Seek Out These Stellar Minnesota Museums

By Brian Fanelli

Step inside a traditional Aqal Soomaali at the Somali Museum of Minnesota
Step inside a traditional Aqal Soomaali at the Somali Museum of Minnesota

The appropriately named Smallest Museum in St. Paul would be hard to find anywhere. But here, hidden among the hustle and bustle of University Avenue, it’s practically invisible. Housed in a vintage, 3-by-2-foot fire-house cabinet mounted outside of Workhorse Coffee Bar, the micro-museum has delighted art hounds and unexpecting pedestrians alike since its 2014 opening.

Like many pieces of truly inspired public art, the Smallest Museum in St. Paul somehow feels both like a natural extension of the city and a complete surprise, not unlike seeing a bald eagle soaring over the city—beautiful, natural and startling.

The museum imbues its stretch of University with a tangible sense of curiosity, inspiring visitors to keep exploring the nooks and crannies found all around them. But it isn’t our state’s only hidden-in-plain-sight exhibition. Minnesota is full of hidden gem museums; you just need to know where to look.

Somali Museum of Minnesota

A guided tour of the Somali Museum of Minnesota
Photo by Somali Museum of Minnesota

Walking along a busy stretch of Lake Street in south Minneapolis, you may not notice the Somali Museum of Minnesota’s signboard. In fact, even from the lobby of Plaza Verde—the multi-business building in which the museum is housed—you still might be hard pressed to find it. But tucked away in the basement, the immensely good Somali Museum of Minnesota is a hidden gem in every sense of the phrase.

The gallery spans just five or six curated rooms, but despite its modest size, it remains the largest (and only) operational Somali history museum in the world. The museum’s collection of cultural artifacts, paintings and sculptures consists of over 700 pieces, and the museum’s expert tour guides are happy to describe and contextualize each of them during your visit. Bringing together contemporary Somali artists and established cultural historians, this unique museum is well worth seeking out.

National Trout Center

Thanks to the driftless region’s unique geography and climate, Preston and the surrounding Root River Valley is home to a world-class trout fishery with more than 600 limestone spring-fed creeks supporting its ecosystem. These streams contain some of the rarest forms of freshwater on the planet, and make this small slice of Minnesota one of the world’s most remarkable freshwater resources. So whether you’re an established angler or an amateur, learning about this rare and beautiful ecosystem at the National Trout Center in Preston is a real catch.

It comes as no surprise that the National Trout Center is a fantastic place to learn about trout, but this museum has more to offer than just fish. By using trout and their cold-water habitat as a focal point, the center offers exhibits and interactive workshops on everything from basic stream fishing, wild food foraging and geology, to more ephemeral lessons about the intrinsic beauty, cultural value and economic benefits of these natural resources. After you’re done at the museum, be sure to visit the first-of-its-kind Preston Inaugural Fishing Course, a nine-hole trout fishing course on the South Branch of the Root River.

End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum

End-O-Line Railroad Museum in CurrieDuring the heyday of American passenger rail, the southwest Minnesota town of Currie (current population 226) unexpectedly became the terminus for one overly ambitious branch of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. The line was originally slated to continue westward into South Dakota, but because there were multiple lines running nearby, those plans were scrapped, making Currie the end of the line.

Because there was nowhere else for the train to go, in 1901, Chicago Northwestern built a manually operated turntable to swing the steam engines around and send them back east on the same set of tracks they rolled in on. To commemorate this unique bit of railroad history and Americana, the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum was born.

The railroad turntable, which has been reassigned to spin happy museum visitors rather than trains, is a genuine rarity; it’s even listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Guided tours include a ride on the turntable, bring you inside the authentically restored railroad depot, and whisk you away to the time when riding the rails was the height of transportation. Your kids will love watching the model train in action, and you’re sure to appreciate the museum’s fascinating train and frontier history.

Legacy of the Lakes Museum

Going “up north” to the lake is always a fun weekend event, but it’s more than that, too. From the first Dakota and Ojibwe birch bark canoes to float along Minnesota’s waterways, to today’s modern sailboats, lake culture has always been a treasured Minnesota pastime, and an essential part of our state’s history and tradition. Found in charming small town Alexandria, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum (formerly the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum) celebrates these lake traditions and legacies, exhibiting and preserving them for the future without feeling stuck in the past.

The main event at Legacy of the Lakes is its astounding collection of antique and classic wooden boats, considered one of the finest collections in the world. Few museums can compete with Legacy’s wide range of rare boats, including its ultimate collection of made-in-Minnesota watercraft. Other highlights include the fishing technology display, a Jim Brandenburg photography showcase featuring his signature prairie landscapes, and the beautiful Legacy Gardens.

Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center

Chik-Wauk Museum on the Gunflint TrailThe Gunflint Trail is a 63-mile National Scenic Byway that snakes its way inland from Grand Marais, heads through the Superior National Forest and ends surrounded by the magnificent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Many who make the drive are so enamored with the scenery that they never stop to think about the region’s history. But the Gunflint Trail has a fascinating story, and the Chik-Wauk Museum tells it beautifully.

Housed in the historic Chik-Wauk Lodge on Saganaga Lake, various indoor displays tell the region’s history from its prehistoric beginnings to the present day: everything from the Sudbury meteorite that crashed to Earth 1.6 billion years ago, to historic material about the French fur trappers and traders known as voyageurs, and the development of today’s unique, rural community. Outside, Chik-Wauk’s vast network of walking trails turns its 50-acre nature center into an immersive outdoor classroom complete with a family-focused, self-guided naturalist program.

Nemeth Art Center

For many, visiting Park Rapids means long, lazy days on the beach, exhilarating bike rides on the Heartland Trail and family visits to the Mississippi River headwaters. But hidden beside the outdoorsy activities this northern Minnesota city is known for, the Nemeth Art Center houses the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection, an astonishing display of over 40 European paintings dating back to the 16th century.

Unlike many art collections, the Nemeth Study Collection isn’t interested in the original works of master painters like Hieronymus Bosch or Rembrandt. Rather, its focus is on student copies of their work, painted by aspiring artists studying under the masters themselves. In addition to the permanent Study Collection, the art center also curates seasonal exhibits of contemporary work. Upcoming galleries for 2018 include a co-exhibition by Julie Buffalohead and Nathanael Flink, a solo show by Wayne Gudmundson and a youth art exhibit in partnership with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

There's always something new to discover in Minnesota. Use our online directory to browse more unique museums found #OnlyinMN, and start planning your visit today.