When it comes to great museums, Detroit punches well above its weight, and offers something for every kind of traveler. You’ll find cavernous galleries crammed with fine and contemporary art; institutions dedicated to American innovation, and museums celebrating the city’s musical heritage.
Best of all are the only-in-Detroit spots – here, imaginative spaces shine a spotlight on everything from African beads to Motor City history. Here are the 9 best museums in Detroit.
Detroit Institute of Arts: best for world art and murals
Art-lovers should beeline for the Detroit Institute of Arts. It wows from the get-go, with giant murals by Diego Rivera taking over the walls of Rivera Court, just off the Great Hall. These frescoes are a nod to Detroit’s industrial heritage, bringing together images of toiling workers and machines.
Beyond this bold introduction, the collection spans continents and centuries. You’ll discover indigenous American artifacts, from masks to terracotta figurines, and pore over mummies and manuscripts left behind by the ancient Egyptians. European artists are well-represented too, with religious works from Dutch master Rembrandt and oil paintings by Paul Cézanne.
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit: best for avant-garde installations
The progressive exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit are ever-changing, so it’s definitely somewhere that warrants a repeat visit. Featured displays run the gamut from experimental films and mixed-media sculptures to photography, collages and prints, and live events include artist talks and workshops.
In true Detroit style, the eclectic art displays are housed in a former auto dealership. The words “Everything is going to be alright” – Martin Creed's Work No. 790 – are emblazoned on the museum’s façade too.
Henry Ford Museum: best for a deep dive into American innovation
There’s so much to see at the Henry Ford Museum that you’ll want to set aside a whole day to explore – and even then, you’ll probably not get all the way through the center’s exhibits, which focus on big ideas and American changemakers.
The museum exists in several parts. First, there’s the Museum of American Innovation, which displays relics including the bus in which Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Next stop is Greenfield Village. This complex is home to restored and relocated historic buildings such as the Ford Home, the birthplace of the museum’s namesake – motor magnate and industrialist Henry Ford.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History: best for storytelling and live events
A 35,000-strong collection of artifacts celebrate African-American history and culture at the Charles H. Wright Museum. It brings together temporary and long-term installations, including a photography display that shines a spotlight on Black musicians and actors. The centerpiece is the And Still We Rise exhibit. This poignant series of galleries begins by exploring early African civilizations and goes on to cover the horrors of slavery and the Underground Railroad that helped some to freedom.
Visitors will find a busy calendar of events, too. You can sign up for everything from talks and film screenings to dance performances.
Motown Museum: best for music lovers
This museum honors the toe-tapping Motown sound that was born in Detroit. Late producer Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in 1959 and his label went on to work with musical titans from Stevie Wonder to The Supremes.
Now the bungalow that became Motown HQ – affectionately known as Hitsville USA – is crammed full of rotating musical memorabilia, from records and concert posters to a knit cap worn by Marvin Gaye. You’ll also get the chance to warble a few notes in famous Studio A, where much of the musical magic happened. The museum is currently undergoing a major expansion to the tune of $50 million.
Detroit Historical Museum: best for a taste of city history
City history is chronicled at this museum on the edge of Detroit’s culture-rich Midtown area. The showpiece is Streets of Old Detroit, which recreates cityscapes from the 1840s, 1870s and 1900s, three defining decades in Motor City’s past. You’ll wander by replicas of century-plus-old buildings including a blacksmith shop, a firehouse, a confectioners, and a pharmacy. Other exhibits explore the city’s history of car manufacturing; celebrate Detroit pioneers (from broadcasters to boxing champs); and pay homage to its musical prowess.
Michigan Science Center: best for hands-on learning
Guaranteed to be a hit with kids, the Michigan Science Center is packed out with imaginative and interactive exhibits. A broad range of themes are covered in the 220-plus displays, from outer space and electricity to human health and mathematics.
Star exhibits include a dizzying walk-in kaleidoscope, a mini replica of Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, and – the newest attraction – an immersive display that recreates the world’s weather. There’s also a planetarium, a 4D theater and a stage for science demos.
Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum: best for getting off the beaten track
Most visitors to Detroit miss this tiny museum, but it’s well worth striking out of Downtown and making the pilgrimage along artsy Grand River Avenue. The museum is twofold. There’s a dinky gallery space filled up with colorful beads, hanging in strings down the walls, and in pots on the counter.
Then, outside in the yard, there are more eye-catching displays like Iron Teaching Rocks How To Rust – a whimsical sculpture series is wrought from iron, wood, mirror and rock, and is intended as a comment on the relationship between Africans and Europeans through the ages. You’ll probably even meet Dabls himself, the mellow artist behind the exhibits, who’s been collecting beads since the 1980s.
Ford Piquette Avenue Plant: best for understanding Detroit’s motor history
Detroit’s renowned car-manufacturing heritage is brought into focus here. The timeless Fort Model T was first dreamt up and produced at this red-brick plant, and today the former factory is preserved as a museum. Stroll through the industrial space, taking in rows of century-old Ford vehicles and getting a feel for what an early Ford dealership would have looked like. You can even take a seat in one of the classic cars.
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