Last Updated on October 5, 2022 by Jim Ferri
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Updated for 2022
By Jim Ferri
Undeniably, there are some undenialbly great small museums scattered all over the U.S., many not in large cities.
According to data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, there are an incredible 35,000 of them. To put that in perspective, that’s more than all of the Starbucks and McDonald’s combined – about 10,000 more.
But when we travel we tend to only think of the majors – the Smithsonian in Washington, New York’s Metropolitan, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. But we are rich in lesser-known small museums as well, many incredibly interesting in their own right. Here are ten small museums you may or may not have heard of, but each is unique and captivating in its own way.
If you know of others feel free to share them with us in the comments section below.
A Great Place to Visit in Hickory Corners, Michigan
Even though I’m not a car fanatic, the Gilmore Car Museum floored me. Never before – and likely never again – have I seen such a collection. It includes not only more than 400 cars (Model A’s, Cadillacs, Pierce-Arrows, Duesenbergs, Studebakers, Hudsons, etc.) but also eight restored 19th century barns, an authentic operating 1940s diner, a recreated 1930s Shell gas station and train depot from the 1890s.
The crème de la crème of the collection of this small museum is a rare 1938 Mercedes 540K Sport Tourer, of which only two were made. Gilmore possesses the only surviving one (valued at $3+ million) that was discovered only in 2005 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Surprisingly, the other was owned by Adolph Hitler.
Its original owner, in an effort to conceal it from the Americans and Soviets and protect it from destruction in WWII hid it in a basement garage of his Dresden, Germany home. He had bricked up the entrance, filled the driveway with soil and planted a rose garden above it.
Gilmore Car Museum
6865 Hickory Road Hickory
Corners, Michigan 49060
Tel: (269) 671-5089
A Wonderful Small Museum: The Circus Museum – Sarasota, Florida
You’ve never seen anything quite like this – an incredible miniature recreation of a circus, built to exact scale (3/4” to the foot) and which is amazingly detailed. For example, there are 55 miniature circus-train cars parked on a siding, 7,000 miniature-folding chairs in the Big Top that when folded fit into the five miniature wagons, just as they would in the real show.
There’s also much more covering an area of 3,800 square feet and about 1½ times the length of a football field. Even more amazing is that one man, Howard Tibbals, created the entire thing for this small museum over a period of 55 years.
After visiting the miniature circus make certain you go up to the second floor where there’s another interesting exhibit that details the history of the circus from ancient times to the present. You also won’t want to miss this either. Fittingly, you’ll find it on the grounds of the Ringling estate, home of the late of the late John Ringling.
The Circus Museum
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Atlanta, Georgia – Atlanta History Center
This is not a single small museum that explores the history of Atlanta, as I expected.
It is a wonderful, multifaceted complex that includes a Folklife Gallery showing how folk arts shaped traditions in the changing South. But it also includes a presentation on Indians in Georgia, an exhibition on golf legend Bobby Jones Jr. and the evolution of the Masters Tournament. And there’s the charming and fascinating Smith Family Farm from the 1860s and the 1928 Swan Mansion back through the woods behind the museum. By all means don’t miss it – there’s something here for everyone.
Most riveting, however, was the Center’s exhibition “Turning Point, the American Civil War,” which in a personal way explained the impact the Civil War had on people’s lives both in the North and the South. It was not pro-South, nor pro-North, but pro-education.
Atlanta History Center
130 West Paces Ferry Rd NW
Atlanta, GA 30305
Tel: (404) 814-4000
New York, New York – Lower East Side Tenement Museum
While Ellis Island highlights the hardships that immigrants faced when they arrived in the USA, few museums show you the hardships they endured living in the USA, often in crowded city tenements. That is, until this small museum opened its doors..
New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum is, as the name implies, a tenement in NYC’s Lower East Side. It was somehow surprisingly found intact in the late 1980s. Take a tour through the tenement at 97 Orchard Street and you’ll develop a new-found respect for the immigrant population when you see first-hand the adversities they endured before housing laws were enacted, including dark and dingy rooms, narrow hallways and communal bathrooms. Join a tour at the Museum shop on the corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
Tel: (877) 975-3786
A Great Museum: The Corning Museum of Glass – Corning, New York
If you’re someone who wonders what’s so special about glass, this place will knock your socks off. Founded in 1951 by Corning as a gift to the nation for the company’s 100th anniversary, this small museum has since evolved into the world’s best collection of art and historical glass.
This museum is over the top with 45,000 glass objects spanning 3,500 years, including the glass portrait of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Undoubtedly it will dazzle you with its beauty.
