Doors to Discovery

Winter’s chill invites exploring new slices of Michigan indoors and a range of acclaimed regional museums are just the ticket.

While 20th Century Fox’s release of “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” this December promises plenty of fun and intrigue, museums throughout the Great Lake State are offering their own brands of the same. Peruse this sampling of top spots to go, and visit to uncover other unique destinations.

Air Zoo

Portage /

Lockheed SR-71B Blackbird
Photography courtesy Air Zoo

The highly-charged, multi-sensory Air Zoo — voted twice over as the “Best Place to Take Out-of-Towners” and “Best Place to Spend a Day with Your Family” — makes taking to the skies memorable in myriad first-hand ways including amusement park-style rides, full-motion flight simulators, a RealD 3D/4D Missions Theater, Magic Planet and Paratrooper Jump, as well as educational activities and historical, Smithsonian-caliber exhibits. Co-founded by Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame inductee Preston “Pete” Parish and the late Suzanne DeLano Parish, who received a Congressional Gold Medal for her WWII role with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the Air Zoo — which opened in 1979 as the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum — also encompasses a restoration facility and the Michigan Space & Science Center.

— Lisa M. Jensen

Space Suit Exhibit
Photography courtesy Air Zoo

Must See: “Salute to Heroes” in 3D, augmented by sensory effects including rocking seats and plumes of smoke; the overpowering F-14 Tomcat (of “Top Gun” movie fame); the SR-71B Blackbird spy plane, still unmatched in speed and altitude.

Don’t Miss: Experiencing a professional training simulator that provides the sensation of flying; feeling the sensation of weightlessness as you’re “dropped” like a paratrooper from a height of two stories; Cosair Challenge/Mission to Mars.

Special Attractions: During warm-weather months, fly in a classic bi-plane.

FYI: The Air Zoo is overseeing restoration of a historic WW II-era “Wildcat” fighter recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan after 68 years.

The Dennos Museum Center

Traverse City /

Nagata Shachu Concert
Nagata Shachu Concert, Milliken Auditorium. Photography by David L. Fox

That a full-sized polar bear and muskox greet you at the elegant Dennos Museum Center is fitting once you enter the Inuit Gallery and peruse the permanent collection of 1,500 stonecuts, stencils, tapestries, sculptures, artifacts and more from the Canadian Arctic. The collection, started in 1960 by a college librarian who held an annual Eskimo art sale, is now thought to be the largest and most historically complete of its kind. But the Arctic isn’t the only region on notable display. The Dennos has recently acquired internationally several special collections of Chinese art, a trove that evolved from a 2006 musical collaboration between local jazz musician Bob James and a group of Chinese conservatory students.

— Kim Schneider

Must See: The Power Family Inuit Gallery collection; “Recollections,” an interactive display through which visitors’ movements are projected; the significant collection of Canadian-Indian Woodland Art.

Don’t Miss: The Dennos Museum Center’s rare Edward Weston photograph, part of its permanent collection. One of the four known copies of this image sold at auction recently for $1.6 million.

Special Attractions: Light sculptures by Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn, works that create the illusion of infinite space, and the expanding paper sculptures of Beijing sculptor Li Hongbo, both through Jan. 4; live Concert Series performances at Milliken Auditorium.

The Henry Ford Museum (Edison Institute) and Greenfield Village

Dearborn /

“Gridiron Glory” exhibit
“Gridiron Glory” exhibit. Photography courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame

Aware that the automobile would change rural life in America, the farm boy with a mechanical bent who grew up to invent the Model T began a quest to preserve America’s pre-industrial history in the early 1900s. Over time, his personal collection of items from friend Thomas Edison, watches, clocks and other everyday “artifacts” of invention expanded into the world’s largest indoor/outdoor museum: a nine-acre, hangar-style space with soaring ceilings that spotlights American innovations, historical objects and pop culture over 300 years and a 90-plus-acre village enlivened by the sights, sounds and settings of America’s past.

