsavo; the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found; and Maximo the Titanosaur, a cast of a huge plant-eating dinosaur modeled from fossil bones excavated in Argentina that is 122 feet across and 28 feet tall at the head.
Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields is a must-see destination in the heart of Indianapolis. For the price of general admission, visitors get access to 100 acres of art and the surrounding nature park with formal gardens. There is also a 30-acre lake in the middle of the nature park that is always open and free to the public.
The museum features art from all eras and all over the world, from ancient African art to the art of living local artists. There are four floors of galleries featuring impressionists like Vincent van Gogh to contemporary art.
Customized group tours are available if there is one section of the museum in which a group is most interested, but all groups receive a discount even if they don’t book a guided tour. Tours are available both inside and outside the museum in the formal gardens. Accessibility tours are also offered that are touch and audio descriptive for people who are visually impaired, said Emily Sogard, communications coordinator for Newfields.
The museum moved to its current location in 1964, but the formal gardens were already there. The museum itself started in 1883, and “we have been a fixture of the Indianapolis arts community for a very long time,” Sogard said.
Science Museum of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota
Along the mighty Mississippi River on the edge of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, the Science Museum of Minnesota is a museum for all ages.
“We’re not just for kids,” said Tom Hedrick, marketing director for the museum. “We certainly have a lot of activities that children of all ages love and a lot of parents bring children to see due to the interactive nature of the exhibits and their high educational value.”
Highlights include an exhibit on race; a three-story-tall, 7,000-pound astronaut created for the 2014 Coachella Music and Arts Festival that allows visitors to project their own image on the face shield; and Science Live theater performances that educate and entertain guests about various scientific principles.
The facility isn’t just a science museum; it is also a research center that employs scientists in the field.
The museum has a huge collection of fossils and samples of biological and scientific specimens in its labs, which are opened for tours at various times of the year.
“Our collection of scientific artifacts is very expansive with discoveries found in Minnesota and other parts of the world,” Hedrick said. “We have drawers full of exciting things visitors can see when we open our vaults for tours.”
The museum sports one of the few Omni theaters in the region; this is an Imax theater with a domed screen so visitors can completely immerse themselves in the movie experience.
Wisconsin Maritime Museum
The Wisconsin Maritime Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. The museum, which originally was built to commemorate the area’s distinguished past as a submarine builder for the U.S. Navy, has since evolved into an institution that preserves all the maritime history of the Great Lakes region and Wisconsin.
Shipbuilders in Manitowoc built 28 freshwater submarines for the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Visitors to the museum can tour the inside of the USS Cobia, a World War II submarine that also was built in freshwater and tested in the Great Lakes before doing five war patrols.
The museum talks about all aspects of the maritime landscape in Wisconsin. One of its temporary exhibits talks about the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and how it interacted with the Great Lakes for thousands of years.
Another exhibit tells the maritime history of Wisconsin from schooners and submarines to luxury yachts. Two theaters in the museum show films, and for the families that visit, a water area allows kids to build a boat and sail it along Wisconsin waterways, going through locks and dams and learning about water as they get wet splashing each other, said Abby Diaz, director of education and public programs for the museum.
Groups of more than 10 people get the discounted rate of $10 per person, and that includes a tour of the submarine and unlimited access to the galleries and theaters.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
West Branch, Iowa
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is one of 13 presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. It is a popular destination for tour groups, many of which follow the presidential library and museum trail through the middle states visiting the Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower libraries as part of the same journey.
“Presidential libraries are great places for people to kind of get the CliffsNotes version of American history,” said Thomas Schwartz, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. “If you look at the comments both on our website and on social media, you will see that people really discover a man that they knew very little or nothing about or that they only associate negatively with the Great Depression.
“What they discover is this really great humanitarian, a fellow who, at age 40, essentially turns his back on his fortune; he lives off his fortune and spends the next 50 years in humanitarian and public service endeavors, all without compensation.”
The library not only holds all Hoover’s papers but also archives many of his recorded speeches. The museum galleries tell Hoover’s story from birth to his time as an engineer, as secretary of commerce and as president of the United States and about his humanitarian work following his presidency.
Groups also can visit other Hoover-related attractions in the area, like the home where he was born, the Quaker meetinghouse he attended, a replica of his father’s blacksmith shop, the one-room schoolhouse his older brother attended and the gravesite where he and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, are buried. Those sites are operated by the National Park Service.