10 Under-the-Radar Museums You Have to Visit

You’ve heard of Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But do you know about these less heralded U.S. museums?

By: Joe Sills
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Photo By: Kate Russell

Photo By: Courtesy National Civil Rights Museum

Photo By: Courtesy Museum of Pop Culture

Photo By: Brett Beyer

Photo By: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Photo By: NationalMuseum of US Air Force

Photo By: Sarah M. Golonka

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: National WWI Museum and Memorial

Photo By: Courtesy Trap Music Museum

1: Meow Wolf, Santa Fe

Most museums tell you not to touch the exhibits. The opposite is true at Meow Wolf. Here, the the lines between art and visitor are blurred. In this self-described combination of jungle gym, haunted house, and children’s museum, visitors are encouraged to wander through "The House of Eternal Return." The exhibit features vintage arcade cabinets, a neon forest and a dizzying array of textures ripe for the touching.

The Santa Fe spectacle has become something of a destination and legend since it opened in 2008. In fact, the legend has grown so large that Meow Wolf is in the process of opening locations in Las Vegas, Denver and Washington D.C. For now, the original experience in Santa Fe is the only open location.

Insider tip: Download Meow Wolf’s Anomaly Tracker app to unravel the mystery of an enigmatic Victorian house buried within the walls. If you've been before, consider going again. The "House of Eternal Return" recently opened new exhibits for 2019.

2: The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis

On an early April day in 1968, the sound of a rifle cracked through the Memphis sky. In less than a second, the bullet fired from its barrel changed American history permanently when it impacted a man on the balcony of a nearby motel. That man was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the echoes of his assassination are still reverberating through the American consciousness today.

The balcony where he stood at the moment of impact is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. King's motel room now sits just as he left it.

First opened in 1991, this Smithsonian-level museum underwent a $27 million renovation in 2014. Its walls house the solemn lessons of the struggle for civil rights wrapped in an interactive, walk-through experience.

Insider tip: Don’t miss the museum’s Legacy Building. The former boarding house where the assassin’s shot was allegedly fired from. Its walls chronicle the investigation of the assassination and ensuing conspiracy theories surrounding Reverend King's murder.

3: The Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle

Located in the shadow of the Space Needle, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) pays homage to the city’s musical history with exhibits featuring Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Jimi Hendrix. But MoPOP is more than an archive of set lists and cassette tapes. It’s also home to a full-fledged science fiction exhibit featuring bounty hunters from Star Wars, robots from Terminator and the actual hat and jacket Harrison Ford wore in Indiana Jones.

In true sci-fi fashion, MoPOP also houses a holodome, which places visitors inside of fully-immersive video content in a three-dimensional experience.

Insider tip: This spring, MoPOP is hosting a new pair of touring exhibitions, "Prince from Minneapolis" about the late pop music icon, and "A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes," which highlights contemporary fashion revolving around the archetypes of royalty. Take advantage of each while they’re in town.

4: The Met Cloisters, New York City

Imagine strolling through medieval castle grounds in the heart of New York City. That’s what you’ll experience at The Met Cloisters.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the most renowned museums in the country. Its iconic, stone facade towers over Manhattan’s Central Park and draws millions of visitors per year; but The Met's lesser-known Cloisters satellite museum in Washington Heights is sequestered on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. Miles away from the bustle of Central Park, the Met Cloisters houses a medieval art collection transported from Europe—complete with armor, tapestries and more than 2,000 pieces of art.

Insider tip: The building itself is comprised of pieces from medieval French monastaries. Pay close attention to the stone work to spot sections of the original buildings built into the walls. To find the Cloisters, grab the A Train to 190th Street and exit the station by elevator. Walk north along Margaret Corbin Drive for about 10 minutes.

5: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville

Plot a triangle from Kansas City to Little Rock to Oklahoma City, and the Ozark town of Bentonville, Arkansas will land squarely in the middle. It’s an unlikely spot for one of America’s top art museums, yet that’s exactly what you’ll find at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Three hours from any major city, this museum’s permanent collection hosts works from Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe. Crystal Bridges sits on 120-acres of Ozark woodlands, and incorporates sculpture gardens, trails and an on-site sunrise experience. Opened in 2011, the museum was created by Walmart heiress Alice Walton as a gift to the company's home town. Admission to to the permanent collection is free.

Insider tip: Don't miss the "Maman" spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois on the grounds of Crystal Bridges. Want even more art? Book a room at the nearby 21c Museum Hotel to rest your bones from the road in the presence of some equally impressive contemporary art.

6: The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton

From experimental Cold War aircraft to legendary World War II icons, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force features a slice of aviation history. Inside, visitors can follow the journey of flight from a Wright Brother’s aircraft into modern times. This museum is home to a cavalcade of iconic aircraft including numerous iterations of Air Force One, Bockscar—the B-29 bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan—and the B-17 bomber, Memphis Belle.

Insider tip: The museum has a constant supply of aircraft under restoration. Every Friday, the museum offers "behind the scenes" tours to see many of those aircraft. Tours meet at noon in the museum’s Carney Auditorium.

7: The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Admission at the Westwood UCLA’s Hammer Museum is free to the public, and the top-notch collection includes works by Degas, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Picasso as well as provocative traveling exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary art.

Insider tip: You can get hands-on with the art by playing a game of table tennis on one of the museum's exhibits upstairs. Visit the grave of Dean Martin, located just a few steps away from the Hammer Museum in the Pierce Brother’s Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary.

8: Studio BE, New Orleans

Sequestered off of the beaten path of the French Quarter, Studio BE makes its home in the Bywater district of New Orleans. Here, local artists have filled a warehouse with interpretations of the city’s social, political and civil rights movements. The result is an authentic, New Orleans experience that exists in stark contrast to the bars of Bourbon Street. Studio BE is a moving look into the struggles that New Orleanians have faced in rebuilding their city and carving out a unique identity in American culture.

Insider tip: Don't miss exploring the psychedlic exhibit of lights and storm clouds that represent Hurricane Katrina in the heart of the Studio BE warehouse. Make sure to give yourself two or three hours to explore the entire warehouse, and when you're done, head over to one of the best dive bars in the country at Vaughan’s Lounge.

9: The National World War I Museum, Kansas City

Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has gained national fame not only for its lawn of massive, Instagram-worthy shuttlecocks, but also thanks to a world class collection. However, just across town, the National World War I Museum houses a more sobering experience.

It’s difficult to imagine, but the last World War I veteran was with us until 2012. The National World War I Museum is home to an immersive experience that helps visitors understand the catalysts for The Great War, as well as the human toll that one of the world’s deadliest conflicts took on Americans.

Insider tip: Be sure to climb the museum's Liberty Memorial Tower, which offers a sweeping view of Kansas City from an open air observation deck 217 feet above the ground. Keep an eye out for the sphinxes guarding the museum entrance.

10: The Trap Music Museum, Atlanta

Founded in 2018 by Atlanta hip-hop icon T.I., this 18-and-up museum opened as a pop-up and has since found a longer lasting home in the Atlanta community. For a $10 cover (and an extra $10 for "VIP" parking) you gain access to a museum focusing on the roots of one of America’s most influential modern music genres. The Trap Music Museum is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Inside, a reconstructed bodega greets visitors with 25 cent candies and pickled pigs feet before leading them through a tour of the gritty world of Trap.

Insider tip: Consider booking time at the museum’s escape room, and make time for photos on the hood of 2 Chainz’s infamous pink box Chevy.

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