5 must-visit museums in Detroit

From its indigenous origins to its game-changing motoring and music industries, the city’s museums honour the past, while innovating for the future.

Team Wanderlust
26 September 2022
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One of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the United States, Detroit has been shaped by culture, community and tradition, distilling thousands of years of history into a potent elixir, which pulses through its veins today. From its indigenous origins to its game-changing motoring and music industries, the city’s museums honour the past, while innovating for the future.

1. Motown Museum

Embraced by music fans around the world, Motown was born on the streets of Detroit, and raised in an unassuming two-storey house, which came to be known as ‘Hitsville USA’. Songwriter and record executive, Berry Gordy, established Motown Records here in 1959, borrowing $800 from family to set up a downstairs recording studio, while he lived in the apartment above. Home to the Motown Museum since 1985, the complex near New Center recently reopened after a $55 million expansion with a theatre, recording studios, interactive exhibits and event spaces to host community-driven projects. While remembering Motown’s ‘golden age’ with stories and memorabilia from the label’s stars including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Diana Ross, the museum is also committed to inspiring the artists of tomorrow, offering music camps and master classes led by experts from the industry. Admission to the museum is by guided tour only, which lasts around one hour.

2. Detroit Institute of Arts

This world-class museum in Detroit’s cultural corridor draws together over 65,000 artworks; one of the largest and most important collections in the United States, including paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Whatever your interest, you’ll find pieces you’ll love, with over 100 galleries showcasing Ancient, Middle-Eastern, American, European, Oceanic, Islamic, Greco-Roman, African American and Indigenous art. The contemporary collection includes sculpture, design and new media from international artists, and The Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection has over 1,000 puppets, including a design by Spanish Surrealist, Joan Miró and Jim Henson favourite, Kermit the Frog. The building itself is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece with a grand entrance, lecture hall and library. The 1927 vintage Detroit Film Theatre is a gorgeous space to catch a movie, and visitors can join local Detroiters in the DIA’s indoor courtyard, which hosts the Kresge Court cafe and sessions of live music.

3. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

Mention Detroit and people immediately think of two things: Motown and motors. The ‘Big Three’ American car manufacturers – Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (Chrysler) all started in Detroit, and the industry boomed in the 1920s, when the city became known as the Automobile Capital of the world. The man who jump-started the engine was Henry Ford, who built his first vehicle here in 1896 – the Quadricycle Runabout – and formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Other car companies soon moved in, earning Detroit the nickname ‘Motor City’ (which in turn inspired the name Motown). The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn keeps Ford’s legacy alive, and celebrates other entrepreneurs, makers, thinkers and doers. With exhibits including the bus ridden by Rosa Parks and the rocking chair in which Abraham Lincoln took his fatal shot, the museum aims to inspire the next generation of innovators through triumphs – and tragedies – of the past.

Neighbouring the Detroit Institute of Arts in the city’s Midtown, ‘The Wright’ celebrates the cultural legacy of African Americans, and aims to promote understanding and unity through its permanent and temporary exhibitions, and education programmes. Founded in 1966 by Detroit-based gynaecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Charles H. Wright, who was inspired by a World War II memorial in Denmark, the museum has grown to become one of the world’s leading institutions of African American history, with over 35,000 artefacts. The permanent exhibition, And Still We Rise, explores themes of resilience and heroism, from the horrors of slavery, to the empowering Civil Rights Movement, and the legacy of the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama. Detroit Performs! celebrates the city’s performing arts legends, including Aretha Franklin and contemporary techno stars, and the museum is also a creative hub and host venue for galas, festivals and family events.

5. Detroit Historical Museum

Visitors to this museum in Detroits Cultural Center on Woodward Avenue can travel back through 300 years of history, with five permanent installations that together tell the story of this exciting city. The new Origins: Life Where The River Bends interactive exhibit looks at the importance of the Detroit River and impact of the people who have lived here, from the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Wyandot tribes, to the French, British and Americans, and the immigrants who came from across the globe to build railroads, cars and ships. Detroit’s musical heritage is explored in Motor City Music, which offers visitors the chance to produce their own composition, and Doorway To Freedom tells inspirational stories of The Underground Railroad: the network which helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada. The Detroit Historical Society, which founded the museum in 1928, also runs a film and lecture series, and Behind-the-Scenes Tours of the city’s historic buildings and neighbourhoods.

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