From cars to tunes, Detroit’s eclectic museums tell several stories about Motor City—all with national appeal. Whether you crave a day of wandering among art galleries, inspired by their brilliant, beautiful works within, or want to learn more about the ingenuity of Michigan’s largest city, there’s a museum for you.
Local cultures have spawned historical retrospectives, too, including the Holocaust Memorial Center (created by a local rabbi in concert with Holocaust survivors) and Arab American Museum (nearby Dearborn is home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab Americans).
Tucked into a white house with blue trim along West Grand Boulevard, Motown founder Berry Gordy bought the building (a former photography studio) in 1959 and used it for his record label’s studio until he moved it to L.A. in 1972. This is now home to Motown Museum. Relics on display include a studded right-hand glove donated by Michael Jackson and Studio A (where the Supremes recorded “Stop in the Name of Love”) is fully preserved.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Located in Midtown, in a 1927 beaux-arts building, the DIA (as locals call it) is a nearly 700,000-square-foot art museum filled with world-class works from artists like Diego Rivera (his “Detroit Industry” frescoes hang in the two-story entrance hall), Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Mary Cassatt. With 65,000 works, it continually ranks among the country’s top art museums.
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
An ode to one of Michigan’s most famous residents—Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford—this museum campus is in nearby Dearborn. The 80-acre Greenfield Village documents living history (including a Model T ride and 1930s-era lunch) across seven historic districts while the Ford Rouge Factory Tour is for any auto enthusiast. At the Dearborn Truck Plant you can take an inside look at the making of a Ford F-150 truck. While at the campus you can sit on the bus that made Rosa Parks famous or learn about the Wright brothers’ flight goals at the museum.
Arab American National Museum
Open since 2005, and in nearby Dearborn, this is the world’s first museum devoted solely to Arab Americans. Combining exhibits and events covering visual arts, performing arts, artifacts, and film, the goal is to educate Americans about this culture’s unique history and journey. From a hand-stitched Lebanese flag to retired race car driver Bobby Rahal’s racing suit and helmet, the museum’s objects are both colorful and insightful. Four galleries of permanent exhibits include “Coming to America” and “Living in America.”
Michigan Science Center
Folding in the former Detroit Science Center (it closed in 2011), Michigan Science Center debuted in late 2012 across the street from Detroit Institute of Arts. There’s enough under one roof to keep a family busy all day, including 250 exhibits, a planetarium, two live shows (Chrysler Science Stage, mixing chemistry and physics; and DTE Energy Sparks Theater, all about electricity), and a 4D theater. Special exhibits include a STEM Playground with a new “marble wall” and self-led activities in the Smithsonian Spark!Lab.
Automotive Hall of Fame
Proving this is Motor City, the Automotive Hall of Fame was first established in 1939 in New York City but moved into a new facility in Dearborn in 1997. In fact, it’s right across the street from The Henry Ford museum campus. There’s a nice balance in the hall of changing and permanent exhibits that even “non-auto fans” will enjoy as the focus is on tangential topics like auto style, impact of motor culture and America’s first interstate (it's Lincoln Highway by the way).
Detroit Historical Museum
Designed to present Detroit’s rich, layered history in an easy-to-grasp manner, Detroit Historical Museum—in Midtown—is operated by the Detroit Historical Society. In 2015 the museum added five permanent exhibits, including “Detroit: The Arsenal of Democracy” and the “Kid Rock Music Lab.” Many locals equate “the Streets of Old Detroit” (emulating the 1840s, 1870s and 1900s) with their childhood—walk on the cobblestone streets to learn why. The Historical Museum is also only 2 miles from Motown Museum, making it easy to visit both in the same day.
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History
Located on the Wayne State University campus, this museum—founded in 1965 out of the namesake founder’s home—is a powerhouse in archiving African-American culture. In fact, its 35,000-item collection is the world’s largest permanent exhibit centered around the culture of African Americans. Many archived materials have local roots, including the Sheffield Collection (documents about Detroit’s labor movement). Since 1997 the museum has been in its current facility, with the signature glass dome.
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
Dubbed MOCAD, this 22,000-square-foot arts museum opened in 2006 within a former auto dealership in Midtown. Acutely focused on modern art beyond paintings, its mantra is to also showcase music, literary and performing arts, using the flexible space to host public programs as well as changing exhibits. For example, the site-specific Robolights Detroit show by Kenny Irwin, Jr., (through May 3, 2020) leads visitors through a carnival-meets-sci-fi atmosphere that’s similar to his Palm Springs, California, art installation.
Holocaust Memorial Center
As Michigan’s only Holocaust museum, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills (a Detroit suburb) opened in 1984 after 20 years of planning, led by a local rabbi along with local Holocaust survivors. It later moved to a new, much larger facility. One of the most popular exhibits at the center is the Museum of European Jewish Heritage, documenting the Jews’ life in Europe before the World War II genocide. Daily docent-led tours at 1:30 p.m. (lasting 90 minutes) provide a more in-depth experience.