It’s a hands-on place where you can also explore the science and technology of glass, see live glass-making demonstrations, even make a glass object yourself. This is a museum that will keep you occupied and awed for hours. Go out of your way to visit it if you’re in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
The Corning Museum of Glass
One Museum Way
Corning, NY 14830
Tel: (800) 732-6845
Sacramento, California – California State Railroad Museum
You don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the California State Railroad Museum, a complex of historic facilities and unique attractions in Old Sacramento. It’s a fascinating place, a world-class tribute to the “iron horse,” both steam and diesel, that connected California to the rest of the country.
You can climb aboard meticulously restored engines, some of which date back to the years of the Civil War, and be astounded by the complexities of the old giants. Walk through a restaurant car and see how food was prepared and served on lengthy journeys. You’ll also find engaging exhibits – including a full-scale diorama of a 1860s construction site high in the Sierra Nevada – and have the opportunity to ride an old steam train on weekends during the summer. It’s the kind of place many travelers would not expect to visit, but are glad they did.
California State Railroad Museum
111 I Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Tel: (916) 323-9280
The Mob Museum – Las Vegas, Nevada
In Las Vegas Mob Museum is unlike any other museum you’ll visit almost anywhere.
Want to see the actual wall against which Bug Moran’s men were shot in the St. Valentine’s Massacre? It’s there. Want to see an electric chair or the barber chair in which the infamous Albert Anastasia was whacked? You’ll see them both. Want to hear some actual wiretaps? Obviously, they’re there too, just slip on some headphones. You’ll find this museum to be unlike any other.
The museum, whose actual name is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, states that it’s trying to advance public understanding of organized crime and it’s impact on American society through high-tech presentations, interactive displays, themed environments and artifacts. It does a remarkable job of it.
300 Stewart Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada 89101
National Constitution Center – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The National Constitution Center is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” Finally, you might say after paying the NCC a visit, Congress got something right.
Located on Independence Mall, a visit to this small museum begins with an excellent overview of the U.S. Constitution, aptly named “We the People.” It’s not a social-studies review, but a 15-minute production, with an actor in the center and a 360-degree screen all around you, which had the adults in the audience glued to every word when we were there. It’s a fascinating hands-on place, that features hundreds of interactive exhibits, engaging theatrical performances, and original historical documents.
You’ll become absorbed by its many small presentations. “Everything that Washington does sets a precedent”…; “our young democracy passed a crucial test today. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican…”; “Tuesday, March 2, 1824 – (Chief Justice) Marshall turned the high court into a force to be reckoned with…”; on and on it goes, right up to the present day.
National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel: (215) 409-6600
Billings Farm & Museum – Woodstock, Vermont
The Billings Farm & Museum is a wonderful small museum and old farmstead once owned by Laurance Rockefeller and his wife, both conservationists. It’s famous as a museum of Vermont’s rural past, and is still a working farm with champion Jersey cows, as well as sheep, and they produce and sell their milk. An exhibit at the farm highlights the conservationist movement that revived Vermont farming after erosion had ruined the land for farming.
Visiting during February, what we found the most fun were the sleigh rides, the barn where we petted newborn calves and the late 19th-century farmhouse that had, amazingly, hot running water, an indoor bathroom and electricity. What’s more, guides explained how they made butter (they had a large operation in the basement), and cooked macaroni and cheese, a staple winter meal at the time, on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It’s certainly fascinating for visitors of every age.
Billings Farm & Museum
69 River Road
Woodstock, VT 05091
Tel: (802) 457-2355
Washington, DC –International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum, an easy walk from the White House, undoubtedly contains the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display. Overall, it’s a favorite D.C. museum for many and not just spook wannabes.
There are all kinds of spy devices here, indeed, even an area dedicated to the pigeon spies of World War II. (Okay, the pigeons didn’t know they were spies but they did intelligence work carrying tiny cameras in World War I).
There’s also a special James Bond exhibit honoring 50 years of Bond movies, interactive spy games and even Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. The small museum is laid out in a clandestine manner and is one of those experiences best appreciated over several visits.
International Spy Museum
700 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Tel: (202) 393-7798
You may also enjoy: Things to Do In the Finger Lakes, NY / The National Constitution Center – “We the People…” / Traveling to Atlanta With Kids: Finding Great Things to Do
Richard Forster says
Some of the small museums I’ve visited and enjoyed over many years growing up in MA and traveling the USA:
Peabody Essex & Witch Mus, Salem, MA; The Clark, Williamstown, MA; DeCordova, Lincoln, MA; George Eastman & The Strong, Rochester, NY; Henry Ford & Greenfield Village, Dearborn, MI; Cantor Art Center & Anderson Collection, Stanford, CA; Buffalo Bill Center of the West (5 museums in one), Cody, WY; Blackhawk Car Museum, Danville, CA; Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ; Crocker, Sacramento, CA
Jim Ferri says
You have some great ones here. Sometimes I think that some of the great treasures are in the small museums of America.
Thanks for sending this along.
Connie Keck says
The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast GA is a hidden gem. www//snca.org
It highlights a rich culture of pottery in this area.