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10 Under-the-Radar Museums in Chicago

These institutions offer unique views of the past, present, and future of the Windy City.

people looking at giant cube on display
Hi, I'm Liam!

Liam Greenwell is a writer and teacher based in Mexico City. He is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can read more of his work at liamgreenwell.com and find him on Twitter @liam_greenwell.

Chicago is the unofficial capital of the Midwest, a place that embraces its heritage as well as its status as a multicultural and constantly evolving metropolis. Visitors will know the city by its icons: deep-dish pizza, Al Capone, and, on the museum front, the Art Institute and the Field Museum. But if you want to dig deeper into the modern-day city, it’s best to go beyond those classic sites. The museums on this list paint a complex and diverse picture of the city, complicating stereotypes and pushing visitors beyond what they thought they knew.

National Museum of Mexican Art

painting of astronaut holding an alien
Learn all about Mexican and Mexican-American art at the largest Latinx cultural institution in the US.Foto: hrobinson1114 / Tripadvisor

A world-class collection.

The National Museum of Mexican Art should be counted among the city’s top-tier institutions. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, it features work that traces Mexican and Mexican American artistic expression all the way from ancient civilizations, such as the Olmec, to today’s Chicano culture. The museum is the largest Latinx cultural institution in the United States, and though the collections focus on Mexican art, the institution also hosts events, like writing workshops, that seek to foster and recognize Latinx artistic expression writ large.

Don’t miss: Graciela Iturbide’s Nuestra señora de las iguanas, a print by one of Mexico’s most celebrated contemporary photographers.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

exterior of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art with brick wall and black door
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art opened in 1991.Foto: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art / Tripadvisor

Out of bounds creativity.

Outsider artists are those who create art away from traditional institutional supports—and often suffer societal marginalization for discriminatory reasons (including mental illness). In recent years, some outsider artists have gained serious notoriety as the art markets have turned their attention to work that they had previously ignored. Long before that wave of recent attention, however, Intuit was already on the scene, having started in 1991 as the first center dedicated to nurturing and spreading the work of outsider artists in the Midwest.

Don’t miss: The centerpiece of the collection, a recreation of the living room of Henry Darger, a solitary Chicago artist whose mind-bending work was only discovered after his death.

National Public Housing Museum

A woman browsing a gallery wall inside a museum.
The National Public Housing Museum (not pictured above) encourages consideration of public housing complexes.Foto: Sorapop Udomsri

Nuanced legacies.

The National Public Housing Museum is a one-of-a-kind collection that explores the history, legacy, and continuing problems of public housing in the US. Public housing has provided homes for over 10 million Americans in the past 100 years, but many parts of this legacy are often ignored as discussions about the institution often focus on just one thing: crime. The reality, of course, is much more complicated, and the museum explores urban planning, the effects of structural racism, and the real-life stories of those who have lived in public housing complexes.

Don’t miss: The NPHM Oral History Archive, which holds the stories of hundreds of current and former public housing residents.

Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum

victorian style home with turret
Ernest Hemingway spent his childhood in this Queen Anne–style house in Oak Park.Foto: gjpr / Shutterstock

A look at a storied beginning.

Lovingly restored in the 1990s, this Queen Anne–style house in Oak Park was Ernest Hemingway’s home for the first six years of his life. These days, the museum serves as a shrine of sorts to the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, offering tours that explore the influence of Hemingway’s childhood on his later work. The museum also hosts a variety of events that explore the author’s legacy in creative ways—and even sponsors a writer-in-residence.

Don’t miss: The In Ernie’s Footsteps tour, offered by biographer Nancy Sindelar, Ph.D., which starts at the museum and takes visitors through Oak Park to see many of the most important locations of Hemingway’s early years.

Museum of Contemporary Photography

exterior of Museum of Contemporary Photography
The Museum of Contemporary Photography showcases more than 16,000 works.Foto: Museum of Contemporary Photography / Tripadvisor

Seeing the world through a lens.

