In the heat of summer, free indoor activities are in high demand in Austin. None of these museums charge admission, yet they are rich in art, history and culture. If you're not in the mood to absorb tons of information, the museums are also beautiful spaces you can enjoy without having to overwork your brain.
For a fascinating overview of the museum’s holdings, spend some time at the etched windows exhibit on the first floor. Two of the museum’s highest-profile treasures are the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph. Other highlights of the permanent collection include manuscripts and ephemera of authors such as Arthur Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Periodic exhibits feature dresses and sets from old movies like Gone with the Wind and Alice in Wonderland. Guided tours are available at noon daily. 300 West 21st Street; (512) 471-8944
The castle-like home is full of the sculptures of Elisabet Ney, who moved to Austin in 1892. She created sculptures of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, along with luminaries from her German homeland. The collection includes a number of busts and life-sized statues. Other exhibits explore Ney’s process of building the sculptures. The building functioned as both a home and a studio (originally called Formosa). The museum is small, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of an aristocratic German woman living and working alongside some of our most famous and cranky early Texans. 304 East 44th Street; (512) 458-2255
The O. Henry Museum houses artifacts and exhibits exploring the life of writer William Sydney Porter. The building served as his home at one time and still contains some of the original furniture. Porter adopted the pen name of O. Henry as a way of starting over after serving a five-year prison term for embezzlement. His most famous short stories are The Gift of the Magi and The Cop and the Anthem. The museum is also the site of the annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. The writer was certainly a fan of wordplay, but no one really knows if O. Henry would appreciate having a pun-off in his name. Nonetheless, it's a cherished and quirky Austin tradition. 409 East 5th Street; (512) 472-1903
The Mexican American Cultural Center pays tribute to the contributions of Mexican Americans and Native Americans to U.S. culture. Two galleries offer rotating exhibits featuring the work of contemporary Latino artists. The museum also offers classes and residencies for aspiring Latino artists. 600 River Street; (512) 974-3772
In addition to exploring the work of scientist and artist George Washington Carver, the 36,000-square-foot museum delves into several other topics, including African-American families, the work of African-American artists, and inventions and scientific advances made by other African-American innovators. Carver first recommended planting peanuts as a way of improving soil quality. He went on to develop peanut butter and several other uses for the nutritious legume. He was also one of the first professors at the now-famous Tuskegee University. 1165 Angelina Street; (512) 974-4926