The 50 Most Impressive College Museums


Key Takeaways:

  • University museums provide unique learning experiences with diverse collections, enriching both the campus and visitors’ knowledge.
  • Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University features beautiful paintings, sculptures, and prints from various periods.
  • Museum of the North at the University of Alaska houses nearly 1.5 million specimens and artifacts, including a 36,000-year-old mummified bison.

Whether a stunning piece of art or an artifact offering a glimpse into a past world, the things we can see only in museums often serve as some of the best teaching tools for broadening horizons and expanding minds. Much like universities, museums are some of the best catalysts for self-discovery, personal growth, and good old inspiration. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that colleges and universities are home to some of the most impressive museums America has to offer.

To come up with the best college museums, we looked for those associated either financially or organizationally with a college or university. We included college museums of all types and missions, but considered only those college museums with permanent and sizable collections spanning more than one time or cultural period. Finally, we chose museums which have in their collections recognizable works of art or artifacts that successfully appeal to a variety of audiences, both student and otherwise. Out of hundreds of museums in the United States, here are our 50 most impressive.

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Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Like dinosaurs? Then you’ll love Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences. Located in Philadelphia, the Academy is home to Dinosaur Hall, where visitors are invited to walk among fully constructed dinosaur skeletons (including a T-Rex!). Younger guests can even play the part of paleontologist, and dig for dinosaur bones in The Big Dig exhibit. But dinosaurs aren’t the Academy’s only claim to fame. A tropical butterfly garden, “Marveling at Mollusks,” and “What Eats What” are just three examples of some of the other fascinating exhibits the Academy of Natural Sciences has to offer.

Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College

Founded in 1917, Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum is today considered one of the best museums in all of the United States. It is full of beautiful pieces, including hundreds of ancient artifacts and an entire gallery dedicated to modern and contemporary art and artists. As impressive as these are, the museum is perhaps best known for its stunning collection of 19th century paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces.

Arizona State University Art Museum

In the six decades since its founding, the Arizona State University Art Museum has grown from a small collection of regional art to one of the most impressive of all college museums. The museum is best known for its 3,500-piece ceramic collection, housed in the Ceramics Research Center. Besides its usual art work, the museum also hosts dozens of events each year, including the Annual Short Film and Video Festival and the Annual Street Party.

Fairfield University Art Museum

If you love paintings and sculpture, then a visit to the Fairfield University Art Museum is a must do. The most impressive of the museum’s sights is The Kress Collection, ten stunning paintings from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods. The Museum also has a number of beautiful sculptures and plaster casts dating from the same time periods, while various pieces from China, Thailand, India, and Persia are also worth seeing.

Burke Museum of Natural History at University of Washington

Though smaller than most of the other college museums on this list, the Burke Museum of Natural History on the campus of University of Washington is just as impressive. The Burke Museum takes a conservation-minded approach to its theme of natural history, and exhibitions are often meant to inspire critical thinking. Especially impressive is the Burke Museum’s large collections of dinosaur fossils and native art.

Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at University of Connecticut

One of the most impressive college museums is the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History. Located on the campus of University of Connecticut, the museum has artifacts from more than 11,000 years of Connecticut history. The most exciting exhibits are certainly the animals. Thousands of specimens of birds, fossils, plants, fish, and mammals are well presented and fun to look at. For those interested in Connecticut’s human history, a permanent exhibit entitled Human’s Nature: Looking Closer at the Relationships between People and the Environment has proven quite successful.

Gallaudet University Museum

Unlike any other museum in the country, college or otherwise, the Gallaudet University Museum assists visitors in experiencing what it is like to be deaf. Located in Washington, D.C., this impressive museum consists of fascinating exhibits and artifacts relating to historical and contemporary deaf life in the United States. Past exhibitions have included “Making a Difference: Deaf Peace Corps Volunteers” and “Gallaudet at 150 and Beyond.”

Glencairn Museum at Bryn Athyn College

Bryn Athyn College’s Glencairn Museum is a museum of religious history with a really impressive collection of medieval artifacts. Nearly 8,000 other works ranging from ancient Egypt,  Greece and Rome are also on display, as are pieces from Christian, Islamic, Asian, and Native American religious sites. Even the museum’s building, a castle-like Gothic Revival masterpiece, is impressive to behold.

Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas at Austin

Art lovers will be amazed by UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. Part museum and gallery, part research facility, the Center’s exhibits often rotate to other places. But if you don’t have your heart set on seeing one specific piece, you aren’t likely to miss anything that may be gone. At any given time, the Center features nearly 70,000 works of art ranging from historical documents, to unique manuscripts, to photography. Best of all, the Center is free for visitors.

Harvard University Art Museums

Three museums make up the Harvard Art Museums — the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum — and together they comprise the fourth largest art collection in the entire Western Hemisphere. Pretty impressive! Together, the four museums hold nearly 300,000 artifacts from a variety of mediums, representing artists and civilizations from Europe, North America, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.

Harvard University Museum of Natural History

Behind busy Harvard Square, tucked back on a quiet street, is a natural history museum that could rival that of many countries. The Harvard University Museum of Natural History is easily one of the most impressive museums in the United States, and walking through is like trekking through the natural history of North America. It’s chock-full of stunning collections that include Mesoamerican sculptures, rare gems, artifacts from various archaeological digs, and —of course— lots of skeletons and animal remnants.

Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College

The many artifacts, paintings, and documents that Dartmouth College has been collecting since 1772 are housed in the Hood Museum of Art. This museum, one of the oldest in the country, holds an impressive 70,000 objects. However, the museum is first and foremost a teaching museum. Students and visitors alike are often invited to take part in the many programs, workshops, and exhibitions the museum puts on each year. One popular program is “Learning to Look,” during which participants are taught exactly how to explore and discover various pieces of art.

Howard University’s core curriculum has long included an appreciation for the arts, and the school’s Gallery of Art has been in existence since 1930. This impressive museum contains a number of stunning paintings by European masters of the 16th through 19th centuries, especially the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The Gallery frequently hosts special exhibitions featuring a wide variety of artists and art types. Recent rotating exhibitions have included “Reflections: African American Life” and “Building on Tradition.”

Indiana University Art Museum

Hosting more than 80,000 visitors per year, the Indiana University Art Museum is one of the most popular and impressive college museums in the Midwest. Stunning works of art by such artists as Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso are featured alongside unique collections of African masks, ancient jewelry, photographs, sketches and drawings, and so much more. Even the building, with its I.M. Pei-designed triangular atrium, is a work of art.

Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University

Auburn University is home to the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, one of the most impressive college museums. The museum owns a huge collection that is often rotated to ensure that guests see a variety of new pieces with each visit. Highlights of the collection include paintings, prints, and photos from as early as the 18th century; more than 40 Tibetan bronze sculptures; the Amber Luster Chandelier by phenomenal glass blowing artist Dale Chihuly; and an amazing outdoor sculpture by artist Jean Woodham titled Spinoff.

Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University

Gonzaga University is home to the Jundt Art Museum, one of the most impressive college museums in the country. The Jundt is actually three museums in one: the Jundt Gallerie; the Arcade Gallery; and the Chancellor’s Room. The latter is where the university’s famous Red Chandelier is kept. Designed by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, the chandelier (pictured) is worth a trip to the museum all on its own. Other must-sees can be found in the two galleries, and include bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin, plus paintings, ceramics, and photography.

The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University

When a college museum has been accredited by the American Association of Museums, you know it is one of the most impressive of its kind. Such is the case with The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. The museum is well known for exhibiting thought-provoking collections and exhibitions. Besides several pieces by local Chicago artists, some of the museum’s highlights include bronze sculptures, a collection of 15th century artifacts, prints by Andy Warhol, and architectural drawings by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, to name but a few.

The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College

Located on the beautiful campus of Amherst College, The Mead Art Museum is home to an impressive and wide-ranging collection of carvings from ancient Assyria, African sculptures, photography from around the world, and paintings by American and European artists, among others. Museum regulars know that interesting exhibitions are always on rotation, some recent ones of which have included an exhibit of paintings from “Courtly India” and a collection of “Animals in the Art of Japan.” While on the Amherst campus, visitors should also check out another great college museum: the Russian Center Art Gallery.

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

The oldest museum in Atlanta is the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. Founded in 1919, the museum features all things ancient and fascinating: Egyptian art, Bronze Age artifacts, Greek and Roman art, and even an incredible portrait of Roman Emperor Tiberius. Workshops for children are held regularly, and themed and traveling exhibits appear multiple times throughout the year.

Mills College Art Museum

One of the most unique college museums is also one of the most impressive. Mills College Art Museum is home to more than 10,000 works of art ranging in diversity from photography, to paintings, to sculptures, to large art installations. Indeed, the museum boasts the largest permanent collection of any liberal arts college on the West Coast. Even the building is impressive! Made entirely of concrete, the building includes strategically placed patterned-glass windows that allow natural light to enter the building in decorative streams.

Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts

A list of the most impressive college museums just has to include the country’s single museum dedicated to the contemporary works of Native American artists. Housed in a beautiful pueblo-inspired building on the campus of the Institute of American Indian Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts contains a number of galleries dedicated to different Native American artists. Lloyd Kiva, Allan Houser, Fritz Scholder, and Helen Hardin are all represented. Besides its permanent collection, the museum also hosts regular exhibitions. If this subject is of interest to you, check out our ranking of the best Native American colleges in the US.

The Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology

This top-ranked college of mines and technology also boasts a top-ranked museum specializing in paleontology and mineralogy. Here, visitors can see all kinds of fascinating displays, including meteorites, rare fossils, and skeletons of dinosaurs, mammals, marine reptiles, and fish. The museum doubles as a research facility, but its packed schedule of exhibitions, events, and special programs geared towards younger audiences make it a great place for families to spend the day.

Museum of the North at University of Alaska at Fairbanks

Part research laboratory and part museum, University of Alaska’s Museum of the North is a powerhouse when it comes to the history of America’s northernmost state. Indeed, the museum boasts more than 1.4 million artifacts, some of the most impressive of which include a massive exhibit of gold (the largest public display in all of Alaska), various ancient ivory carvings, and Blue Babe, a 36,000-year old mummified steppe bison.

Museum of Peoples and Cultures at Brigham Young University

Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah has had a museum since 1879, so it should come as no surprise that the school has one of the 50 most impressive college museums. As its name suggests, BYU’s museum specializes in artifacts of the anthropological, archaeological, and ethnographic varieties. Highlights include shell necklaces from Polynesia and pottery from the American Southwest, though hundreds of countries and cultures are represented here. The museum also offers dozens of programs and classes offered each month for museum visitors of all ages.

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

While most university museums specialize in paintings or natural history, The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is different. It specializes in archaeology of the Near East. Various fascinating exhibits include excavation finds from Egypt, Israel, Iran, and Syria, among other notable ancient civilizations. Don’t miss the statue of Tutankhamen or the 40-ton bull’s head sculpture found near the ancient city of Persepolis. And with free admission as the cherry on top, it’s no wonder The Oriental Institute is impressive enough to rival some of the other great Chicago museums.

Orton Geological Museum at The Ohio State University

The impressive museum at The Ohio State University offers a wealth of geological knowledge in the form of thousands of unique artifacts and specimens. The museum, which also functions as a research facility for students, hosts a wide variety of special events and programs to appeal to the public. But one need not attend a special event to find the museum fascinating. Highlights from Orton’s collection include full dinosaur skeletons, the skeleton of a giant prehistoric sloth, and lots of other fossils.

Princeton University Art Museum

Considering Princeton’s long and influential history, it should come as no surprise that it is home to one of the most impressive college museums in the United States. Princeton’s collection is unique, and comprised of pieces of art from a range of styles and time periods. Classic paintings by artists such as Monet are often exhibited in the same line of sight as modern and cutting-edge sculptures. The result is quite magical. Take a walk through Princeton University’s Art Museum and you’ll get an in-depth tour of art’s past, present, and even future.

Rhode Island School of Design Museum

One of the best—if not the best—art and design schools in the country can also claim one of the most impressive college museums. The museum on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design rivals some of the best galleries in the world with its knowledgeable curators and stunning collection of art from around the world. The museum’s array of European pieces is especially impressive.

Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University

While most college museums and galleries own a large variety of painting styles by a wide range of artists, Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum specializes entirely in American art of the 1960s and 1970s. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, and Roy Lichtenstein — they’re all here! The museum hosts dozens of public events each year to appeal to art-loving students and visitors, including a popular Gallery Talks series during which artists, curators, professors, and art professionals gather for a public discussion.

Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at University of Oklahoma

Located on the campus of University of Oklahoma, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is home to a whopping 7 million objects and specimens in over 12 fascinating collections. Collectively, the collections tell the natural history of the state of Oklahoma. Highlights include the world’s largest Apatosaurus skeleton, a bison skull determined to be the oldest painted object in North America, and a Titanoceratops skeleton, among so much more.

