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America’s Coolest Museums – 10 Can’t Miss Exhibits and Halls of Fame

America’s Coolest Museums – 10 Can’t Miss Exhibits and Halls of Fame

By Amanda Pressner, editor of

If you haven’t been to a museum since someone dragged you to check out Renaissance-era paintings or modern art sculptures, you might have the impression that these hallowed institutions are great big snooze fests.

What you might not realize is that many museums in the US aren’t dedicated to traditional works of art—in fact, they contain a whole lot more than ancient oil paintings and giant installations made of matchsticks or recycled trash. Today, no matter which subjects stoke your interest (Espionage! Sports! Outer Space!) you can find a museum that’s dedicated exclusively to exploring and celebrating it through precious artifacts and out-of-this-world exhibits. Here’s a rundown of our ten favorites.

Your Passion: Rock of all ages
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum – Cleveland, OH
Both casual rock fans and die-hard music purists are bound to be wowed by the outstanding collection of exhibits at this 150,000 square foot museum, which showcases the significance and impact of rock and roll on our culture. Throughout its seven floors, you’ll find collections of memorabilia from the likes of The Beatles, Metallica, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Hendricks, The Who and Janis Joplin. There are also five theaters for watching archival concert events, including a U2 concert filmed in 3-D. (

Your Passion: Tracing your roots
Ellis Island Immigration Museum – New York, NY
More than 12 million men, women and children poured through New York’s Ellis Island when served as the nations busiest “inspection station” for new immigrants. Many of the ferries to Ellis Island also dropped off at the Statue of Liberty. Today, you can take a ferry over and see the original buildings restored to look as they did when our ancestors passed through. A 45-minute audio tour (available in nine languages) literally walks you through the experience of coming to America in search of a new life, while several freestanding exhibits offer a creative perspective on how the US has changed demographically throughout its four-century history. (

Your Passion: Dinosaurs, mummies and prehistoric man (oh my!)
American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
If you’ve ever watched the movie Night at the Museum you already have some idea of the historical figures (and cast of characters) you’ll encounter when you stroll through the halls of this famed Upper West Side institution. Within 25 interconnected buildings, you can catch a glimpse of an ever-rotating selection of the museums 32 million specimens. Highlights include a massive chunk of a fallen meteorite, ancient human and dinosaur fossils (including a T-Rex!) and a full-size model of a Blue Whale suspended in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life. Kids can do a real life “Night at the Museum Sleepover” that includes a flashlight tour of the grounds after parents have left for the night. (

Your Passion: Indulging your inner kid (or your real one!)
Children's Museum – Indianapolis, IL
Whether you’re a little tyke or a big person, there’s no shortage of things to do, experience and play with at the world’s largest children’s museum, a facility that boasts five floors of fun and adventure. Be sure to check out the working carousel originally constructed in the 1920s, a 55-ton steam engine and several full-sized vehicles made entirely out of Legos, as well as a 130-seat simulated planetarium. There’s also a “Dinosphere” on Level One, which contains one of the country’s largest displays of juvenile dinosaur fossils. (

Your Passion: America’s favorite pastime
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – Cooperstown, NY
For those who practically live for opening day—and the thrill of the first pitch—there’s the Baseball Hall of Fame, erected in what was (erroneously) thought to be the birthplace of the sport. Also referred to simply as “Cooperstown” this museum is dedicating to exalting the players, managers, umpires and executives who have made the game what it is today. Check out the “first class” of baseball greats—Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson—then move on to visit the nearly 300 other members memorialized on the walls of the museum. (

Your Passion: Eavesdropping on the enemy
International Spy Museum – Washington DC
Ever wonder if you have what it takes to crack an unbreakable code or execute a top-secret mission? Find out at DC’s International Spy Museum, a boutique space dedicated exclusively to the field of espionage. Before you’re enter, you’ll have five minutes take on and memorize the details of one of 12 undercover identities, then submit to being questioned by the “police” (aka, museum guides). If you like that task, you’ll love Operation Spy, an interactive exhibit that prompts you to act as a secret agent for one hour as you respond to a series of puzzles and tasks related to your mission. (

Your Passion: Geeking out with other Trekkies
Science Fiction Hall of Fame — Seattle, WA
Opened in 1996 to “honor the lives, work and ongoing legacies of science fiction's greatest creators,” the Science Fiction Hall of Fame is a major draw at Seattle’s EMP museum. It doesn’t disappoint: Considering that sci-fi superheroes Ray BradburyJames Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all sit on the advisory board of this museum (one of only two of its kind in the world), you’re guaranteed that the artifacts inside are pretty darn cool—and authentic. Among the exhibits you’ll find Captain Kirk's command chair from Star Trek, the B9 robot from Lost in Space, the Death Star model from Star Wars, the T800 Terminator and the dome from the film Silent Running. (

Your Passion: Anything and everything that flies
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.
While the Smithsonian does boast the world’s largest collection of historic air- and spacecraft—you’ll find the original Wright 1903 Flyer (the Spirit of St. Louis) and the Apollo 11 command module on display—it also doubles as an important research facility exploring “the history, science and technology of aviation space flight.” Check out a wealth of aeronautic artifacts on display including a variety of aircraft, spacecraft, lunar space suits and a 25-foot long replica of the Hindenburg. (

Your Passion: Revolutionary-era America
Historic Mount Vernon, VA
Long before the White House was built in DC, Mount Vernon was the home of our first president and commander in chief, George Washington. The plantation style property, located on the banks of the Potomac River just 16 miles south of today’s capital, still has more than a dozen original structures, along with a working blacksmith shop, a 4-acre demonstration farm with a reconstructed slave cabin and a 16 sided treading barn. The 50-acre property is also home to Washington’s tomb. Unlike many museums, this one is open 365 of the year. (

Your Passion: Literary Counterculture
The Beat Museum, San Francisco, CA
It’s argued that the first youth rebellion in America happened the 1950s, when a group of young writers—Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, among them—rose to prominence and became the face of a new, subversive generation known as “The Beatniks.” Today, The Beat Museum—located in SF’s North Beach neighborhood—celebrates the passionate, bohemian and some say hedonistic writers, artists and thinkers of the decade. The space houses an extensive collection of memorabilia, “including original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera.” (


Not located in or traveling to any of the cites noted above? Check out the links to other cool and unusual museums across America

Georgia O’ Keefe Museum – Santa Fe, NM

Dinosaur National Monument – CO and UT

Margaret Mitchell House –  Atlanta, GA

Mill City Museum –  Minneapolis, MN

Andy Warhol Museum – Pittsburg, PA

World Erotic Art Museum –  Miami, FL