There are some museums you just can’t miss.
Whether they’re nationally known headline grabbers or undiscovered treasures flying below the radar, the South has an abundance of cultural institutions that are crucial stops on group tours through the region. From Kentucky’s famous Creation Museum to a space center, a unique history museum and two institutions specializing in art and architecture, here are five Southern museums your group won’t want to miss.
The Creation Museum in northern Kentucky takes visitors on a walk through biblical history, starting from the first verse of scripture, with interactive exhibits, botanical gardens, a planetarium, zoo and zip line adventure course. In 2019, the museum revamped the first seven areas of the facility to install a new introduction that includes three new exhibits, “World View,” “Biblical Authority” and “Relevance of Genesis.” The idea was to upgrade the exhibits to make them more current and also to widen the spaces to allow for increased foot traffic due to the popularity of the nearby Ark Encounter.
Visitors to the museum can explore the seven C’s of history: Creation, which is a walk through the Garden of Eden; Corruption, the fall of man; Catastrophe, the flood of Noah; Confusion, the Tower of Babel; as well as Christ, Cross and Consummation. It is a full-day experience. In addition to the biblical exhibits, the museum also has “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” an exhibit about unborn children, as well as a dinosaur den with animatronic models of dinosaurs and “Dr. Crawley’s Insectorium,” which holds a massive collection of insects from all over the world. An exhibit called “Borderland” looks at Jerusalem in the time of Christ. There is a planetarium where the primary show is “The Creative Cosmos” and a 4D theater.
West Virginia Mine Wars Museum
Matewan, West Virginia
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan details a series of battles that took place across the coal fields of Appalachia, specifically in West Virginia, as mine workers fought for their right to unionize in the early 1900s. During that time, mine workers had terrible working conditions. They endured abuse from the mine guard system and the coal industry in general. Several battles and strikes took place in the southern part of West Virginia, leading to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in American history since the Civil War.
Miners and union supporters who rallied at the state capital in Charleston in 1921 decided to march to Mingo County in protest. When they crossed over into Logan County on Blair Mountain, the government was unhappy. It led to a battle during which many miners were killed, and a few government officials were also injured or killed. In the end, the miners lost the battle, but it proved to be a turning point in American labor history and changed the way people viewed the working class.
Group visitors can take a self-guided tour of the museum and its exhibits, including displays and oral histories of life in the coal camps. The museum has the largest exhibition of Mine Wars history anywhere in the country, with over 800 digitalized artifacts on its website and more in the museum.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
In Huntsville, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center showcases Alabama’s contributions to the U.S. space program, including the Saturn V rocket that took American astronauts to the moon. It is the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Group visitors can see the Apollo 16 capsule that went to the moon, as well as a moon rock and exhibits that talk about the Apollo missions. They also can see one-tenth scale models of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, Boeing’s Starliner Pressure Capsule test vessel, NASA’s SLS rocket and Blue Origin’s Mannequin Skywalker.
Another exhibit helps visitors understand what happens on the International Space Station. “Space Craze: A Space-Age Journey through Pop Culture” explores the public’s fascination with all things space.
Groups can schedule tours of the facility with knowledgeable docents, many of whom worked in the space industry and love to tell their personal stories. The Space Flight Center is developing the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever designed to carry human explorers deeper into space. It also manages the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the core stage of SLS is under construction.
The center also offers several simulators, including an Apollo 11 Virtual Reality Experience, Flight Simulator Experience, HyperShip and Multi-Axis Trainer. Groups can also take a bus tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. At the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, visitors can take in a 3D film in the National Geographic Theater.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Nestled in a natural ravine, Bentonville, Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art incorporates the natural world into its exhibits. A series of pavilions surround two spring-fed ponds and house the museum’s galleries, restaurant, museum store and a library that features more than 50,000 volumes of art reference material.
Exhibits at the museum span five centuries of American art, including works by Asher B. Durand, Gilbert Stuart and Georgia O’Keeffe and contemporary artists Kerry James Marshall, Maya Lin, Fritz Scholder and Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith. The museum offers year-round programming, including lectures, performances and classes.
In addition to checking out the design of the museum, architecture lovers flock to see a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian house, which was preserved, acquired and moved to the grounds in 2015.
The museum has a rare Buckminster Fuller Fly’s Eye Dome that was installed in 2017, as well as sculpture and walking trails that link the museum’s 120-acre park to downtown Bentonville. Group tours are available for up to 60 people, including architecture tours, tours of permanent and temporary exhibits, and trail experiences. Groups can arrange to have a box lunch or a seated lunch in Eleven, the museum’s restaurant.
The Momentary is a satellite campus to Crystal Bridges in downtown Bentonville. It is a visual and performing arts space in a decommissioned cheese factory. It includes indoor art galleries, outdoor artworks and live performances.
Taubman Museum of Art
The architecture of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, mimics naturalistic elements of the region. The large silver structure, which opened in 2008, has a 77-foot glass peak in its atrium that resembles the point of the Roanoke Star, a 100-foot-high illuminated steel and concrete structure on top of Mill Mountain, as well as an undulating roofline that reflects the Blue Ridge Mountains. The third-floor balcony emulates a natural bridge and offers unobstructed views of downtown Roanoke and the nearby rolling hills. Designed by architect Randall Stout, who studied under Frank Gehry, the art museum’s architecture is reminiscent of one of Gehry’s famous designs.
The museum, which was incorporated in 1951, will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2026. It has been in its new building since 2008.
When visitors walk into the atrium, they will see a beautiful installation by E.V. Day called “Divas Ascending.” These sculptures repurpose costumes from the New York City Opera to transform icons of women’s empowerment and entrapment into artistic expression. The second floor focuses on 19th and 20th century American art, including works by Thomas Eakins, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent and a Judith Leiber handbag collection. There are rotating exhibitions throughout the year and admission is always free.
Groups can book a tour of the museum even on days when the museum is closed. The tours last one hour, taking groups through all the galleries, pointing out the highlights and sharing stories about the works.