7 Less-Famous Natural History Museums Worth a Visit

Dinosaur skeleton fully posed for museum display
Photo: Ray Bouknight/flickr

When most people think of natural history museums, the paleontological powerhouses come to mind: the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and Chicago's Field Museum.

But it's also worth seeking out natural history museums that don't enjoy the same international notoriety. Visitors to these natural history museums can learn about the natural world past and present minus the maddening crowds (although we can’t guarantee a field-trip-free experience).

Here, you'll find our top picks of not-super-famous-but-highly-respectable natural history museums in the United States. For each, we've provided information about what you’ll find aside from prehistoric fossils — a crowd-pleasing given at any major natural history museum. All of our picks have paleontological collections, such the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (pictured), but it's worth highlighting what each museum offers for those who couldn't give a toss about T. rex skeletons.

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Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Photo: James Tiffin Jr./flickr

Established: 1896 in Pittsburgh, Pennsyalvania

Head count: About 300,000 annual visitors; more than 22 million specimens on display or in archives

Beyond the fossils: Gemstones! Giant stuffed polar bears! There are millions of non-paleo-centric specimens — and an impressive number of school group-friendly attractions — to be found within 20 galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Highlights include the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians, the Wyckoff Hall of Arctic Life and the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.

However, there’s no denying that this storied Pittsburgh institution is best known for flexing considerable muscle in the paleontology department. Boasting a large collection of Jurassic dinosaurs in the world and sizable collection of mounted, displayed 'saurs, prehistoric remains are the pièce de résistance at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which, despite its status as one of the top five natural history museums in the nation, doesn't boast the patronage of its brethren in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Photo: Bradley Griffin/flickr

Established: 1913

Head count: About 1 million annually; more than 35 million specimens on display and in the archives

Beyond the fossils: With its satellite museum at the La Brea Tar Pits roping in fossil-seeking tourists by the busload, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has long found its strength not in dinosaurs but in permanent exhibits such as a crazy-large collection of shells, an insect zoo, a treasure trove of ancient Latin American artifacts and enough grade-A dioramas to keep restless sixth-graders preoccupied for hours on end, such as the African Mammals Hall (pictured). There's also a 14,000-square-foot Dinosaur Hall serving up some fierce competition to existing paleontology powerhouses such as the National Museum of Natural History in D.C. while boosting the 100-year-old museum's attendance levels.

For those who prefer flora to fossils, the Nature Gardens are a 3.5-acre urban habitat where visitors can see birds and butterflies, enjoy guided nature walks, take gardening workshops and learn to track and observe different species.

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Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan

Photo: University of Michigan Museum of Natural History/Facebook

Established: 1956 in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Head count: More than 85,000 annual visitors

Beyond the fossils: Dedicated exclusively to the development of exhibits and educational programs, the Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan does indeed boast a whole lot of dino-themed displays — the museum's Hall of Evolution (pictured) is the most extensive collection of prehistoric life in the state of Michigan. Beyond the towering T. rex and mastodon mounts, however, visitors will find strong permanent and temporary exhibits, including the taxidermy-heavy Michigan Wildlife Gallery, a butterfly garden and top-notch anthropology and geology displays. A favorite attraction of amateur astrologers and avid night sky watchers — and those being dragged along with them — is the museum's planetarium.

You'll have to hurry to catch these exhibits, however. The museum is closing until on Dec. 30, 2017 and will reopen in the university's Biological Sciences Building spring 2019.

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Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Photo: Noel Kirkpatrick

Established: 1885 in Seattle

Head count: More than 15 million artifacts and specimens on display and in the archives

Beyond the fossils: Seattle is a fine — if somewhat underrated — museum town and the Burke Museum, the state of Washington's oldest and the only major natural history museum in the Pacific Northwest, is among the finest.

And, yes, there's a decent paleontological collection to be found at the Burke, which is expanding with a juvenile T. rex fossil. However, the main draw of the museum is, hands down, the ethnology division and its staggering stockpile of Native American, Asian and Oceania art and artifacts including the world-renowned Northwest Coast and Alaskan Arctic collections. And visitors with a keen interest in fish, birds, mushrooms, reptiles and gemstones will not be disappointed after spending an afternoon spent wandering the halls of the Burke.

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Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University

Photo: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History/Facebook

Established: 1866

Head count: About 150,000 annual visitors; more than 12 million specimens and artifacts on display and in the archives

Beyond the fossils: Although the iconic 7,350-pound bronze sculpture of a Torosaurus at the front entrance may lead visitors to believe that Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History is primarily a paleontological affair, there's a whole lot more to be discovered within the halls of this esteemed institution. (To be fair, the expansive collection of prehistoric skeletons and fossils, along with Rudolph Zallinger's famed "The Age of Reptiles," mural are a huge draw).

The Birds of Connecticut exhibit is a must-see for ornithology enthusiasts, while the kid-friendly Discovery Room — official rule: "Please Touch!" — is home to host of critters including poison dart frogs, giant hissing cockroaches, tropical leaf-cutter ants and a nest of rat snakes. In addition to collections of minerals and ancient Egyptian artifacts, the third floor of the Peabody is where visitors will find the museum's show-stopping, masterpiece-quality wildlife dioramas.

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Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Photo: Eden, Janine and Jim/flickr

Established: 1992 in Atlanta

Head count: About 500,000 annual visitors

Beyond the fossils: A newbie as far as natural history museums go, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History has managed has established itself as a must-visit Atlanta cultural institution within a relatively short time. We’re going to go out on a limb and assume that a weekly event called Martinis and IMAX really helps pack the non-field-trip crowd in.

In addition to the intriguing intersection of cocktails and nature docs projected on a five-story-high screen, major draws at the museum are the diorama-heavy A Walk Through Time in Georgia exhibition and NatureQuest, an interactive experience that features hundreds of hands-on activities. And unsurprisingly, prehistoric lizards are a perennial favorite at the 160,000-square-foot Fernbank with paleontological attractions including Dinosaur Plaza and the Giants of the Mesozoic exhibition (pictured) located in the museum's Great Hall. And on an interesting side note, Fernbank is one of the only museums in the world to grow out of a forest, in this case the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the world.

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Burpee Museum of Natural History

Photo: FunkMonk/Wikimedia Commons

Established: 1941 in Rockford, Illinois

Head count: More than 70,000 specimens and artifacts on display and in the archives

Beyond the fossils: This true hidden gem of a natural history museum boasts a killer collection of rare and unusual gems ... and minerals and rocks. The Carboniferous Coal Forest exhibit isn't too shabby either. But as things go, the crowd-pleasing, attendance-bumping centerpiece of Rockford's Burpee Museum of Natural History is, of course, of the paleontological variety: A remarkably preserved, 21-foot-long skeleton of a 66 million-year-old juvenile T. rex named Jane (official name: BMRP 2002.4.1).

Jane (pictured), along with a truly impressive fossil collection, has helped to put the Burpee Museum on the map and, as a result, the museum has embraced its dino-borne fame and run with it. There's a teenage triceratops- displaying exhibit called "Homer's Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee" and the museum holds an annual PaleoFest that celebrates dinosaurs and fossils.

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7 more museums to visit

Photo: Felrobert Casipe/flickr

Sam Noble Museum, Norman, Oaklahoma

Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas

Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City

Virginia Museum of Natural History, Martinsville

Bishop Museum, Honolulu

University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, Boulder

California Academy of Sciences (pictured), San Francisco