— Lisa M. Jensen

Must See: “Driving America,” a notable collection of historical vehicles; the 1961 Lincoln Continental in which President John F. Kennedy was shot; the 1946 prototype Dymaxion house of the future; the Rosa Parks bus; the 30-foot-tall, 50-ton Gothic Steam Engine; Goldenrod, a one-of-kind race car that shattered the world land speed record in 1965.

Don’t Miss: “Interstellar” directed by Christopher Nolan at The Henry Ford Imax Theater; the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, offering a 360-degree look at how autos are made and final assembling view of the new Ford F-150s; many authentic historical buildings at Greenfield Village relocated from their original sites, such as the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and Abraham Lincoln’s courthouse.

Special Attractions: Lantern-lit Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village with costumed carolers, fireworks and more, Dec. 5-7, 12-14, 18-23 and 26-27; “Gridiron Glory,” a 6,000-square-foot exhibition celebrating the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary, through Jan. 4, 2015.

FYI: The Edison Institute (Henry Ford Museum) was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover to Ford’s longtime friend Thomas Edison on Oct. 21, 1929 — the 50th anniversary of the first incandescent light bulb. In attendance: Marie Curie, John D. Rockefeller, Will Rogers and Orville Wright, among others (Wikipedia).

Motown Museum (Hitsville USA)

Detroit /

Motown Museum - Hitsville Campus
Photography courtesy Motown Historical Museum

Plenty have belted out a Motown hit like “Stop in the Name of Love” with the full flair of the Supremes or “My Girl,” Temptations-style. But the chance to do so before the same suspended microphone used by these greats is what really helps cement Hitsville USA’s mission — preserving the Motown legacy while showing how one man’s vision morphed into one of the most successful record companies of all time. The glitz of the era is well expressed through original costumes on display, videos and ever-present music, but so are the label’s humble origins. These are movingly evident in the small original flat of founder Berry Gordy, who borrowed $800 from his family and took a chance on a label featuring young African American musicians in an era still filled with racial tensions.

— Kim Schneider

Motown Museum Studio
Photography courtesy Motown Historical Museum

Must See: Berry Gordy’s family apartment, restored to look like he would have left it on an afternoon visit to the studio; performance uniforms, including the sequined dresses favored by Motown’s women singers and Michael Jackson’s renowned jeweled glove.

Don’t Miss: Touring Studio A, for it’s here in this converted one-car garage — Motown’s primary recording studio until 1972, where many original instruments remain — that engaging guides often get a group singing complete with hand motions in the same spot the Supremes recorded 1965’s “Stop in the Name of Love.”

Special Attraction: The museum’s 1877 Steinway. Once used by Motown greats, the piano was restored through an inspiried donation by Beatle Paul McCartney after hevisited the museum in 2011.

Grand Rapids Public Museum

Grand Rapids /

“Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ships”
“Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ships”. Photography courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum

Soon after civic leaders founded the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History and its first collections (the “Cabinets of Curiosities”) in 1854, it merged with the Grand Rapids Scientific Club, a group of high school students who contributed their youthful enthusiasm and own growing array of specimens. Progressing from the “parlors of gentlemen” and displays at Central High to the historic Howlett home and a new Art Deco site of its own built during the Great Depression, the Grand Rapids Public Museum — renewed once more in 1994 on the Grand River’s west bank in downtown GR — maintains its long-held role today as a living monument of artifacts, ideas and stories told through exhibitions, events and educational programs.

— Lisa M. Lensen

Must See: “Collecting A-Z,” a parade of artifacts displayed in categories spanning automobiles to zoology; “The Furniture City,” an exploration of Grand Rapids’ colorful furniture-making heritage; “Anishinabek: The People of This Place,” sharing West Michigan’s Native American culture.

Don’t Miss: 3-D ice slides and solar system coasters (“Spacepark360: Infinity”) at Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium, a state-of-the-art, digital full-dome theater featuring the latest Digistar projection technology; a spin on the 1928 Spillman Carousel’s bejeweled hand-carved horses over the river in a glass pavilion.

