Our region’s many top-notch museums are stimulating our imaginations and enriching our understanding of science, art, local history and more. Find a few great museums to explore.
Rockford and the surrounding region offer a wealth of activities and attractions that challenge the mind, soothe the spirit and stimulate the senses. We can escape to a tropical paradise set on the banks of the Rock River or a world-renowned Japanese garden retreat; immerse ourselves in the area’s rich history and artistic heritage; explore our prehistoric past and our 21st century technology; discover and marvel at the wonders of our natural environment. Here, we highlight just a few of the museums, nature centers and outdoor attractions that make our region a great place to live and grow.
Riverfront Museum Park
This arts and humanities complex houses Rockford Dance Company office and studios, Northern Illinois Public Radio offices and Rockford Symphony Orchestra offices. It’s also home to Discovery Center Museum and Rockford Art Museum, and is connected to Burpee Museum of Natural History by a walkway tunnel.
In 2012, a renovation and redesign of the museum complex brought a new joint display gallery and outdoor fixtures including a riverwalk along the shore of the Rock River, a terrace and outdoor amphitheater, play and outdoor educational areas and landscaping.
Discovery Center Museum
711 N. Main St., Rockford, Ill., (815) 963-6769, discoverycentermuseum.org
Named No. 5 in the 10 “Best Museums for Families” by USA Today in 2015, and ranked among “The 12 Best Children’s Museums in the U.S.” by Forbes magazine in 2012, Discovery Center makes science an adventure.
With Burpee’s more than 250 interactive displays and exhibits to explore, kids can take a virtual snowboard ride; see a tornado form; manipulate pulleys, levers and gears; build a robot; create a news show; and more.
New in 2014 was the Body Shop, giving kids lots of ways to explore the human body, and in 2015, the Tot Spot, for visitors ages 6 and younger (and their parents), was expanded to include even more age-appropriate rotating and permanent exhibits, along with a Baby Spot for babies 18 months and younger.
Discovery Center boasts the nation’s first community-built outdoor science park featuring 8,000 square feet of wooden fun including a two-story maze, water play area, dinosaur fossil dig pit and a Secret Garden.
Discovery Center is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8.
Rockford Art Museum
711 N. Main St., Rockford, Ill., (815) 968-2787, rockfordartmuseum.com
In 1913, Rockford Art Museum (RAM) was officially incorporated as the Rockford Art Association. A century later, the organization is consistently named a Partner in Excellence of the Illinois Arts Council.
RAM’s mission is to enrich the quality of life for people of all ages, through visual arts programs, collections, exhibitions and education. From its beginnings as the Rockford Sketch Club in 1887 to its programs today, RAM’s history is closely intertwined with our region’s past, present and future.
Located on the north end of downtown Rockford, RAM encompasses 17,000 square feet of exhibition space across three galleries: Funderburg and Kuller galleries, which typically feature contemporary works by regional and national artists, and Anderson Gallery, which displays a constantly rotating exhibit of works from the museum’s permanent collection. RAM’s collection contains more than 1,900 works of primarily modern and contemporary art, photography, outsider art, contemporary art glass, and regional art with an emphasis on Illinois artists.
Its critically acclaimed Spiezer Collection is considered one of the most significant collections of Chicago art, inside or outside the city.
The RAM Art Annex, located next to the Discovery Center Museum, serves as an arts education space.
Thousands of adults and children visit RAM every year for its rotating exhibitions, regular classes, periodic lectures and artist-in-residence programs. Rockford Art Museum Store provides additional financial support.
The nonprofit public museum is supported by memberships, individual and corporate contributions, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.
RAM is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8, $3 for seniors and students, and free for ages 12 and under.
Burpee Museum of Natural History
737 N. Main St., Rockford, Ill. (815) 965-3433, burpee.org
Burpee Museum of Natural History first opened its doors in 1942, in the Barnes Mansion adjacent to Riverfront Museum Park. Today, the museum’s administrative offices occupy the Barnes Mansion, and the public portion of the Burpee Museum is now in the Solem Wing, which opened in 1998.
The museum hit the national spotlight in 2001, when a Burpee-led expedition in Montana unearthed “Jane,” the most complete and well-preserved juvenile T-rex in the world. In 2005, another Burpee expedition to the same area yielded “Homer,” a “teenaged” Triceratops. Both are on display at the museum, along with exhibits that chronicle the archeological digs. Each March, Burpee hosts its annual PaleoFest.
