Top 20 Most Visited Museums in the US

Museums throughout the United States are some of the most interesting and educational attractions that the country has to offer. Millions of people of all ages, generations and cultures visit and enjoy US museums for a multitude of reasons.

Recently, AECOM (a leading infrastructure firm) teamed with the Themed Entertainment Association (an organization dedicated to representing creatives) to study museum attendance in the US, and their findings were interesting.

They published a new report in 2020 covering their discoveries about the attendance of museums in the previous year.

They found that overall attendance at American museums dropped by 13.2% from 2018 to 2019 – and will likely decrease substantially in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the 20 most popular museums in the United States this year:

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Attendance: 6,770,000

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the most visited museum in the United States, totaling 6,770,000 visitors in 2019. This is however an 8% decrease from the previous year’s total of 7,360,000 visitors.

One reason why the museum attendance dropped is because of new admission fee structures for both local and out of town visitors, while The Met was also closed for a portion of 2019 because of an expansion.

The museum also hosted two extremely popular exhibitions (Heavenly Bodies and the Catholic Imagination and Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer) in 2018. Without these very popular exhibitions in the following year, attendance numbers fell.

Known fondly as The Met, the museum is the 5th largest museum in the world and showcases more than two million permanent art pieces from around the globe.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
People near The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Us – by beautifulcataya (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2. American Museum of Natural History. Attendance: 5,000,000

Taking the second spot on our most visited museums in the US list is the American Museum of Natural History. Located in New York City near Central Park, The American Museum of Natural History boasted 5,000,000 visitors in 2019, the exact same number of visitors as the previous year.

The American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest natural history museums in the world and is home to 45 permanent exhibition halls, a planetarium and a library. This museum spans 26 connected buildings and is also a leading research institution, home to more than 200 scientists.

Founded in 1869, this popular spot is a rich part of American history, as are the exhibitions and scientific collections inside. The museum’s mission is “to discover, interpret, and disseminate — through scientific research and education — knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe”.

3. National Museum of Natural History. Attendance: 4,200,000

Third on our list is located in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History had 4,200,000 visitors in 2019, a 12.5% decrease from the 4,800,000 visitors the year before.

However, these numbers might not be as accurate as the figures of other museums – their attendance is free and security guards use handheld clickers to count visitors into the building.

Opened in 1910, this Washington landmark first housed art, culture and historical collections. Throughout the years, it evolved into a beloved museum and is now home to 126.5 million artifacts. These include bones to butterflies to bearded ladies to creatures under the sea.

American Museum of Natural History
American Museum of Natural History in Washington, USA – by Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0)

4. National Gallery of Art. Attendance: 4,074,000

All cultures and artists from A to Z are represented in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the 4th most visited museum in the US.

Touted as a gift to the nation, there were 4,074,000 visitors here in 2019, all of whom attended the gallery to enjoy thousands of masterpieces and learn about various forms and styles of art. This was a 7.5% drop in attendance from the previous year, when 4,404,000 people visited the gallery.

The mission of the National Gallery of Art is to serve the United States of America by preserving, collecting, exhibiting and fostering the understanding of national and international works of art.

A popular 2018 exhibit here showcased Renaissance artist Andrea del Verrocchio, who mentored Leonardo da Vinci.

5. National Air and Space Museum. Attendance: 3,200,000

Flight is the theme of the National Space and Air Museum, the museum that takes the 5th spot in our top 20 list.

Its rich history began many moons ago (get it?) but the museum now “commemorates the past and is committed to educating and inspiring people to foster an appreciation for the importance of flight to humanity”.

Located in Washington D.C., 3,200,000 visitors came here in 2019 to learn about the history of aviation. That’s almost half of the attendance the previous year, when 6,200,000 tourists visited.

This decline in attendance may be due to an unexpected government shutdown and a major, multiyear renovation in late 2018.

National Air & Space Museum in US
The Spirit of St. Louis, used by Charles Lindbergh for the first air crossing of the Atlantic, hangs above the lobby of the Air and Space Museum – by Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0)

6. National Museum of American History. Attendance: 2,800,000

Washington, D.C. is the home of the National Museum of American History, which takes the sixth spot on our top 20 list. Thousands of artefacts from American History are located here, including the original Star-Spangled Banner, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Attendance in 2019 was 2,800,000 compared to 4,100,000 in 2018, a 31.7% drop from the previous year. The decrease may be due to the increase in competition among museums and art centers as well as a declining American population.

National Museum of American History
National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center is a Smithsonian Museum that preserves the heritage of the United States in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history – by Wayne Hsieh (CC BY-NC 2.0)

7. California Science Center. Attendance: 2,200,000

Lucky number seven on our top 20 list is the California Science Center, located in Los Angeles in CA’s Exposition Center. The center experienced a 12.7% decrease in visitors in 2019 (2,200,000) compared to visitors in 2018 (2,520,000).

This decrease in visitors may be due to the closure of their successful exhibit King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, which drew extra visitors to the center.

The California Science Center’s mission is to stimulate curiosity and inspire scientific learning in everyone by creating fun, memorable experiences, and enriching lives.

