Ten inspiring museums across the United States

The United States has a rich history and an amazing range of museums, over 35,000 in fact, and they are not only famous art galleries in the big cities. There are also fascinating smaller museums more off the beaten track that can enrich your trip. They cover everything from the history of indigenous cultures to planetariums, from children’s museums to sculpture gardens.

Gain a better understanding of American culture by planning visits to these wonderful museums during your trip across the country. These museums often host live performances and family activities and you are sure to have an interesting day out.

10 of the best museums in the United States

1. Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia

This museum houses an incredible one million objects — including art and artefacts from around the globe - making it one of the world’s finest archaeological and anthropological museums. From stone tools and household items to architectural monuments and rare art objects, the museum illustrates the story of humanity’s history and achievements.

One of the most interesting parts of this museum is called Native American Voices. Here you can gain a new understanding of the first inhabitants of this land through more than 200 remarkable objects alongside contemporary Native American perspectives. Multimedia stations help visitors to engage with audio and video clips of contemporary Native Americans speaking of the many ways in which they maintain their religious, political, linguistic, and artistic independence.

The Penn Museum and its historic courtyard
Learn about the original inhabitants of the United States

2. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Moma, the Museum of Modern Art is located in Midtown Manhattan, on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Visiting this collection is an unforgettable experience as it is one of the largest and most influential museums of modern art in the world.

At Moma, you can see treasures such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Matisse’s The Dance 1 and Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy. The museum was founded in 1929 by the President’s wife, Abby Rockefeller and two of her friends. In 1939 the collection moved to its permanent location, a stunning modern building designed in the International Style. The building is six stories of sleek white marble combined with glass to diffuse light onto the artwork.

Even the Moma sculpture garden here is designed by architects. So allow yourself time to take in the full experience. There is a choice of restaurants and cafes with excellent food and shop with tastefully designed gifts to bring home.

Stunning modern architecture makes Moma a delight to visit
Choose between many different exhibitions in spacious halls

3. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Step inside a lush, four-story rainforest, while free-flying tropical birds and butterflies soar above and enormous Amazonian fish swim below. This is the Osher Rainforest, housed inside a spectacular 90-foot glass dome and it will transport you to some of the most biodiverse places on earth. Even the roof of the dome is an architectural masterpiece.

Trekking in the Osher Rainforest is only one part of this natural history museum and research institute combined. The California Academy of Sciences is among the largest museums of natural history in the world, housing over 46 million specimens.

The museum also includes memorable shows at the Morrison Planetarium and the Steinhart Aquarium, one of the most advanced and biodiverse aquariums in the world. It is home to the world's deepest living indoor coral reef, a colony of African penguins, and over 900 species— including some you won’t find in any other aquarium.

Take a stroll outside between the Planetarium and the Aquarium
There is something for everyone at this fascinating museum

4. Milwaukee Art Museum

This building is a work of art in itself, it actually moves. It is an architectural landmark, comprised of three buildings and even the gardens are designed by architects. The main building, the Quadracci Pavillion has a vaulted cathedral-like ceiling and two giant wings that fold and unfold twice a day to provide shade.

The museum hosts five temporary exhibitions at a time and has a permanent collection of more than 32,000 objects. You can spend hours here exploring the different rooms or attending talks by artists. All summer the Museum runs the program Lakeside at MAM, on the lawn next to Lake Michigan. You can bring a picnic, listen to live music and children can take part in workshops.

The Quadracci Pavillion is a giant bird-like structure with wings that move and act as sunshades
Take your time to explore this stunning museum

5. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington

This museum not only highlights the contributions of African Americans but also helps people see the importance of these stories, inspiring through the values of resilience, optimism and spirituality of African American history and culture.

The main collection displays almost 37,000 artefacts, documents, photographs and media that encompass African American music, literature and clothing, and guides visitors through slavery, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

The distinctive architecture of the museum is inspired by Yoruban columns
The museum displays include a slave cabin and a segregated railcar

6. American Museum of Natural History, New York

Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just across from Central Park, this beautiful museum is an important stop for everyone interested in the flora and fauna of the United States. The museum is huge, made up of 26 interconnected buildings and is indeed the one made famous in the film, Night at the Museum. This film is credited with increasing the number of visitors to the museum by a staggering 20%.

There are entire separate halls dedicated to North American mammals, birds and trees. There are also seven cultural halls devoted to, for example, the indigenous people of the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains and the Northwest Coast. You lose yourself here for hours, learning about the people and natural history of the United States and beyond.

Visit the Giant Mammoths and other creatures
The entrance of the famous Museum of Natural History in New York

7. Journey Learning Museum Centre, Rapid City

Not all top museums in the United States are in coastal cities. The Journey Learning Museum Centre in Rapid City, South Dakota is well worth a visit if you are travelling in the area. The museum includes a Western Dakota native garden and is only a 35-minute drive from Mount Rushmore. The centre is set up as a journey through the history of the Black Hills.

The exhibition begins with Native American creation stories, moving on to 2.5 billion years of history in the geological rock record. It then covers the archaeology and culture of Native American inhabitants and concludes with the pioneers who travelled west. The exhibits are interactive and there is even a palaeontology tent where you can dig for fossils. There is also a recreated fur trader’s cabin to show you how hard life was in the past.

Children learning about how First Nations people lived
Enter these doors and begin your journey

8. Getty Centre, Los Angeles

This spectacular museum hosts a most impressive collection by artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne, along with the architectural triumph of its six buildings and gardens. Experience a living work of art by strolling through Robert Irvin’s Central Garden. It has relaxing water features, colourful plants that change seasonally and an expansive lawn perfect for a picnic or even a nap.

Take the tram from the car park to the top of the Getty Centre. As you glide up silently catch different glimpses of the stunning architecture and watch out for deer under the trees. Wend your way through centuries of art, through sculpture in the North Pavillion ending with impressionist favourites and photography in the West.

The full scale of the Getty Centre and gardens can be seen here from the air
Take the tram to the top of the Getty Centre for great views

9. Smithsonian National Museum for the American Indian, Washington & New York

This is one fascinating museum in two locations. The Washington museum is a curvilinear building clad in golden-coloured Kasota limestone designed to evoke natural rock formations shaped by the wind and water over thousands of years. Meanwhile, the New York building is a more traditional Beaxs-Arts design in Lower Manhattan.

This is a living memorial entirely devoted to preserving the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Both branches of the museum hold a vast collection of First Nations exhibits, spanning textiles to weapons, food preparation to photography. These are carefully displayed by regions of the United States with excellent explanations so you can really take time and learn about these amazing cultures.

The New York National Museum for the American Indian is housed in one of the beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in Lower Manhattan
These two museums celebrate the diversity of First Nations people from Alaska to New Mexico

10. New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo

This is a fascinating museum that houses some of the most celebrated objects of space exploration. These exhibits attract more than 100,000 visitors each year. There are real moon rock and rare replicas of the first space shuttle. The history of the space program in the United States is explained with a mix of high-tech entertainment and dramatic exhibits.

Many major breakthroughs in technology occurred in the Alamogordo area, and the museum offers a variety of exhibitions to showcase these. The Clyde W. Tombaugh Theatre and Planetarium has a giant dome-screen and state-of-the-art surround sound to fully immerse the audience.

The museum and the stunning New Mexico landscape
Learn all about the history, science and technology of space

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