In 2010, Burpee and the Discovery Center Museum completed a $10 million expansion that joined the two facilities and created a Smithsonian-approved exhibit hall. The exhibit hall attracts environmentally sensitive traveling exhibits that the museums couldn’t host previously.
Families can also experience four floors of engaging exhibits, including Windows to Wilderness, the Green Roof (Burpee’s rooftop garden), a Native American exhibit with full-sized dwellings, and a viewing lab to see Burpee staff working on dinosaur specimens.
Burpee Museum is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for children. Additional fees apply for some special exhibits and activities.
Freeport Art Museum
121 N. Harlem Ave., Freeport, Ill., (815) 235-9755, freeportartmuseum.com
The mission of the Freeport Art Museum (FAM) is to promote an understanding of art and culture through its collections and exhibitions, as well as community outreach and education.
FAM’s collection contains nearly 4,000 artifacts from all continents and all time periods, including antiquities; ethnographic objects from Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea; Pre-Columbian and Native American artifacts; 15th to 19th century European paintings, prints and sculpture; a significant collection of textiles from around the world; and a large collection of contemporary American prints, paintings and sculpture.
Two galleries feature new exhibitions every eight to 12 weeks and are devoted to regional art or national exhibitions. A student gallery features aspiring young artists from local schools. The Museum also offers educational programs, performances and special events.
FAM was established in 1976, the result of an acquisition from the estate of W.T. Rawleigh, founder of a successful international household and medical products company in Freeport.
Rawleigh, who died in 1951, used his substantial wealth to acquire fabulous works of art from around the globe for his private collection; in 1976, a sizable portion of the collection was given to the residents of Freeport. Over the years, other benefactors have added to FAM holdings.
FAM’s home is a former elementary school, a gift from the City of Freeport, given with the stipulation that no admission be charged.
In 2008, FAM and the Freeport Park District began Art in the Park, now an annual event that draws upwards of 5,000 spectators. Set in the city’s signature Krape Park, the one-day outdoor arts fest includes artists from across the region who display and sell their original works in a variety of media. The event also features local musicians and performers, art demonstrations, children’s activities and more.
FAM is open Tue.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sat. noon-5 p.m.
Byron Forest Preserve District
7993 N. River Road, Byron, Ill., (815) 234-8535, byronforestpreserve.com
The Byron Forest Preserve District offers visitors both natural and recreational areas that include walking and equestrian trails, picnic shelters, playgrounds and a golf course. Situated along the banks of the Rock River, it has grown and developed over the past 15 years to include more than 700 acres and four facilities.
Open daily, the Jarrett Prairie Center features habitat exhibits, dioramas, audio interpretation and, located on the third-highest point in Ogle County, a spectacular view of 450 acres of restored prairie.
Other facilities include the Weiskopf Observatory, housing an 11-inch Celestron telescope and offering free public viewing every Saturday throughout the year. The Heritage Farm Museum, a farm established in 1843 and worked by five generations of the same family, is now a museum with exhibits of 19th century farm life and restored farm buildings, equipment and live chickens. The Keller Education Center, a LEED-certified platinum building, houses the District’s preschool education classes and summer children’s education programs. PrairieView Golf Course is a public 18-hole championship course.
Programs and classes are offered year-round, along with seasonal events such as a lecture series, children’s entertainment and outdoor concerts.
Byron Forest Preserve staff and administrators are committed to the preservation, conservation and restoration of natural lands, by offering education on the natural environment and its heritage, and providing recreational opportunities and programs that allow area residents to experience and appreciate nature and its resources.
The Next Picture Show
113 W. First Ave., Dixon, Ill., (815) 285-2984, thenextpictureshow.com
The Next Picture Show (TNPS) is a nonprofit fine arts center for the Rock River Valley where art is created, shown, studied and celebrated. Its goal is to nurture, develop, educate and encourage the arts, and galvanize artists and patrons within the community.
TNPS is located in a vintage 1854 building in Dixon, Ill., which underwent a complete restoration in 2003 and 2004, recreating the 1898 facade and retaining the original wood floors, tin ceilings and internal structures where possible.
The gallery holds juried art exhibitions of all media, special traveling exhibits such as the Illinois Watercolor National Exhibit, and individual exhibits by local artists. It also hosts concerts, recitals, receptions and community events. The lower level is used for art workshops and classes, student art exhibitions and meetings of the art community.
Each year, TNPS partners with other community organizations to support events including student art shows, The Grand Detour Arts Festival, the Phidian Art Show and Nuts About Art.
