Museums Welcome History Detectives

By Explore Minnesota

Don your detective hat and explore the fascinating and fun collections at Minnesota’s history museums. Unravel the stories behind intriguing artifacts and learn more about Minnesota’s past. Most venues are open year-round. Check out the sites featured here, and explore more history museums statewide.

Largest Minnesota History Exhibit

Minnesota History Center - big imageThe Minnesota Historical Society presents the largest state history exhibit ever, "Then Now Wow," at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Visitors encounter the dramatic “wow” moments that changed Minnesota’s people and places. “Then” and “now” images show how far we’ve come. Known for lively interactive environments, the History Center invites visitors of all ages to climb into a grain elevator, ride a boxcar, visit a sod house, prospect in an iron ore mine, and explore many other scenes and objects. The exhibit offers numerous ways to experience Minnesota’s regions, cultures and key historical developments that have shaped us today.

More History Destinations -- Minneapolis

Foshay TowerThe Foshay Tower’s fascinating history and its architecture (designed as an art deco homage to the Washington Monument) are reasons to visit this downtown Minneapolis landmark. Wilbur Foshay built the tallest Midwest skyscraper and christened it in an ostentatious ceremony in 1929 -- complete with military salutes and a John Philip Sousa concert with a Foshay theme song. The debut was just a few months before the stock market crash, which obliterated Foshay’s fortune. Visit the Foshay, now a W hotel, to relive the days when the sky was the limit. At the top, explore the Foshay Museum and Observation Deck, which continues to offer a spectacular view of the city.

In the historic riverfront district of Minneapolis, where several old mills have been repurposed, the Mill City Museum is built into the ruins of what was once the largest flour mill in the world. Sift through the history of the flour industry and other riverfront commerce that made Minneapolis a thriving city. Take the Flour Tower eight-story elevator show. Watch the film "Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat," co-created and narrated by humorist Kevin Kling. See spectacular rooftop views of the historic Stone Arch Bridge, St. Anthony Falls and Mississippi River.


Schell's BreweryVisitors can taste history in New Ulm at the August Schell Brewery, which has been in business since 1860. Sample German-style brews, tour historic buildings and explore the Schell’s Museum of Brewing. Hear about Schell’s prohibition plight, nearly being shut down in 1924 for producing a “cereal beverage” that slightly exceeded the legal limit of 1/2 percent alcohol content. Now brewing at full strength, Schell’s offers European brews such as the Pils, a full hop style that started in Pilsen, Bohemia around 1840. Other year-round beers include lagers and stout. Winter seasonal offerings include a dark, creamy alt and the annual “Snowstorm” release brewed with a unique formula each year.

The Spam Museum in Austin celebrates the unique, canned meat product that rose to prominence as a staple for troops and allies in World War II and has become a pop icon throughout the world. The museum tells the interesting story of this brand over 125 years. Take a tour with one of the friendly Spambassadors, check out Spam recipes, and browse the gift shop to take home a bit of history.


Kensington Runestone_Mali Mish Family
Photo by Mali Mish Family

A historic controversy has brewed for more than 100 years over whether the central artifact at Alexandria’s Runestone Museum dates to the 1300s or is a 19th-century hoax. The runestone was unearthed in 1898 at Olof Ohman’s farm near Kensington, Minn. It was claimed that the runestone, allegedly carved by Vikings, proved that Nordic explorers reached America before Columbus. Linguists and historians have battled this one for decades. Visit the museum and decide for yourself. A nearby Scandinavian-themed icon is downtown Alexandria’s 28-foot statue of Big Ole, a Viking that debuted at the 1965 New York World’s Fair.

In 1856, Benedictine monks from Bavaria built an abbey dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and founded Saint John's University in Collegeville. Visitors can tour the campus and visit the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library to see selected folios of The Saint John's Bible and other rare book and print exhibits. The astonishing collections include prints dating from as far back as the 14th-century by major artists such as Dürer, Piranesi and Picasso. Manuscripts, maps, bibles and other objects show the finest work of scribes, engravers and illustrators. The library’s digital and microfilmed manuscript collection is the largest of its kind in the world.

Northeast & Northwest

Lake Superior Railroad MuseumThe strong link between history and transportation is reinforced at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, located at the Union Depot in Duluth. Thousands of travelers, including immigrants and soldiers, made journeys from the depot beginning in the late 1880s and continuing into the late 1960s. Now the site is the Midwest’s premiere railroad museum, with steam, diesel and electric locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, dining cars and specialty equipment used by the logging and mining industries. A highlight is Minnesota’s first steam locomotive, the William Crooks, which began operating in 1862 and served, for a time, as the personal train of railroad tycoon James J. Hill.

True history detectives will want to investigate whether the giant, five-ton hockey stick outside the United States Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth is in fact the largest hockey stick in the world. The museum has inducted U.S. hockey legends since 1973, going back to champions from the early 20th century and including players and coaches hailing from Minnesota. One popular exhibit showcases U.S. Olympic hockey victories, including the men’s silver medal teams in 1920 and 2010 and gold medal winners in 1960 and 1980 (the “Miracle on Ice” team, led by Minnesota coach Herb Brooks and featuring several former University of Minnesota players, that famously beat the favored Soviet Union team.) The U.S. Women’s Olympic hockey team is honored for their gold medal win in 1998.

Hjemkomst Museum If you’ve ever wondered what an 800 A.D. Viking ship was like, visit the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead and marvel at the exacting replica built over six years, and completed in 1980, by Moorhead resident Bob Asp. The ship, christened the Hjemkomst, brings to life the stories of Nordic explorers. Besides serving as a unique visual artifact, the Hjemkomst proved seaworthy in a 1982 transatlantic crossing, a trip that is the subject of an exhibit through the end of the year. A stave church on the center’s grounds is another impressive replica -- of a Nordic building style from the 12th and 13th centuries.