Special Attraction: “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ships” through April 19, 2015, exhibiting more than 200 authentic artifacts from the vessel sunk by storm in 1717, found off Cape Cod in 1984 and still actively excavated today.

Cranbrook Institute of Science

Bloomfield Hills /

Photography courtesy Cranbrook Institute of Science

It’s easy to lose track of time in the Cranbrook Institute of Science, serving Michigan’s most curious minds since 1930. The lure of adventure pulls visitors into corridors punctuated by enormous dinosaur bones and whales displayed like puzzle pieces, offering onlookers a picture of the wild past while interpreting “knowledge-based” collections.

This top museum is also known for its planetarium shows and BatZone, featuring live night creatures including flying squirrels, owls, sugar gliders and a two-toed sloth — not to mention an array of bats.

— Ari L. Mokdad

Must See: “Mastodons Did Not Survive,” unfolding the story of how a species that once roamed Michigan in abundance became extinct; “Acheson Light Lab,” featuring 40 feet of light and color from natural sun rays; “Peoples of the Woodlands: Objects of Great Lakes Native America.”

Don’t Miss: The Acheson Planetarium, equipped with Digistar projector and 5.1 surround sound; identifying constellations in Michigan’s night sky at Cranbrook Observatory (Friday and Saturday nights); “Water is Like Nothing Else” (touch a 500,000-year-old extinct sea).

Special Attractions: Linda Huey’s “Dark Garden,” a courtyard-like setting presenting more than 40 “dark and beautiful but dysfunctional plant forms” constructed from unconventional mediums like metal, manufactured steel, fossilized trash and computer parts, through Dec. 30, 2014; “Women of Vision,” documenting the lives and accomplishments of 11 National Geographic photographers from the Mongolian steppes and American West to war-torn Iraq and last great wildernesses of Africa, through Dec. 30, 2014.

USS Silversides Submarine Museum

Muskegon /

USS Silversides
Photography courtesy Silversides Museum

Experience a piece of wartime history on the Muskegon Lake Channel, just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. The USS Silversides, a 90,080-ton submarine, was commissioned shortly following the attack on Pearl Harbor, completing 14 combat war patrols during World War II in the Pacific Theater of Operations. In addition, this sub claims the third highest total in the U.S. Navy for sinking ships with a staggering count of 23 major Japanese vessels before being decommissioned in 1946. With 12 Battle Stars for wartime service and a Presidential Unit Citation, the USS Silversides is now a year-round attraction as well as piece of history that includes a 15,000-square-foot museum and community education programs for all ages.

— Ari L. Mokdad

Commissioned just a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Silversides completed 14 combat war patrols in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.

USS Silversides Seasonal Promo
Photography courtesy Silversides Museum

Must See: The “USS FLIER (SS 250),” an exhibit featuring a submarine that struck a mine leaving only eight of 80 surviving crew members, including a Grand Haven native; “Civil Air Patrol,” highlighting WWII and post-war formations); “Women in the Military: WWII Nurses,” spotlighting training and military service of those from the Muskegon area.

Special Attraction: The USS Silversides Submarine Museum offers an overnight encampment program that can accommodate up to 72 participants over the age of 5, a unique opportunity to sleep in the berths and walk the decks of the “boatel” aboard one of Michigan’s most historic water vessels.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit /

DIA Fire Artist
Photography courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts

The large marble pillars and iron-casted gates invite patrons to step inside and discover themselves amongst thousands of art pieces housed by the DIA — an icon resting on Woodward Avenue, the pulse of Detroit. With over 650,000 square feet, 100 galleries, a 1,150-seat auditorium and a 380-seat lecture/recital hall, the DIA has been a “beacon of culture” since 1885. The expansive collection has been rated “among the top six in the United States” and features some of the most prolific and renowned pieces in art history. In addition to this prolific expanse of art and history, the DIA hosts musical performances at its “Friday Night Live!” events with extended museum hours and special activities from 6 to 10 p.m.

