The Five Weirdest Chicago Museums You Can Visit in a Weekend

There’s more to Chicago tourism than a trip to The Bean—we’ve got leather, medical oddities, pictures of dead kids, and the very first McDonald’s.

Photo: Courtesy of CHISKI (Flickr)

This is the happiest place you’ll go on this tour. Enjoy it.

Tourism in Chicago is pretty easy. When friends and family come to visit, you take them to The Bean, tour the Museum Campus, shop on the Mag Mile, and go out for deep-dish pizza. The adventurous may wander through one of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods for authentic tacos or falafel or take a slow-speed Segway tour along the lakefront. (Please don’t do this. You will look ridiculous.)

But those of us who have lived here awhile inevitably begin to crave better, weirder distractions for our visitors. Luckily, Chicago has more than a few odd collections on display. If you’re up for a challenge, you can pack them all into one long weekend. (Start Friday—beat the crowds of other weirdos.)

Three out of these five are either gruesome or risqué, but if your guests are 18 or older, go for it. You’ll definitely get some vacation photos that millions of other tourists won’t have already posted on Facebook.

 

Day 1:

Start the fun on a Friday morning with one of the most genuinely American attractions in Chicagoland: the first McDonald’s (above), a tiny red-and-white-tiled restaurant with awkward-looking arches recreated from the original blueprints after the building was demolished in 1984. The museum is just for show—original kitchen equipment is manned by an all-male crew of mannequins dressed in the 1955 version of the uniform.

The eerie stillness of McDonald’s as art has a certain House of Wax feel to it, but this is hardly the weirdest stop on the tour. A crew of mannequin fry cooks does nicely set the mood, though. And if the original home of the nation’s grandest food empire puts a rumble in your belly, there’s a working modern-day McDonald’s just across the street.

Fortified by your classic American meal, you can head to the Museum of Mourning Photography, which is exactly what it sounds like. What appear to be normal old-timey photos of stiffly posed figures sleeping peacefully or staring blankly into the distance are, on further inspection, pictures of dead people.

 

Photo: Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice

Just tell yourself she’s sleeping. 

Mourning photography was one of the strangest trends to come out of the growth of daguerreotype portraiture in the late 19th century. The deceased were often dressed up and posed to look alive, including propping eyelids open and painting rosy cheeks onto the end result. Relatively nonplussed-looking relatives surrounded their dearly departed, often children who died before a happier occasion could be photographed.

This 900-photo collection is equal parts sad and sweet, a reminder of the lengths people have gone through to memorialized loved ones. Maybe a visit will inspire you to have your own memorial photo taken once you’ve passed on. 

 

Day 2:

If yesterday’s mourning photography experience left you feeling glum, a visit to the American Toby Jug Museum may seem a more appropriate way to memorialize people: putting their faces on ceramic pitchers.

 

Photo: American Toby Jug Museum Facebook

Your inner nerd is squealing right now. 

True Toby jugs are shaped like a fat, jovial Brit dressed in 18th-century garb and smoking a pipe. But among the 8,000 pieces in this museum are plenty of “character jugs” depicting famous faces and icons like John F. Kennedy, Frank Morgan, and even Long John Silver. Try not to get lost in this surprisingly large basement museum tucked behind a tiny Evanston storefront.

When you escape the gaze of 16,000 little ceramic eyes, head to the International Museum of Surgical Science, where a macabre collection fills four stories of a historic mansion.

 

Photo: International Museum of Surgical Science

Be careful, doctor. You wouldn’t want to hurt him. 

A human body split into 1/2-inch slices greets you on the first floor. Other real body parts, including preserved fetuses from every stage of gestation, are scattered throughout the halls. Other exhibits showcase art made with blood, old prosthetic devices, various stones (bladder, kidney, etc.), and surgical tools dating back to ancient Rome.

Tip: Get lunch before coming to the IMSS. Learning how they performed amputations pre-anesthesia tends to sap the appetite.

 

Day 3:

After dead people and medical curiosities, end this trip on a little more pleasurable note. The Leather Archives & Museum, a catchall collection of items related to alternative sexual practices, is a good place to learn about less visible segments of society without dipping too deep into the bizarre.

 

Photo: Leather Archives & Museum Facebook

Sure, there’s no leather in this photo of Philip Hitchcock’s “Of Myths and Mortals” exhibit, but we wanted to keep this post Safe For Work. If you want to see the good stuff, head to the LA&M Facebook albums

The LA&M has an arsenal of clothing, gear, art, literature, and film. It’s no place for kids (or the squeamish, or prudes). But anyone with an interest in leather, fetishism, or sadomasochism could learn quite a bit from its library and exhibits. For example, you’ll be able to answer the question: “Was Benjamin Franklin kinky?

 

With your weird weekend finally done, allow yourself one or two clichés before sending your guests off. What’s a trip to the city without a proper Chicago dog, anyway?

 

McDonald’s #1 Store Museum
400 N. Lee St., Des Plaines
Open Memorial Day to Labor Day
Free admission

Museum of Mourning Photography
Near West Side
Email mail@aastudiosinc.com at least two weeks in advance to set up a weekday appointment (no weekends).

American Toby Jug Museum
910 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Open Tuesdays and Thursdays or by appointment on weekends.
Free admission

International Museum of Surgical Science
1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Open Tuesday through Sunday
Adult admission $15, everyone free on Tuesdays

Leather Archives & Museum
6418 N. Greenview Ave.
Open Thursday through Sunday
$10 admission

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