The South’s Best Museums
The South has amazing museums. Besides the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution in D.C., here are some of the traditional and contemporary spaces offering a distinct range of experiences. Whether your interests lie in the visual arts, music, food, history, space, architecture, or the media, the South has a museum for everyone
Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, Alabama)
The world-class offerings at the BMA include paintings, furniture, and objects ranging over a 4,000-year period. The museum boasts an extensive Asian art collection, as well as the largest Wedgwood collection outside England. Also don’t miss the 1865 Albert Bierstadt masterpiece Looking Down Yosemite Valley or the well-tended outdoor sculpture garden. Free admission.
2000 Rev. Abraham Woods, Jr. Blvd. (formerly 2000 8th Ave. North); artsbma.org
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, Arkansas)
Five centuries of American art can be viewed at Crystal Bridges. Highlights include the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, and Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Equally as impressive are the 120-acre site’s 3.5 miles of art trails. Free admission.
600 Museum Way; crystalbridges.org
Institute of Contemporary Art (Miami, Florida)
For a more provocative art experience, look no further than the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. The permanent collection includes works by John Baldessari, Sterling Ruby, and Ed Ruscha. As well as a vibrant exhibitions program, they also present ‘Ideas’: residencies, lectures, and films. Free admission.
4040 NE. Second Avenue; icamiami.org
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (Orlando, Florida)
It may cost $50 to explore, but the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is an all-day, out-of-this-world adventure. Touring the NASA site, you’ll view the Space Shuttle Atlantis, watch IMAX films, and see all kinds of exhibits about rocket launches, aeronautics, and the history of space exploration. You can even meet an astronaut.
SR 405; kennedyspacecenter.com
High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia)
The High, one of the largest art museums in the South, has more than 15,000 objects in its permanent collection. Inside, marvel at works by the Georgia folk artist Howard Finster from his famous Paradise Garden. Outside, enjoy sculptures by Rodin and Lichtenstein. Spend $19.50 for admission, and then spend hours savoring the experience.
1280 Peachtree Street NE.; high.org
Booth Western Art Museum (Cartersville, Georgia)
Believe it or not, the Booth—a museum in Georgia—has the largest permanent exhibition space in the country that celebrates the American West. It also features Civil War art, presidential portraits and correspondence, and a reference library. The Booth hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year, as well as public programs that expand on the museum’s many themes. $10 admission.
501 Museum Drive; boothmuseum.org
Hidden River Cave and American Cave Museum (Horse Cave, Kentucky)
Situated at the entrance to what has been called “the greatest cave restoration story in the United States,” the American Cave Museum features natural history exhibits exploring the geology of cave formations, issues affecting wildlife, the history of cave exploration, and how caves can impact water quality. Cave tours start at $15 and include helmets and headlamps; the museum is free.
119 East Main Street; hiddenrivercave.com
National Quilt Museum (Paducah, Kentucky)
Everyone, not just quilting and fiber enthusiasts, will enjoy this exploration of the art form. Highlighting quilting styles from antique to contemporary, the museum shows how traditional methods can have today’s meanings. Sculpture and stained glass are also on display. The museum offers extensive educational programming as well. $11 admission.
215 Jefferson Street; quiltmuseum.org
Ogden Museum of Southern Art (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Visiting the Ogden Museum is an experience that will challenge your preconceptions of Southern art. Once a private touring collection, a unique public-private partnership between the museum’s namesake and the University of New Orleans has meant that the Ogden has continued to expand, establishing a permanent home and exhibition space near Lee Circle. $12.50 admission.
University of New Orleans, 925 Camp Street; ogdenmuseum.org
Southern Food and Beverage Museum (New Orleans, Louisiana)
What better way to get a taste of the American South than through its unique culinary traditions? You can trace the European, African, and Caribbean roots of Southern food through exhibits for every state—then visit the adjoining Museum of the American Cocktail. $10 admission.
1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.; sofabinstitute.org/southern-food-and-beverage
American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore, Maryland)
Unusual for championing nontraditional art, the American Visionary Art Museum features both a permanent collection and changing exhibitions by self-taught and “outsider” artists. Stop here for a celebration of those who march to the beat of their own drum. $15.95 admission.
800 Key Highway; avam.org
Ohr-O’Keefe Museum (Biloxi, Mississippi)
Visitors to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum are delighted not only by the work of ceramicist George Ohr, but also by the extraordinary architecture of the Frank Gehry-designed campus. Under construction when Hurricane Katrina hit, the resurrected buildings commemorate Ohr’s work, as well as African-American art. It also houses a newly opened center for ceramics. $10 admission.