Smith College Museum of Art

The museum of nearby Harvard may get all the attention, but Smith College is also home to one of the most impressive college museums. A visit to this museum is like an art history class all on its own. Asian, African, American, and European artists are all represented here, from ancient times to contemporary. And perhaps because Smith College is a women’s college, the Museum of Art has an especially impressive collection of works by female artists like Julia Margaret Cameron and Mary Cassatt.

Spencer Museum of Art at University of Kansas

When a college museum’s collection is internationally known, you know it’s one of the most impressive of its kind. Such is the case of the Spencer Museum of Art located on the Lawrence campus of University of Kansas. The museum is made up of nearly 40,000 culturally diverse pieces of art ranging from ancient, to medieval, to contemporary, to modern. Represented works of art include paintings, Native American textiles, and photography, to name but a few.

St. Louis University Museum of Art

The St. Louis University Museum of Art is so impressive it almost feels like a place that should exist in downtown New York or San Francisco, rather than at a university. A large piece by Andy Warhol titled “Flowers” greets visitors as they enter, as does a large image of Urban Francis in honor of St. Louis University’s Jesuit heritage. The rest of the museum is full of modern and contemporary art, plus an entire floor of Asian decorative art collected over various Jesuit missions, some of which dates back 3,500 years.

University of Arizona Arts & Museums

While most universities have one museum, University of Arizona has an entire consortium! A large campus arboretum, a biosphere, and the Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium celebrate the sciences and nature with beautiful natural landscapes and interesting exhibits. Cultural artifacts from throughout the history of Arizona, the Southwest, and even northern Mexico can be found in the Arizona State Museum, while the University of Arizona Museum of Art holds more than 5,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. The Center for Creative Photography, the Mineral Museum, and the Pharmacy Museum are also part of University of Arizona’s collection of impressive college museums.

University of California at Berkeley Natural History Museums

UC Berkeley has not one impressive college museum, but six! Indeed, whatever a visitor may be interested in seeing, Berkeley likely has an entire museum devoted to that topic. At the Entomology Museum, visitors can awe over some of the most amazing butterfly specimens around, while the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology is full of artifacts from various points in human history. At the Botanical Gardens, visitors can see, smell, and touch more than 1,000 plants from around the world. But the most impressive of Berkeley’s museums is arguably its museum of Paleontology, where findings from loads of archaeological digs — including a full T-Rex — are on display.

University of Colorado Museum of Natural History

There are many national history museums that wish they had four million artifacts to show their visitors, but that’s exactly what the Museum of Natural History at University of Colorado has! Botany, paleontology, anthropology, and entomology are the museum’s specialty, and guided tours, lectures, and fun programs are often offered for visitors of all ages. If you still don’t believe that the Museum of Natural History is one of the most impressive college museums, consider this: in 2003, the American Association of Museums granted the museum full accreditation, an achievement earned by less than 5% of U.S. museums.

University Museums at University of Delaware

University of Delaware is home to not one, but three impressive college museums. The Old College Gallery, housed in a beautiful building listed on the National Historic Register, is home to a number of awesome permanent collections, including artists of the Brandywine School, Pre-Columbian and Native American ceramics, sculptures from around the world, and 20th century religious icons, to name but a few. Nearby, the Mineralogical Museum features nearly 500 specimens of crystals and gems from Europe and the Americas, while the Mechanical Hall consists of the Paul R. Jones Collection of African American Art.

University of Florida Museum of Natural History

University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History is easily one of the most impressive college museums, and maybe even one of the most impressive regular museums. Popular exhibits about animals, dinosaurs, and prehistoric sharks are worth a visit on their own, but what makes this museum so special is something that perhaps only a Florida museum can provide. The museum includes a unique set of outdoor areas and trails that lead guests through various ecosystems, including a butterfly and wildflower garden. In addition to this incredible museum the University of Florida is also home to one of the best online geology degrees in the country.

University of Iowa Museum of Art

The University of Iowa, home of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has a long-established reputation for its excellence in the arts, and its Museum of Art is yet another worthy piece of this reputation. The museum’s collection is well-known for its contemporary American pieces, though especially impressive is its beautiful exhibit on Art & Life in Africa. While at the museum, visitors should check the schedule of arts-related special events that occur each month.

University of Michigan Museum of Art

There are some cities (and even countries!) around the world that would love to have an art collection as grand and impressive as that of University of Michigan. The museum is best known for its extensive collections of European Impressionism and American Post-Modernism, though artists from Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, and Africa are also well represented. The museum is just as popular among local families and school groups as it is students, and often offers fun and interesting educational programs. While on the Michigan campus, visitors should be sure to check out the university’s other impressive museums of paleontology, zoology, and anthropology.

