Culture + Style

The Smallest (But Coolest) Museums in the U.S.

The American Visionary Museum is a wealth of curiosities. (Photo: Alamy)

Odds are, you’ve already explored your city’s blockbuster museums. But ginormous galleries aside, have you made it your mission to seek out your local, lesser-known cultural institutions?

Why not now? From galleries that celebrate gemstones to open-air exhibitions that showcase bonsai, these off-the-radar venues are making small museums the next big thing.

American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Though the joyfully quirky American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore showcases art by “self-taught individuals, usually without formal training,” don’t mistake that for amateur (you have the Museum of Bad Art for that). Instead, expect breathtaking artworks ranging from a giant whirligig sculpture to the museum’s glittering mosaic walls. And if you needed further proof of this institution’s awesomeness, plan a visit for early May. That’s when the museum hosts its annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, which sees human-powered artworks travel throughout the city.

City Reliquary, Brooklyn

Combine your grandparents’ attic with a treasure chest — and pack the contents of both inside a hipster apartment — and you’ve just about got the vibe of The City Reliquary. This tiny, off-kilter space in Williamsburg showcases “New York City artifacts,” including everything from old-school seltzer bottles and portraits of Jackie Robinson to cheesy Statue of Liberty souvenirs.

Motown Museum, Detroit

Motown museum
The museum that music inspired. (Photo: Alamy)

Housed in the very same building on West Grand Boulevard where Berry Gordy JR. founded Motown Records in 1959, the Motown Museum is a testament to Detroit’s enduring place in modern music history. The biggest highlight here is arguable the famous Studio A, where legends like the Temptations, the Supremes and Smokey Robinson all spent time in front of the mic.

National Liberty Museum, Philadelphia

Done the Liberty Bell? Then head to the lesser-known National Liberty Museum instead. While this small museum makes reference to liberty as a founding American value, it also focuses on conceptions of personal liberty. Demonstrations of the idea include everything from a massive Dale Chihuly glasswork to a sculpture of jellybean-encrusted kids, so, you know, the definition’s pretty wide.

Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, Chicago

When it comes to niche small museums, few do a deeper diver that the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, which is located in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. “Lapidary” if you were wondering, refers to the art of cutting and polishing stones, and display objects here include everything from ancient Chinese carved jade vases and glittering gemstones to stone wildlife dioramas and an 18-karat gold castle. Rocks: not just for your fourth-grade science presentation.

Newseum, Washington, DC

Newseum
It’s not the smallest, but the Newseum is one of the most interesting museums. (Photo: Alamy)

Okay, the seven-story Newseum might not be small, as far as small museums go, but in a town where you’re rubbing shoulders with the Smithsonian, we’re still gonna count this one as under-the-radar. Dedicated to media and journalism, its interactive exhibitions appeal to visitors of all ages, and range from the somber (a memorial to slain journalists) to the quirky (an exhibition about presidential pets).

Museum of Bad Art, Boston

Yup, we really are recommending you visit a museum dedicated to bad art. But not just bad art: so-bad-it’s-good art. Like a portrait of Shamu the Killer Whale enjoying a sushi dinner. Or a shakily painted image of a flower-filled vase, hovering in mid-air. At the Museum of Bad Art, expect a steady stream of visual gags. (Even the description are hilarious). Best of all, these guys are aggressive collectors — plan another visit for a few months down the line to see even more of the good bad stuff.

Pacific Bonsai Museum, Seattle

Need to get your zen on? Few other museums will recalibrate your feng shui like the Pacific Bonsai Museum. Just on the outskirts of Seattle, this petite institution features a collection of more than 100 bonsai specimans, across five different classical styles.

This article was published through a partnership with Zipcar’s online magazine Ziptopia.