The MoCP is a boundary-pushing collection of photography located within Columbia College Chicago. Despite occupying a fairly small space, it manages to stage excellent thematic exhibitions with work from both well-known and up-and-coming artists. Only a tiny proportion of its archives are on view—the museum is home to over 16,000 works—but if you’re interested in a specific piece, you can arrange for a private viewing with museum staff (if you schedule at least two weeks in advance).

Don’t miss: The large collection of Farm Security Administration photographs, which focus on the lives of migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression and include photos from artists such as Dorothea Lange.

Ukrainian National Museum

traditional ukrainian dress on mannequins
This museum has over 10,000 objects on display.Foto: PalmAddict / Tripadvisor

Preserving a culture under siege.

Chicago has the second-largest population of Ukrainian Americans in the US (after New York City), and there’s even a whole neighborhood named Ukrainian Village. This museum, located in the heart of that enclave, documents hundreds of years of Ukrainian history and celebrates a culture currently under attack. The folk art collection has over 10,000 objects, including clothing, paintings, and historical items.

Don’t miss: The museum’s beautiful collection of pysanky (hand-painted eggs)—according to tradition, their presence protects villages from attacks by a gargantuan serpent.

Chicago Fed’s Money Museum

blurred people walk past giant cube
The cube at Chicago Fed’s Money Museum is made from $1 million in bills.Foto: Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago / Tripadvisor

An interactive view of the national banking system.

The Chicago Federal Reserve Bank is one of 12 branches that make up the central bank of the US, and this location, in the middle of the Loop, brings in millions of dollars of cash every day from banks around the Midwest. At this museum, located on the bank’s first floor, you can learn about the federal banking system and how it keeps investments safe. Entry is free and more than worthwhile if only to see the museum’s 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) rotating cube of bills (which comprises US$1 million in currency).

Don’t miss: The exhibit on counterfeiting, where you can test your own bills to ensure they’re real.

Bronzeville Children's Museum

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At the Bronzeville Children's Museum, it's all about African American families.Foto: Safari766378 / Tripadvisor

A place for fostering curious minds.

This museum in the South Side, in Calumet Heights, is the only children’s museum in the country specifically geared toward African American families. Named after the neighborhood of Bronzeville (a few miles to the north), where many Black families settled during the Great Migration, the museum celebrates African American history and provides a space for children to explore their roots and the joy of learning. Of course, kids from all backgrounds are welcome, and after your visit, you can take a tour of the area to learn more about the South Side.

Don’t miss: The interactive exhibit on African American inventors.

Pullman National Historical Park

people reading wall text in museum gallery
Learn about the significance of the major labor strike of 1894 at this museum.Foto: Pullman National Historical Park Visitor Center / Tripadvisor

Front lines of the labor movement.

The Pullman neighborhood, in the far south of the city, was founded as a company town for the Pullman railroad company. Later, it became notable as the site of major struggles for both unionized labor and African American rights. Now a national historic park, the area saw the labor strike of 1894, which was one of the biggest in US history up to that point—and resulted in the arrest of labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Thirty years later, the site also played an important role in African American history when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, decided to unionize.

Don’t miss: The Hotel Florence, a grand Victorian hotel built for visiting industrialists that was off-limits to the railway workers. Though the interior is closed for renovation, you can steal a glimpse through the windows.

Leather Archives and Museum

Woman inside of a museum looking at artistic prints
The Leather Archives and Museum (not pictured above) has a collection of extensive print archives.Foto: BearFotos / Shutterstock

Often-neglected history.

Kink communities played an important but often-forgotten role in the gay liberation movement. This museum, in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park, commemorates the history of one such group: the leather community, which arose out of gay bars in the 1950s and 60s. Visitors can see collections of leather outfits and toys from around the country then explore the museum’s extensive print archives. Admission is limited to adults only.

Don’t miss: The Fetish Film Forum, a regular series of screenings of arthouse movies featuring leather or kink.

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