TNPS is sustained by support from local artists, community members and businesses with annual memberships. The gallery is open Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and admission is free.
Northwest Territory Historic Center
205 W. Fifth St., Dixon, Ill., (815) 288-5508, nthc.org
Located in the hometown of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the Northwest Territory Historic Center (formerly known as the Dixon Historic Center) is a history research and learning center and a Smithsonian Institution affiliate. It occupies a 1908 building that was, in Reagan’s day, South Central School, where he attended fifth, sixth and seventh grades. Granite floors, wide halls, expansive stairways, high ceilings and ornate woodwork provide a rich backdrop to the history represented here.
Beautifully restored with the dedicated support of the townspeople and Reagan colleagues at the behest of the hometown hero, the Center houses the Veterans History Project Regional Center, an auditorium, an art gallery, a research library, surround-sound theater and museum store, in addition to its many historical exhibits. Visitors can peruse the President Reagan History Room, filled with personal Dixon and presidential memorabilia donated by Reagan; Walgreen History Room, in honor of the drugstore founder who lived on an estate in Dixon; Abraham Lincoln History Room (as a young lieutenant, Lincoln was bivouacked in Dixon along the banks of the Rock River during the Black Hawk War); Reagan’s restored sixth-grade classroom, originally identified by Reagan during one of his visits; local Chautauqua history; and more.
The Northwest Territory Historic Center recently opened two new permanent exhibits that highlight regional Native American life and early American farming and include speaking, life-like figures.
The Center is open Tue.-Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and admission is free.
Midway Village Museum
6799 Guilford Road, Rockford, Ill. (815) 397-9112, midwayvillage.com
Set on a picturesque, 137-acre campus, Midway Village is home to more than 110,000 artifacts dating back to the 1830s, when Rockford was founded. The museum campus consists of a Victorian village with 26 historical buildings filled with artifacts of the era, as well as several beautiful 19th century gardens that depict life in northern Illinois from 1890 to 1910. Interpreters in period dress are available seasonally for guided tours.
The main museum building holds large group meeting rooms and exhibit space with a number of permanent exhibits reflecting Rockford’s history and culture that include “The Girls of Summer: Rockford Peaches of the AAGPBL,” “Queen City of the Prairies: Rockford’s First 20 Years,” and “The Missing Links: Socks, Monkeys and Rockford’s Industrial Past.” Many Faces, One Community, is an ongoing exhibit on the immigrant experience in America at the turn of the 20th century, as seen in Rockford.
Throughout the year, Midway Village Museum offers workshops, lectures and guest speakers, as well as themed dinners and tours. Annual events include World War I and World War II re-enactments, Sock Monkey Madness Festival, Scarecrow Festival and more.
Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for ages 5-17, and free for museum members and ages 4 and under. Midway Village Museum is open year-round (check the website for specific times); the Village is open to the public May through August, and by appointment only September through April.
Anderson Japanese Gardens
318 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, Ill., (815) 229-9390, andersongardens.org
The No. 1-ranked Japanese garden in North America is in Illinois, according to premier Japanese garden journal Sukiya Living, and it’s right in our backyard. In fact, Anderson Japanese Gardens originally was someone’s backyard.
It was built in 1978 by Rockford businessman John Anderson, who was inspired by a visit to a Japanese garden. With the expertise of renowned Japanese landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, the Andersons’ swampy backyard along Rockford’s Spring Creek was transformed into a Japanese-style landscape. In 1998, the Andersons donated the Gardens as a supported organization to the Rockford Rotary Charitable Association.
Three essential elements of a Japanese garden are stone, which forms the structure of the landscape; water, representing life-giving force; and plants, which provide color and changes throughout the seasons. Kurisu combined all with careful consideration regarding placement, flow, direction and alignment. Anderson Japanese Gardens actually features two distinct gardens within its 4 acres: the formal Japanese Garden, which incorporates Japanese elements dating back to the 12th and 16th centuries; and the contemporary Garden of Reflection.
Visitors can simply enjoy the tranquility and beauty, or take part in programs designed to calm the spirit, inspire creativity, stimulate the mind and renew energy. These include a yearly lecture series; plant and design workshops; Japanese art instruction; yoga, meditation and tai chi; and more. Among annual special events are Japanese Tea Ceremonies, Japanese Summer Festival and Tuesday Evening at the Gardens.
Anderson Japanese Gardens is open daily, May 1-Oct. 31. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 children. Gardens members and ages 5 and under are free.