Arizona’s Museums – An Outstanding Collection

By: Julian Smith

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June 22, 2011

You'll find museums devoted to the Arizona experience all across the Grand Canyon State, from Old West history to art, American Indian culture and science.

About the author

Julian Smith

Julian Smith

Julian Smith is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer specializing in travel and science. He is the author of four travel guidebooks, and his writing and photography have appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, Wired, National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. He can be reached at

Some of the best reasons to visit Arizona are indoors – and they’re not spas or posh hotel rooms. Arizona’s outstanding museums showcase all aspects of the state, from art and Wild West history to science and native culture. Here are a few of our favorites: 

The Heard Museum

The Heard Museum in Phoenix is probably the most famous, with a world-class collection of Native American art and culture set in a 1920s Spanish Colonial mansion. It’s big enough to house a Navajo hogan (a traditional octagonal building) and some 35,000 artifacts including paintings, pottery, weavings and Hopi katsina doll figures. The museum hosts art shows, markets and ceremonial events such as the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in February.

Phoenix Art Museum

If your thirst for art isn’t satisfied yet, stop by the Phoenix Art Museum, which underwent a $50 million expansion in 2006. There, more than 17,000 works of classic and modern art span the globe, from Monet’s France to Frida Kahlo’s Mexico and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Southwest.

The museum’s fashion design gallery includes stylish togs from the past four centuries, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms hold tiny furniture, rugs and accessories all made at a scale of one inch equals one foot in real life. Gallery talks and formal lectures round things out.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

For more modern works, head to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (or SMOCA), the largest of its kind in the Phoenix area. Its ultramodern architecture alone is worth a look.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park

In Arizona’s West Coast region, Yuma is home to two intriguing collections. The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park housed its first prisoners in 1876. Its thick walls and eagle-eyed guards made it a legendary place to be incarcerated, but it operated for only 33 years. Today it’s open to visitors, from cell blocks to guard towers. The onsite museum includes artifacts and photographs of people who cooled their heels here. (Come on Sunday from October through April for Old West reenactments.)

Sanguinetti House Museum and Garden

Also in Yuma is the Sanguinetti House Museum and Garden, an adobe home built in the 1870s. The addition of a garden and aviaries inspired by trips to Italy by a pioneer merchant made the house a refuge. The complex now houses a museum on the history of the lower Colorado River area, and the garden and aviaries have both been lovingly preserved.

Historic Route 66 Museum in Kingman

Head north to Kingman for the Historic Route 66 Museum, smack in the middle of the longest remaining stretch of the “Mother Road.” It may have been superseded by the Interstates, but Route 66 lives on in places like this, inside an old powerhouse that’s been turned into a visitor center. (With more than 60 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, practically all of Kingman is a museum.) Photos, paintings and life-size dioramas trace the western spread of modern America along the 35th parallel.

Museum of Northern Arizona

Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona is an excellent introduction to the cultures and critters of the Four Corners. Displays of art, archaeology and science cover the histories of the tribes of the Colorado Plateau from prehistoric times to today, with some amazing examples of native crafts.

Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

For more desert plants and animals, the place to go is Tucson, where the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum describes the amazing adaptations living things have made to survive in this arid environment. From mammoth saguaros to tiny hummingbirds, this combination of museum, zoo and botanical garden has it all. Befitting the climate, most of it is outdoors.

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