386 Beach Blvd.; georgeohr.org
American Jazz Museum (Kansas City, Missouri)
The legends of jazz are honored here at the intersection of 18th and Vine. Kansas City was the birthplace of bebop legend Charlie Parker, and home to one of the most innovative styles of jazz. Interactive exhibits and films allow visitors to feel as if they’re experiencing this history, while performances and education programs offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy the music live. $10 admission.
1616 East 18th Street; americanjazzmuseum.org
The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts (Highlands, North Carolina)
A six-building, 6-acre campus features exhibits, a pottery studio, and a sculpture and nature trail. Workshops are available at all skill levels, and the campus hosts several annual festivals. Free admission to the galleries, selected artist talks, and the outdoor trail.
323 Franklin Road; thebascom.org
American Banjo Museum (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
Displaying more than 400 banjos of all styles, the American Banjo Museum traces the history of the instrument from its African roots to bluegrass fame. Started in Guthrie, Oklahoma, as the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame, the museum is now located in the Bricktown district. $8 admission.
9 East Sheridan Avenue; americanbanjomuseum.com
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
Another museum that started as a cowboy hall of fame, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has now grown to encompass three distinct approaches to understanding our history: Native America; The West; and The Cowboy. $12.50 admission.
1700 NE. 63rd Street; nationalcowboymuseum.org
Charleston Museum (Charleston, South Carolina)
Permanent exhibits on South Carolina’s Lowcountry, period weaponry, and natural history make this a quintessential part of any Charleston visit. The institution, founded in 1773, is regarded as “America’s First Museum.” $12 admission.
360 Meeting Street; charlestonmuseum.org
Columbia Museum of Art (Columbia, South Carolina)
Once a general museum with a natural history collection, through the seventies and eighties the Columbia Museum of Art narrowed its focus to the fine and decorative arts. With a collection of more than 7,000 objects, from Duncan Phyfe furniture to Dale Chihuly glass, there’s more than enough to keep you engaged. $12 admission.
1515 Main Street; columbiamuseum.org
Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, Texas)
Already a dynamic cultural center in the heart of downtown Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, continues to expand. The campus, which houses two art schools, two main exhibition buildings, and a sculpture garden, will be developed further by 2019. It will expand to 14 acres, and include two new buildings and a conservation center. The museum’s encyclopedic collection holds more than 65,000 works. $15 admission.
1001 Bissonnet; mfah.org
Stax Museum of American Soul Music (Memphis, Tennessee)
Visit the site of Stax Records studio—recording home of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and the great Memphis sound of American soul music—and learn about its dramatic history and legendary artists through exhibits and films. $13 admission.
926 East McLemore Avenue; staxmuseum.com
Frist Center for the Visual Arts (Nashville, Tennessee)
Once a post office, this lush Art Deco building now hosts a wide array of traveling exhibits. There’s always something new because exhibitions change every six to eight weeks, which is why it serves as a major hub for the Nashville art scene. $12 admission.
919 Broadway; fristcenter.org
Harry Ransom Center (Austin, Texas)
One of only two university-affiliated museums included here, the Harry Ransom Center is also a humanities research library. Here you’ll find exhibits featuring rare books (including a particularly fine example of the Gutenberg Bible), author archives, photographs, and film memorabilia (including costumes from Gone with the Wind). Free admission.
The University of Texas at Austin, 300 West 21st Street; hrc.utexas.edu
Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk, Virginia)
The Norfolk Museum of Art was renamed after Walter Chrysler, Jr.—generously, the son of the car company founder had donated 10,000 works of art. The Chrysler Museum has an extensive glass collection, as well as a glass studio opened in 2011. Works by Matisse, Pollock, Renoir, and Warhol are found among its collections of ancient, modern, and contemporary art. Free admission.
One Memorial Place; 757/664-6200; chrysler.org
Newseum (Washington, D.C.)
Washington, D.C., has many exciting museums, but only the Newseum houses 15 galleries and 15 theaters all championing the First Amendment. From civil rights to the Berlin Wall to 9/11, the exhibits highlight the power of the press in shaping our understanding of history. $22.95 admission covers two consecutive days.
555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.; newseum.org
Clay Center (Charleston, West Virginia)
One of the newest arts venues on the list, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia opened in 2003. It features galleries and performing arts spaces, as well as science exhibits and a planetarium. The art collection includes pieces by Chuck Close and Viola Frey. For exciting new music, try the Sound Check Sessions. $7.50 admission includes the science and art galleries.
One Clay Square; theclaycenter.org