University of Mississippi Museum

Besides its stunning collection, the University of Mississippi Museum is impressive for its dedication to exhibiting the cultural heritage of the American South. American fine art, Southern folk art, and scientific objects from the 19th century make up some of the highlights of the collection. Interestingly, the museum also owns a number of historic homes in the Oxford area that help to further its mission. These historic homes, which include the Victoria-era Walton-Young Historic House and William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, are definitely worth a visit.

University of Nebraska State Museum

Have you ever seen an elephant in Nebraska? Head to the Nebraska State Museum at University of Nebraska and you will—or rather, a stuffed one. The museum specializes in specimens and artifacts of botany, entomology, and palaeontology from places like Africa, North America, Oceania, and the upper Amazon. The museum also holds two unique collections. Its fish collection contains more than 8,500 specimens, while its bird collection holds over 11,000 specimens and is one of the largest avian databases in the Midwest.

University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest have long been a go-to destination for archaeologists looking for fossils and other geological specimens, so it makes perfect sense that University of Oregon would be home to one of the most impressive natural history museums of any college in the country. The museum boasts hundreds of thousands of artifacts and fossils, and young visitors can even get up close and personal to bones and rocks in interactive laboratories. Also noteworthy is the Glenn Starlin Native Plant Courtyard, which is both beautiful and educational.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Visitors can embrace their inner Indiana Jones at University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. One of the most impressive museums of its kind in the entire United States, the museum holds large collections of artifacts from places like the Roman Empire, ancient China, South America and Mesoamerica, and Africa, all of which do an incredible job tracing the history of the human experience. But perhaps most impressive is the museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Here, visitors can see some of the best preserved Egyptian artifacts in the world, including a 13-ton Sphinx from 1200 B.C.

University of Wyoming Geological Museum

It should come as no surprise that Wyoming is home to one of the most impressive college museums in the country. The Geological Museum at University of Wyoming has hundreds of impressive plant and animal specimens, many of which are (or once were) native to the Wyoming area. Wyoming has long been a go-to destination for archaeologists hoping to find the next big prehistoric discovery, so even more fascinating and popular is the museum’s exhibit of dinosaur bones. At the museum, visitors can find a number of dinosaur bones, including those of T-Rex and Pterodactyl.

U.S. Naval War College Museum

Part of what makes the U.S. Naval War College Museum one of the most impressive college museums is the fact that there is just nothing else like it in the United States. The museum, located on the college’s 27-acre Newport, Rhode Island campus, details the history of sea battle and the U.S. Navy through fascinating exhibits. Visitors can even learn a lot about the naval history of Narragansett Bay, located near the museum itself.

The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota

Every part of the Weisman Art Museum, located at the University of Minnesota, is a work of art. Take one look at the Weisman’s wavy metal exterior, and you’ll notice the unmistakable signature look of architect Frank Gehry. Inside, the Weisman is 8,100 square feet of art work ranging from ancient Greek pottery, to Korean furniture, to pieces of American Modernism. Though the Weisman holds the best pieces the university has to offer, its collection doesn’t stop when you exit the building. More than 30 large and impressive installation pieces grace the campus hallways, courtyards, and various other locations.

West Point Museum at the U.S. Military Academy

The U.S. Military Academy’s West Point Museum has a long history as one of the most impressive college museums in the country. Founded in the 1830s and opened to the public by Robert E. Lee in 1854, the museum is older than even the Smithsonian. Impressive collections include guns from the Battle of Saratoga, dozens of artifacts from the Revolutionary War, unique military engineering tools, and drawings and artwork from the Hudson River School, among so much more.

Because it rivals some of the most famous museums in the world, the Yale Art Museum is easily one of the most impressive college museums. The Gallery’s collection is extensive and wide ranging, though perhaps most awe-inspiring is its selections of Italian paintings, African sculpture, and modern art. Visitors to the Gallery will see works by such prominent artists as John Trumbull, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, George Bellows, and Joseph Stella, among many others.

Yale University Peabody Museum

One of the most impressive science and natural history-themed museums in the country is the Peabody Museum at Yale University. Much of the Peabody’s collection was put together by Yale scientists and professors in the 1700s and includes impressive collections of Incan artifacts, animals, and gems. But most impressive is the Peabody’s fossil collection. Visitors will love the impressive number of whole dinosaur skeletons, especially the Apatosaurus, one of the best in the country.

CVO Staff