5 Must-See Museums in Southern Minnesota

By Erica Wacker

From fine art to live eagles and cherished literature, museums across southern Minnesota celebrate the diversity of the region while catering to a variety of interests. These five sites offer a taste of the options available

Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona

JMW Turner, Hampton Court Palace, Watercolor on Paper, c. 1825-28, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona
JMW Turner, Hampton Court Palace, Watercolor on Paper, c. 1825-28,
Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona

Perched alongside the Mississippi River, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum has played a pivotal role in Winona’s emergence as an arts and cultural center. Recently expanded to more than 10,000 square feet and three major galleries, the museum surprises and impresses visitors with hundreds of fine art pieces, including works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, O’Keefe and Homer, depicting scenes of life along the water.

In addition to housing the permanent collection, the museum regularly hosts traveling exhibits, gallery tours and special programming for its youngest and oldest visitors. Open Tuesday-Sunday year-round.

National Eagle Center, Wabasha

Some parts of the Mississippi River in southeast Minnesota never freeze, drawing large numbers of bald eagles to winter here and feed on the river’s fish. This natural occurrence makes Wabasha an ideal location for the National Eagle Center, where visitors can walk along the riverbank or use spotting scopes on the observation decks to view these magnificent creatures in the wild.

Inside, the center’s five resident eagles take part in daily interactive programming, and exhibits cover both the biology and cultural significance of America’s national symbol. Look for special events throughout the year, including hatch day in the spring and programs that bring in other birds of prey. Open daily except Tuesday in the winter.

Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum, Owatonna

Orphanage Museum, OwatonnaWhen the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children opened in 1886, it was seen as a haven for abandoned children who previously had nowhere to go. After 60 years as an orphanage, the site became a state-run school for youth with developmental disabilities until it closed in 1970. Today, the campus is a museum that tells the story of thousands of children who lived and learned there.

In addition to the main building, the grounds also house a restored boys’ cottage, cemetery and audio stations. The main museum is open daily year-round; the cottage is open Tuesday-Sunday, March-December.

Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, Mankato

Southern Minnesota’s newest attraction is all about the kids. Opening its doors in 2015, this children’s museum in Mankato connects visitors to the surrounding area with hands-on exhibits about farming, quarrying, engineering and more. Babies and toddlers can romp on the Play Porch (inspired by the Betsy-Tacy novels by Mankato native Maud Hart Lovelace), while teens and adults can get a taste of STEM education in the Makers Space.

The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is open Tuesday-Sunday year-round, with additional outdoor spaces open in the summer.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Laura Ingalls Wilder MuseumEven though she passed away nearly 60 years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fame lives on, with her 2015 memoir debuting at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. The Ingalls family lived on Plum Creek near Walnut Grove in the 1870s, and the museum here attracts fans of the books and TV series from around the world.

The grounds feature eight buildings depicting daily life in those days, including a schoolhouse, chapel and depot. For three weekends in July, an outdoor pageant portrays her story to a live audience. The buildings are open seasonally through October; the gift shop is open year-round.

Find more museums throughout the state, or learn more about attractions in southern Minnesota.