With winter off to a frigid start, it’s easy to give in to the beckoning of your warm bed and your roommate’s Netflix account. But there are a few indoor Chicago activities that don’t freeze over in the winter and are worth donning your ski mask and snow pants on the L to get there.
Everyone is familiar with the big-name museums of the city – the Field, the Shedd, the Museum of Science and Industry, to name a few. Perhaps you’ve been there, done that and paid the hefty admission price. But Chicago is city full of museums of all shapes and sizes, and many of the smaller, lesser known museums are just as worthwhile as the larger ones, and cheaper to boot.
Busy Beaver Button Museum
Where: 3279 W. Armitage Ave.
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Best feature: A display of buttons dedicated solely to streaking
Joel and Christen Carter, a self-described “brother/sister button making/collecting duo,” have been collecting buttons since they were kids. Christen still remembers the first button she ever owned – a pin-back featuring Snoopy and Woodstock that she bought when she was 12 years old.
While in college, Christen started a pin-back buttonmaking business after visiting London and noting the popularity of one-inch pin-backs in promoting punk bands. While in London, she learned how to make buttons and took her idea back to the United States to start a button revival.
Today, the Busy Beaver Button Co. is both a buttonmaking factory and a museum. They manufacture buttons for companies and bands and showcase these as well as historical buttons that have been donated or that they’ve purchased.
The museum currently displays approximately 1,500 buttons separated by category, and their total collection includes a staggering 6,000 buttons. They have buttons advertising the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the Obama victory rally, women’s suffrage, different kinds of beer, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the first Disney character), “The Goonies” and Charles Lindbergh’s journey across the Atlantic.
“Every button can help tell a story,” Joel said.
International Museum of Surgical Science
Where: 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Cost: $15; $10 for students; free on Tuesdays
Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Best feature: Its setting – a creepy historical mansion overlooking Lake Shore Drive
Walking through the International Museum of Surgical Science feels a little bit like walking through a haunted house at Halloween. The mansion that houses it, which was built in 1917 and modeled after the Petit Trianon in Versailles, is cold and a bit dark, and terrifying decades old surgical tools line the display cases. This is one of Chicago’s most interesting, and perhaps most underrated, museums.
There are a variety of educational displays depicting the history and evolution of surgery, including such artifacts as an iron lung, a 19th-century apothecary, prosthetic limbs and a trepanning device from Peru.
It’s not all gruesome, however. There are also more lighthearted displays, such as the one that showcases surgeon’s glasses from several different time periods.
“This is a fun exhibit because it really molds the science, the history and the art behind it all,” Kristen Vogt, the museum’s manager of education and events, said, “and that’s something that I think is a very crucial element to understanding the museum.”
The museum also displays several paintings from different time periods depicting surgery and the public attitude toward it, from reverence to fear and condemnation, and employs an artist in residence.
The ambience of the whole museum can be captured in just one of its rooms, the Hall of the Immortals. It houses several 2,000-pound stone statues of people who have made great contributions to modern surgery, from Marie Curie to Hippocrates. A microcosm of the history of surgical advancement, it’s both spooky and astonishing.
National Veterans Art Museum
Where: 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Cost: Free Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Best feature: Its therapeutic art program
The National Veterans Art Museum is like any other art museum in some aspects, but its art takes on deeper meanings when put in context. As the name of the museum suggests, all of the art is produced by veterans.
A range of media is represented, including sculpture, photography, painting and installation. There’s also a range of wars represented – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea and World War II.
“(The works of art are) all war-related, but they’re not all depicting war proper,” Destinee Oitzinger, the museum’s art director, said. “A lot of them also contain imagery from things that happened after they returned, other issues associated with serving in the military.”
One exhibit currently on display, called “The Things They Carried,” is similar to the story by Tim O’Brien by the same name. It features artifacts that the artist carried while in the Vietnam War. They are not displayed behind glass, but rather in the center in the room, out in the open for anyone to touch them. The in-your-face feel of exhibit makes the history of the war seem to come alive.
The other exhibits demonstrate how a veteran’s experience translates into art and how people use creativity to process experiences and memories. The museum also sponsors a therapeutic art program for veterans who want to explore the impact of war through art.
“Art is … visual language, an expressive language, different from word, spoken word or writing or text,” Oitzinger said. “It’s a firsthand account, definitely. Instead of reading about something, you’re reading it through their eyes and through their hands.”
Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows
Where: 600 E. Grand Ave.
Cost: Free Hours: Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Best feature: Its collection of 13 nature-inspired windows made in late 1800s by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of Tiffany’s founder Charles Lewis Tiffany Given its location at Navy Pier, this museum is surprisingly reclusive. Not many people visit Chicago’s most famous landmark to see stained glass windows, but rather they stumble across it on accident on the way to the Haagen-Dazs down the hall.
The museum depicts stained glass windows dating back to the 1870s up through the present, documenting changes in artistic and architectural style. Information panels explain as much as there is to know about stained glass and its influence in Chicago, and it’s more interesting than you might think.
Claiming that Chicago became a “world center of stained glass windows” in the 19th century, the museum traces the city’s stained-glass roots to the European immigrants who arrived during the Industrial Revolution. This lured other stained glass experts in the United States to Chicago, and up to 50 studios dedicated to the art opened. Such famous Chicago architects as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated stained glass into their designs, adding to the prestigious legacy of the art form today.
The breathtaking works are displayed in semi-dark rooms with lights behind them, showing them in their full brilliance. Whether you’re interested in stained glass as art or simply enjoy looking at beautiful artwork, this hidden gem of a museum is worth a visit.
Chicago history can be dissected into the histories of the different immigrant groups that have settled here since the city’s founding 177 years ago. Today, the city’s museum scene is largely made up of museums dedicated to some of the largest and most influential immigrant groups. These museums are located throughout the city and display artifacts and information documenting the histories of immigrants and minority groups and their experiences living and working in Chicago.
1. Polish Museum of America
984 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Hours: Friday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $7; $6 for students
2. Irish American Heritage Center 4626 N. Knox Ave.
Hours: By appointment, call 773-282-7035
Cost: Free, donations accepted
3. National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th St. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
4. Swedish American Museum
5211 N. Clark St. Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $4; $3 for students; free second Tuesday of every month
5. DuSable Museum of African American History
740 E. 56th Pl. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Cost: $10; $7 for students; free on Sundays
6. Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
6500 S. Pulaski Rd. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $9; $7 for students
7. Chinese-American Museum of Chicago
238 W. 23rd St. Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Saturday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $5; $3 for students
8. National Hellenic Museum
333 S. Halsted St. Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $10; $8 for students