A museum membership changes everything. Want to go look at just the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute, sip hot cocoa in the member lounge and then head home? The membership allows for you to not feel guilty about abandoning the rest of the museum, because the rest of the entire museum is available to you all year.
In the age of COVID-19, having a membership to the area’s top museums and zoos meant an extra insider insight for virtual access and reduced rates for experiences. The Museum of Science and Industry, for example, had special hours just for members to enter early ahead of the crowds. When the museums reopened in the summer, many opened just to members at first, allowing special access to new exhibits and experiences. While museums were closed during shutdowns, many extended the months of their members’ existing contracts, so members weren’t penalized for not being able to access the museums.
A museum membership also provides the motivation and place to go when you just need to get out the house but need an indoor activity. Even if the person you’re shopping for already has a membership to a museum, your gift can go to a renewal for next year.
Here are a few of the great Chicago museums to choose from for your gifting/gift-asking pleasure.
Cost: Family memberships start at $165, includes two adults and up to four children
America’s first planetarium never fails to disappoint. In addition to a 15 percent discount at the store and complimentary coat check, members receive discounts to Adler After Dark exhibits, and unlimited Sky Show tickets. An upgrade to the Family and Friends membership offers $25 off summer camp registration (that’s per child, not just once). And, as the folks at Adler often say, “Space is freaking awesome.”
Adler is scheduled to reopen when the state reaches Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan.
Cost: Membership packages start at $105
The Art Institute has some truly incredible family programming, including a hands-on family room available to all guests, where volunteers give you ideas of where to go that day and how to engage kids with the art. Membership also includes access to the member lounge with coffee and tea, and free admission for all kids under 18 in the household. Because of the Art Institute’s non-profit status, all memberships are tax deductible. Members also have access to special exhibits otherwise requiring an extra ticket, like the newest exhibit: Monet and Chicago.
Where: Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Cost: Household membership for families starts at $190 and are tax deductible
A membership to the Chicago Children’s Museum is something to enjoy for children of literally all ages. This museum has something for everyone, and the kiddos never seem to get tired of it, especially with last year’s installation of Cloud Buster, which had only been open a few months before Navy Pier and the museum closed for COVID-19. While the museum has yet to reopen, its online offerings include ideas to keep kids busy inside and how to help parents keep creativity alive. Membership includes discounted parking at Navy Pier and some members-only hours. Your only problem might be trying to get your kids to not want to go to the museum. It’s a quality problem to have, we promise.
Chicago History Museum
Where: 1601 N. Clark St., Chicago
Cost: Household membership for families starts at $100
Learning about your hometown is never a bad proposition for families. Packed with Chicago-centric history, exhibits at the museum appeal to all ages, with regular teen activities. Illinois residents under 18 are free every day, so you can save some money with a dual membership if you live locally. Members are also invited to the annual Members’ Open House, a Members’ Holiday Party and previews and celebrations of new exhibits.
Cost: Family memberships start at $135 and are tax deductible
Future archeologist in your midst? The Field Museum’s membership will not only let your little ones spend some quality time with Sue (the most complete and best-preserved T.rex fossil in the world) but will also give you access to more than 300 science and technology museums across the U.S. and Canada for when/if you travel. Discounts on ticketed exhibitions and access to special members’ nights also come with membership. Virtually, all members receive free subscription to the member magazine, discounts on the online educational programs and invitations to virtual events.
Where: 2001 N. Clark St., Chicago
Cost: Household memberships start at $95
Before you say to yourself, “Why would I need a membership to a free zoo?” remember that parking is $35 and this membership comes with free parking passes. Another great perk is the 15 percent discount on learning programs, which includes the winter LEAP series for toddlers and virtual programming.
Cost: Family memberships start at $195 and the cost is tax deductible
Free parking? Yes, please! The Museum of Science and Industry is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, meaning plenty of opportunities to split your membership visits up into smaller, digestible pieces. The entire family will get plenty of mileage out of this membership for the entire year. During the COVID-19 shutdowns, members have access to online storytimes and experiments to try at home.
Where: 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago
Cost: Household memberships start at $85 and are tax deductible
The MCA’s regular Stroller Tours help you connect with art – and other adults! – while your littles enjoy the museum’s surroundings. For older kids, the youth-led events are popular and help teens find their passions. Admission for guests under 18 is always free, so a membership is great for families who know the adults want to spend as much time as the kiddos at the museum. Plus, a household membership includes an exclusive MCA tote bag, and is reciprocal at select museums across the country and Canada. When the museum reopens, member events include previews of new exhibitions and the MCM magazine.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Cost: Family memberships start at $60 and are tax deductible.
If your kids could spend all day in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, we’re happy to join them. Becoming a member gives you free admission to the Lincoln Park museum, plus discounts on summer camps and experiences. There’s lots for adults to do at the nature museum, too (think date night!) and story time every day. All families can access the museum’s Curious By Nature programs online and for those virtual programs that aren’t free, members are offered free access or a reduced rate.
Cost: Family memberships start at $195
Children love The Shedd, and you will love them loving it all year with a membership. From animal exhibits to actually touching some of the aquatic life, little ones will make this membership a fantastic activity 12 months a year. Members receive free entry to all exhibits and complimentary tickets to Jazzin’ at the Shedd in the summer, plus discounts on museum “experiences.” When Shedd reopened in the summer, members were given exclusive early access to see the aquarium before it opened to the public.
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This story originally published Nov. 24, 2015. It has been updated with the most recent information.