— Ari L. Mokdad

Must See: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural (lauded as one of Rivera’s most “successful” pieces); Vincent van Gogh’s “Self Portrait” (the first Van Gogh painting in a U.S. collection); Nail Figure from Zaire; “Courtly Amber Casket” from 1695 by Gottfried Wolffram (featuring five landscapes in ivory and the first piece of sculpted amber to be a part of the DIA’s collection).

Don’t Miss: “Ordinary People by Extraordinary Artists: Works on Paper by Degas, Renoir and Friends,” a celebration of some of the less-celebrated pastels, etchings and lithographs, through March 29, 2015; “Monet Guest of Honor,” featuring the famous “Waterlily Pond, Green Harmony,” on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, through Jan. 4, 2015.

Special Event: “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” by Frozen Planet cinematographer Anthony Powell, a 4K high-def immersion in life at the bottom of the world, varying show times Dec.26-28; the Founders Junior Council Cirque, a masked formal ball with elaborate performers and atmosphere, Feb. 28, 2015.

The Music House Museum

Williamsburg /

Music House Mortier
Photography courtesy Music House

A walk through the history of sound is what you’ll experience as you explore restored farm buildings scattered around what once was a working orchard and is now one of Traverse City’s top family attractions. Founded in 1983, the museum features everything from the earliest known music boxes and radio era, along with many instruments that came between. But likely called it one of the top 10 reasons to visit Michigan’s Lower Peninsula because of the interactive experiences enjoyed on 90-minute guided tours, the way you’re serenaded by an antique piano that plays “Rhapsody in Blue,” or what sounds like a 20-piece German marching band via a Bruder Fair organ.

— Kim Schneider

Must See: The 1924 Mortier Dance “Amaryllis” Organ, originally built for the Victoria Palace dance hall in Belgium; the new Calliaphone, a 43-note national model designed for outdoor use that can be heard for up to a quarter mile outdoors; replicas of key instruments from the Acme General Store.

Don’t Miss: The museum holds a collection known as “Miniature Traverse City,” a 21-building replica of Traverse City of the 1920s.

Special Attractions: The Silent Film series, accompanied by world-renowned organists; and regular tours, which offer the chance for hands-on interaction with the many pianos, phonographs, music boxes and silent films.

FYI: The Museum is only open on weekends in December and every day between Christmas and New Year’s, then closes until May 2015. Watch for film and concert information.

Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum

Farmington Hills /

Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum
Photography by Jen Dreher

Step into the quirkiest, most eccentric collection of arcade games, animatronic dummies, sideshow attractions and curiosities in Michigan. Marvin Yagoda, a 60-plus-year-old pharmacist with a passion for vintage and modern coin-operated machines — a hobby he says, that “got out of control”— has been collecting since 1960. The museum opened its doors in 1990 and has since been listed in the World Almanac as one of the 100 most unusual museums in the United States for its thousands of mechanical oddities and one-of-a-kind collectibles, some even built specifically for the museum.

— Ari L. Mokdad

Marvin's Bull
Photography by Jen Dreher

Must See: A Siamese twin doll (circa 1920s); “Merlin the Fortune Teller” (with an “actual” magic trick); a life-size statue of the world’s tallest man; an array of wooden mechanical animations; an electric chair (rumored to be from Sing-Sing prison and actually used from 1930-1950); vintage magic posters (ranging in size from two to 20 sheets posted on canvas).

Don’t Miss: The oldest gypsy fortune telling machine (circa 1900s); a nostalgic Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machine; “peep show” machines (found tucked in a corner or two, with a once penny price tag); “The world’s first auto-wed machine” (it only cost four quarters!); a 55-piece mechanical orchestra that can play over 300 songs; “The Cardiff Giant” (once displayed by P.T Barnum).

FYI: Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum has been featured on “American Pickers,” “The History Channel,” “The Antiques Roadshow” and in “The World Almanac,” US Weekly and the Ladies Home Journal.

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