At their best, museums transport you—to the fjords of Norway, to the pixelated landscape of Minecraft, to worlds of color and shadow and light previously unimaginable. These institutions, from the largest visual arts collection in the region to a museum dedicated to pop music and geek culture, do just that.
A necessary addendum: There are so. many. more. museums that remain closed due to Covid: Pacific Science Center, Northwest African American Museum, the list goes on. We’ll continue to update this story with the aim of eventually making it comprehensive, but for now it’s just the essentials.
Downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill
The largest visual arts institution in the Pacific Northwest is comprised of three entities: the main museum downtown (aka SAM), nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, and Seattle Asian Art Museum, which underwent an extensive renovation and curatorial reimagining in 2020. SAM has both the resources and scope to host exhibitions on a grand scale of celebrated international artists; it’s the Big One. The museum’s 2017 Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, a trailblazer in the now wildly popular genre of immersive art installations, exemplifies its ambitious global reach, while its 2021–22 retrospective on the work of photographer Imogen Cunningham speaks to its enduring local commitments.
Lower Queen Anne
Established in 2000 by the late Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen (whom we can also thank for KEXP as we know it), MoPop’s purview has always been a delightfully broad and nebulous thing. Conceived as the Experience Music Project, you can now expect the museum to host everything from an exploration of tattoo culture to a journey into the world of indie video game development. A uniting premise is legitimizing and paying homage to forms of expression—science fiction, popular music, horror movies—that aren’t considered “high art” and might traditionally be excluded from a museum.
South Lake Union
MOHAI, fittingly wedged in South Lake Union, presents the history of Seattle and the larger Puget Sound region primarily through the lens of its technical and commercial innovations. The museum’s extensive collection—a Boeing B-1 commercial airplane; an ample trove of clothing items that lend shape, color, and cut to Seattleites of the past—generates just the right amount of awe to occupy the younger set.
What began as a small collection of flight paraphernalia, saved from the ravenous jaws of time by a few aviation enthusiasts in the 1960s, has ballooned into the world’s largest nonprofit air and space museum (and one of our city’s most beloved field trip destinations and reliable family outings). Entering the museum’s main showroom, the behemoth aircraft looming above are like the skeletons of prehistoric beasts, immense and seemingly ready to roar back to life at the lightest touch.
Lower Queen Anne
Every Seattleite, we’d venture to speculate, can identify a Chihuly by age five. The undulating lines and tentacle-like wisps of his radiantly colorful “baskets” and chandeliers are, after all, both unmistakable and omnipresent—and this museum in Seattle Center holds some of his largest and best-known works. The Glasshouse, reminiscent of a conservatory or terrarium, contains a 100-foot-tall froth of cascading glass that beams with inner light on a sunny day and pulses like embers on a cloudy one. The garden is an entirely different place, worthy of another visit to observe the sculptures aflame in the dark, after nightfall.
Big museums can be awe-inspiring, but they can also be overwhelming. Sometimes—maybe late afternoon on a Saturday, during that liminal malaise between a post-brunch snooze and cocktail hour—you’re craving a more manageable art experience. That’s the Frye. The modest size of this First Hill institution belies the impressive amount of artistic ground it covers. Curators pair heady contemporary art exhibits (Anastacia-Reneé, Diane Arbus, group shows) with the robust and somewhat curious collection of the museum’s founders, Charles and Emma Frye; an animal painting could mingle with a Warhol film here. A lap around won’t suffice, but you’ll feel satisfied for the day. Free admission means you can always come back for more.
Ballard’s National Nordic Museum covers far more than the neighborhood and its Scandinavian roots: Granted federal status in 2019 by an act of Congress, the museum features modern art and historic artifacts with an emphasis on Native and bicultural identities and social justice. Whether you’re looking to connect with your own family’s immigration story, a la the old Nordic Heritage Museum before it went national, see a thought-provoking photography exhibit, or just sip a København latte from Freya cafe, this small-but-mighty gallery provides a place for Ballard’s past—and an optimistic vision for its future.
For all its dusty, musty charm, memories of the old Burke quickly fade inside the Olson Kundig–designed space that opened on the University of Washington campus in 2019, costing almost $100 million in construction and moving costs. Beyond halls populated with Indigenous artifacts, dinosaur fossils, or evolution-explaining sculptures, the building houses laboratories and workrooms populated with actual scientists. Placards explain their work ("Rob is curating spiders!"), while the exhibits themselves include context and admissions of no-longer-kosher acquisition styles. A T. rex skull on the third floor is the most complete in the world, and the Off the Rez cafe dishing frybread and Indian tacos rounds out the university’s standout museum.
Weekend crowds waiting for dim sum spill onto the sidewalk a block away, but inside this 191o building sit three stories of history- and culture-spanning photography, artifacts, and art. Wing Luke, named for a boundary-breaking Seattle politician, traces the minority experience here, delving into just what it means—and once meant—to be Asian Pacific American. The building’s architecture blends modern elements (like that epic staircase) with spaces preserved from decades ago. Exhibits rotate regularly, but if you have time and forethought, book one of the guided tours through the neighborhood.