Sure, your friends will listen politely as you describe your trip to the Art Institute to see paint on the walls. But you'll stop them mid-yawn when you let loose with stories of visiting the Red Spanking Bench and the world's largest jug collection. Here are 10 beyond-the-norm museums in Chicago that give new meaning to niche. As a bonus: most are free.
American Toby Jug Museum
In case you're wondering, a Toby jug is a ceramic pitcher shaped like a chubby old guy wearing a tri-cornered hat and 18th-century garb. Or at least that's how they looked originally. Over the centuries the jugs took on other personas, say John F Kennedy, Joseph Stalin or a sad-eyed puppy. Some 8000 jugs – the world's largest collection, born of one man's passion – hide in a basement in Evanston at the American Toby Jug Museum. Staff give tours that'll blow your mind (and stoke your thirst).
The McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum
From May through October, explore Chicago’s iconic moveable bridge system at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, hidden in plain sight on the city’s recently revamped Riverwalk. Tours progress upward through the bridgehouse, beginning with a front row view of the bridge’s colossal gear system and concluding up top with a sweeping view of the river. Consult the schedule on the museum’s website to plan a visit that coincides with an impressive bridge lift (surcharge applies). The museum is free on Sundays; regular admission is $5.
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. Check out the Oriental Institute to see what treasures are on display. Suggested admission is $10.
Pop into the small gallery inside Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and you'll emerge richer than when you entered. Literally, since the Money 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.
The International Museum of Surgical Science is set in a stately mansion in Chicago's Gold Coast. Image by Michael Robinson / International Museum of Surgical Science
International Museum of Surgical Science
The International Museum of Surgical Science 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 for Illinois residents on Tuesdays; it costs $15 otherwise.
Leather Archives and Museum
The Leather Archives and Museum has scholarly displays about leather, fetish and S&M subcultures packed in 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.' Regular admission is $10.
Yes, Chicago is home to the world's only pin-back button museum. Image by Busy Beaver Button Museum Co.
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. The Busy Beaver Button Museum touts 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.
Antique Fabricare Museum
Top honors for Chicago’s quirkiest little museum must surely go to the Antique Fabricare Museum, a hodgepodge of old-school laundry paraphernalia that adorns every available wall and corner of the outwardly unassuming Pert Cleaners (4213 W Irving Park Rd) in Irving Park. Primitive irons, weapon-like rug beaters and hand-cranked agitators will instill a whole new appreciation for the convenience of your front loader.
The Chicago Sports Museum is a winner for fans of Chicago's teams. Image by Chicago Sports Museum
Chicago Sports Museum
To understand Chicago's tortured sports psyche, check out the memorabilia-filled cases beside Harry Caray's 7th Inning Stretch atop Water Tower Place mall at the Chicago Sports Museum. Hum a few bars of “Go, Cubs, Go” while you pore over artifacts from the 2016 World Series that broke the 71-year Billy Goat Curse. Examine Sammy Sosa's corked bat and the infamous Bartman ball. The museum also enshrines relics for Da Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and White Sox. Admission costs $10, but it's free if you eat or drink at the attached restaurant.
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 National Museum of Mexican Art is the nation's largest Latino arts center loads up on skeleton-rich folk art, psychedelic op art canvases and groovy beadwork to boot.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Article originally published in April 2013 and updated by Cate Huguelet in 2018.