Colorful woven mats at the Somali Museum of Minnesota

Seek Out These Stellar Minnesota Museums

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Beautifully crafted kebdo (woven mats) at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, Minneapolis / Nikki Tundel

Seek Out These Stellar Minnesota Museums

By Brian Fanelli

Minnesota is full of exciting, hidden-gem museums...if you know where to look. Check out our list of 6 stellar, hidden-in-plain-sight museums.

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.

Smallest Museum in St. Paul

Keep an eye out for the diminutive Smallest Museum in St. Paul on University Avenue / Angela Dimler

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.

Hidden-Gem Museums in Minnesota

  1. Chik-Wauk Museum & Nature Center
    Chik-Wauk Museum

    Tucked away at the end of the Gunflint Trail, Chik-Wauk Museum & Nature Center is a perfect day trip from Grand Marais

    Chik-Wauk Museum & Nature Center

    The 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.

  2. Somali Museum of Minnesota
    Somali Museum Aqal Soomaali interior in Minneapolis

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

    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.

    Exhibits cover a wide range of Somali history, from nomadic Somali culture all the way through contemporary Somali life. You'll see everything from traditional wood-carved coffee bowls and woven rugs through contemporary Somali arts and culture. The museum is also home to the first ever Aqal Soomaali (or nomadic hut) to be built in Minnesota—a unique and beautiful structure that you'll step inside as part of the tour.

    Bringing together contemporary Somali artists and established cultural historians, this unique museum is well worth seeking out.

  3. SPAM Museum, Austin
    Mother and daughter in SPAM museum

    Learn about SPAM's enduring culinary influence around the world at the SPAM Museum

    SPAM Museum, Austin

    SPAM, the most famous brand produced by Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, is a household name around the world. This year marks the 85 Anniversary of SPAM® and there are sure to be some SPAMtastic surprises to mark the occasion! Learn about the beloved product's history and SPAMple it for yourself at its namesake museum.

    Located in charming downtown Austin, the SPAM® Museum features SPAM's enduring culinary influence around the world through a variety of exhibits chronicling the history of SPAM® through the years. Exhibit topics range from how SPAM® packaging has evolved over the years, to its role in winning World War II, a colorful " SPAM® Around the World" exhibit showcasing the far-reaching culinary and cultural influence SPAM® has throughout the globe, and a handful of interactive exhibits the whole family can partake in.

    SPAMbassadors meander through the museum, greeting visitors with tasty SPAMples—lightly pan-fried cubes of SPAM® served on pretzel-rod skewers—and we highly recommend indulging. These tasty treats come in hard-to-find flavors you may not have tried before like teriyaki, hickory smoke, bacon, tocino and more. All 11 flavors are available for purchase in the gift shop, along with any number of fun SPAM-themed gifts and memorabilia.

  1. End-O-Line Railroad Park & Museum
    End-o-Line Railroad Park and Museum in Currie

    End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum in Currie

    End-O-Line Railroad Park & Museum

    During 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.

  2. Legacy of the Lakes Museum
    Legacy of the Lakes Museum in Alexandria

    Classic Minnesota boats on display at Legacy of the Lakes Museum in Alexandria

    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. The museum displays more than 40 antique classic boats dating from around 1900 to the 1960s. Most of the boats have been lovingly restored to their original glory—gleaming brass railings and wood so polished it's practically a mirror.

    Prior to 1940, dozens of small boat builders lived and worked across Minnesota. The museum tells the story of these local artisans, focusing on the Alexandria Boat Works that built wood fishing boats, runabouts and launches. Other highlights include the fishing technology display, a Jim Brandenburg photography showcase featuring his signature prairie landscapes, and the beautiful Legacy Gardens.

  3. Nemeth Art Center
    Nemeth Art Center gallery

    The permanent collection at Nemeth Art Center features works from the understudies of master painters / Nemeth Art Center

    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.

Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.