Chicago's top 10 peculiar (and free) museums

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Several of the Windy City's big-name museums recently raised their ticket prices. Puh-leez. Who needs to pay to see American Gothic and German U-boats when there are antique hemorrhoid surgery tools to be seen for free? Here are 10 museums ranging from the peculiar to the excellent to the peculiarly excellent where you can get your museum fix without handing over the cash.

Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows

Just when you've had your fill of Victorian curlicues and Tiffany Jesuses, you see it: stained glass Michael Jordan. Stained glass Ben Franklin glows nearby on a printer's window along with stained glass Sir Walter Scott. And who knew stained glass helped spark feminism? It did, according to women-forged windows from the 1893 World's Fair. These are a few of the unexpected treats in the 150-piece museum, stashed on the lower-level terrace of Navy Pier's Festival Hall.

You've seen Air Jordan, meet Glass Jordan. Photo by Karla Zimmerman.

International Museum of Surgical Science

This place verges on creepy with its amputation saws, iron lungs and other early tools of the trade strewn throughout a creaky, Gold Coast mansion. The ancient Roman vaginal speculum leaves a lasting impression, while the pointy-ended hemorrhoid surgery instruments serve as a reminder to eat lots of fiber. Medical art gets its due here, too, from a life-size, toga-clad sculpture of Hippocrates to a roomful of cadaver murals (available as postcards in the gift shop). The museum is free on Tuesdays; it costs $15 otherwise.

Busy Beaver Button Museum

Even George Washington had flair, though in his era campaign buttons were the sew-on kind. Pin-back buttons came along in 1896. Badge-making company Busy Beaver chronicles their history in displays holding thousands of the little round mementos. They tout everything from Dale Bozzio to Bozo the clown, Cabbage Patch Kids to Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant. They're fascinating to browse, and the hipster office staff is totally gracious about letting you gawk over their desks where the framed cases hang.

Leather Archives and Museum

Scholarly displays about leather, fetish and S&M subcultures pack a repurposed synagogue. There's the Red Spanking Bench, designed to be 'all things to all bottoms.' There's art, such as the painting Last Supper in a Leather Bar with Judas Giving Christ the Finger. And there are short films preserving interviews with quotes such as, 'Crisco as a lubricant is fabulous.' The museum is free Thursdays from 3pm to 7pm. Regular admission is $10.

Welcome to the dungeon, Leather Archives and Museum. Photo by Karla Zimmerman.

Money Museum

Pop into the small gallery inside Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and you'll emerge richer than when you entered. Literally, since the museum provides a bag of moolah to take home (if only it wasn't shredded), and figuratively, as displays impart knowledge such as who's on the $10,000 bill (answer: Salmon P Chase, Lincoln's treasury secretary). Snap a photo clutching the million-dollar briefcase, stuffed with Benjamins, for the ultimate money shot.

Logan Hardware Vintage Arcade Museum

Logan Hardware is a used record store sporting a bonus '80s arcade in its back room. So after flicking through bins of rock, funk and Chicago band LPs – and scoring, say, a Chess Records 45 of Pigmeat Markham – you celebrate with a knockdown game of Donkey Kong. Ms Pac-Man, Frogger, Dolly Parton pinball and 30 other games whir, beep and speak in robot voices in the gallery. And they're all free to play.

Logan HardwareTwiddle Dolly's knobs at Logan Hardware Vintage Arcade Museum. Photo by Karla Zimmerman.

Newberry Library

This one's for the bibliophiles: those who swoon over original Thomas Paine pamphlets about the French Revolution, or get weak-kneed seeing Thomas Jefferson's copy of the History of the Expedition under Captains Lewis and Clark (with margin notes!) should head to the Newberry Library. Exhibits rotate yellowed manuscripts and tattered first editions from the library's extensive collection.

Oriental Museum

The University of Chicago's famed archaeologists – Indiana Jones supposedly was based on one – cram their headquarters with antiquities they've unearthed from Egypt, Nubia, Persia and Mesopotamia. King Tut is the star, standing 17 feet tall, weighing six tons and lording over more mummies, clay tablets and canopic jars than you can shake a papyrus scroll at.

King Tut is larger than he appears, Oriental Museum. Photo by Karla Zimmerman.

Chicago Sports Museum

To understand Chicago's tortured sports psyche, check out the memorabilia-filled cases inside Harry Caray's Tavern on Navy Pier. Shake your head in sadness at the last-out ball from 1945 World Series (the last time the Cubs were in the baseball championship). Examine Sammy Sosa's corked bat and the infamous Bartman ball. The museum also enshrines relics for Da Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and White Sox.

National Museum of Mexican Art

It's a special institution that has docents roaming the galleries ready and willing to explain the semen-acrylic style of painting (that's, um, bodily fluids mixed with pigments). The nation's largest Latino arts center loads up on skeleton-rich folk art, psychedelic op art canvases and groovy beadwork to boot.

Karla Zimmerman lives in Chicago. She has authored guides to Chicago, Amsterdam, Vancouver, the USA, Canada, Caribbean and Netherlands for Lonely Planet and has contributed to National Geographic Traveler, National Public Radio, the BBC, Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago, among many others. She likes pie.