7 free museums in Wisconsin

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A trip through a good museum is like a front row seat in the theater of the imagination. Enter to be inspired, surprised, baffled awe-struck, informed, touched and elated. From elegant glass paperweights and huge pipe wrenches to dinosaur teeth and designer toilets, these collections are well worth a look. Admission is free but most take donations.

Some might say the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is for the birds because it hosts one of the world's most highly anticipated exhibits of bird art each year. The Birds in Art show opens the first Saturday after Labor Day and continues for nine weeks. An updated 1931 English Tudor-period, Cotswold-style residence houses the museum. The grounds that cover four acres are highlighted by the Margaret Woodson Fisher Sculpture Garden that has up to ten changing exhibits each year as well as storytelling, lectures, videos, demonstrations and bus trips. Don't miss OctoBIRDfest, the museum's biggest family festival of the year.
Hours: Tues-Fri: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sat-Sun: noon - 5 p.m., closed Mon & holidays. 700 N. 12th St., Wausau, WI 54403. (715) 845-7010. www.lywam.org

Young Evangeline Bergstrom was fascinated with glass paperweights. As an adult, she gathered one of the finest collections in the world. At the Bergstrom Mahler Museum, see the fascinating collection that also includes Germanic glass drinking vessels from the 16-19th centuries, Victorian glass baskets and contemporary art-glass. Enjoy the great views of Lake Winnebago.
Hours: Tues-Sat: 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Sun: 1 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. 165 N. Park Ave., Neenah, WI 54956. (920) 751-4658. www.bergstrom-mahlermuseum.com

Design Center - a dream trip for any home designer - displays three levels of innovative product design and technology, creative achievement and American history. The 36,000-square-foot space blends old and new in a comprehensive representation of Kohler Company's state-of-the-art products designed for gracious living.
Hours: Mon-Fri: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sat-Sun & holidays: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. 101 Upper Rd., Kohler, WI 53044. (920) 457-3699. www.us.kohler.com/us/Kohler-Design-Center/content/CNT400038.htm

The Geology Museum on the University of Wisconsin Campus traces its roots to the 1800s. With huge Mastodon bones, meteorites, glowing rocks and fossils, it can hold the attention of the whole family.
Hours: Mon-Fri: 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Sat: 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. 1215 W. Dayton St. in Weeks Hall. Madison, WI 53706 (608) 262-1412. www.geology.wisc.edu/~museum

Fine art and collectibles dating to the 19-20th centuries fill the Rahr-West Museum, an elegant 1891 Victorian mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Galleries feature changing exhibitions and a collection of American art. USA Today named Rahr-West one of the 10 Great Places to See Art in Smaller Cities. A plaque marks where, in 1962, a smoldering hunk of the Russian Sputnik IV satellite crashed into the street in front of the building.
Hours: Mon-Fri: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sat-Sun: 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. 610 N. Eighth St., Manitowoc, WI 54220. (920) 686-3090. www.rahrwestartmuseum.org

Mount Horeb
Take your uncle who knows every tool to the Wally Keller Tool Museum in Duluth Trading Company. An extraordinary display of old-fashioned and vintage tools dating from 1865-1950 documents the history of the American workingman. Look for the fascinating Whatsis Board, which challenges visitors to identify obscure tools. Steve Schlecht, proprietor of the Duluth Trading Company, preserved Wally Keller's life-long collection. The museum highlights the rich history of vintage tools and serves as a memorial to Keller.
Hours: Mon-Wed: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Thu-Sat: 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sun: 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. 100 W. Main St., Mt. Horeb, WI 53572. (608) 437-8655. www.duluthtrading.com

John Michael Kohler Arts Center will probably stretch your artistic muscles and, at a minimum, send you away talking about the artsy restrooms. Devoted to innovative explorations of contemporary American art, the museum is nationally acclaimed for its exhibitions and visual and performing arts work. The new 100,000-square-foot arts center comprises ten galleries, an intimate theatre, a flexible interdisciplinary performance space, studio-classrooms, meeting spaces, the ARTspace shop and the ARTcafe. And remember: see the restrooms!
608 New York Ave., Sheboygan, WI 53081. (920) 458-6144. www.jmkac.com

Gary Knowles is a Madison-based travel writer, photographer and consultant to travel industry. He serves as the travel advisor on Wisconsin Public Radio's Joy Cardin Show.