California Science Center near Downtown Los Angeles
California Science Center near Downtown Los Angeles – by Fabio Achilli (CC BY 2.0)

8. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Attendance: 2,000,000

Number eight on our top 20 list is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which experienced a 5.3% increase in attendance between 2018 and 2019. There were 1,900,000 visitors in 2018 and 2,000,000 in 2019.

This increase in attendance may be due to the increased interest around equality in America – and the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country and the world.

Located in Washington D.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history and culture.

The museum, part of the Smithsonian, “raised the bar of awareness around African-American history and museums”.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture in the evening Washington – by Brook Ward (CC BY-NC 2.0)

9. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Attendance: 2,000,000

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington D.C. is number nine on our top 20 most visited museum list. They reported 2,000,000 visitors in 2019, a 36.5% decrease from 2018 when 3,150,000 visited.

This decrease in visitors is mainly due to the venue’s transition into its own separate museum. While the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery previously reported attendance together as the Donald W. Reynold Center for American Art and Portraiture, that’s no longer the case.

This national art museum is dedicated to collecting, understanding and enjoying the extraordinary creativity of American artists and related global collaborations.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, Atrium
Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, Atrium – by Steve Tatum (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

10. The Museum of Modern Art. Attendance: 1,992,000

New York City’s The Museum of Modern Art, fondly known as MoMA, experienced a 28.2% decrease in attendance from 2018 to 2019. There were 2,774,000 visitors reported in 2018 and 1,992,000 visitors reported in 2019.

This drop in attendance may be due to a decline in NYC foot traffic and the emergence of a modern trend – some studies show that the public is changing, and losing interest in galleries.

The MoMA has celebrated and showcased art since the 1920s and its mission is “to share great modern and contemporary art with the public”. MoMA is the home of some of the most modern and contemporary artwork in the whole of the US.

MoMA (Manhattan, New York, USA)
The Museum of Modern Art called MoMA in New York City – by t-mizo (CC BY 2.0)

11. Houston Museum of Natural Science. Attendance: 1,974,000

Northern Houston, TX is the home of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, number 11 on our list of the top 20 most visited museums in the USA. Since 1909, the museum’s mission has been to preserve and advance the general knowledge of natural science.

Attendance in 2018 was 2,313,000, compared to 1,974,000 visitors in 2019, a 14.7% decrease.

This time-honored museum has five floors of permanent exhibits ranging from astronomy to Native American culture to energy to seashells. It also showcases special temporary exhibitions like their 2019 Lego inspired exhibit, “The Art of the Brick,” which was named as one of CNN’s top 10 “Global Must-See Exhibitions”.

Houston Museum of Natural Science in USA
Entrance to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas – by Another Believer (CC BY-SA 3.0)

12. National Portrait Gallery. Attendance: 1,700,000

Number 12 on our top 20 list is the National Portrait Gallery, a historic art museum located in Washington D.C.. 2,300,000 people visited in 2018, while 1,700,000 visited in 2019, a 26.1% drop.

Founded in 1962, the gallery’s mission is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who’ve shaped the nation’s history, development and culture. Part of the Smithsonian, this amazing gallery continues to tell the “ever-changing” American Story of remarkable people, including presidents, actors, villains and more.

The extremely high attendance in 2018 is partly due to the exhibit honoring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (link).

National Portrait Gallery in historic art museum located in Washington D.C
National Portrait Gallery North Side located in Washington, D.C. – by Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0)

13. The Art Institute of Chicago. Attendance: 1,666,000

Number 13 in our top 20 list of the most visited museums in America is The Windy City’s Art Institute of Chicago.

This beloved museum is one of the oldest and largest in America. It is a three-minute walk from Crown Fountain and is recognized for housing collections that “span centuries and the globe”.

Attendance to this popular landmark was slightly up in 2019, a 2.7% increase totaling 1,666,000 visitors compared to 1,622,000 visitors in 2018.

Some of the exhibits featured in 2019 included Connoisseurship of Japanese Prints, Rembrandt Portraits, Manet and Modern Beauty, and Everyone’s Art Gallery: Posters of the London Underground.

Art Institute of Chicago Cloth Masked Lions During COVID19
Art Institute of Chicago Cloth Masked Lions During COVID19 – by Raed Mansour (CC BY 2.0)

14. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Attendance: 1,600,000

Taking the number 14 spot on our top 20 list is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a living memorial to the Holocaust.

Located among the national monuments to freedom on the National Mall, this Washington D.C. museum attracted 1,600,000 visitors in 2019. This represents a 3% annual decrease in attendance from the 1,650,000 visitors in 2018.

Since it opened its doors, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has had more than 40 million visitors. In April 2018, the museum marked its 25th anniversary, which may have bolstered attendance for the year.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interior
Interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located south of the National Mall, on 14th Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C. – by AgnosticPreachersKid (CC BY-SA 3.0)

15. Field Museum of Natural History. Attendance: 1,494,000

The 15th most visited American museum on our top 20 list is also located in the Windy City of Chicago. The Field Museum of Natural History had 1,494,000 visitors in 2019 compared to 1,525,000 visits the year before, marking a 2% drop.

This museum “believes science is for everyone and is ready to share it with their visitors”.

In 2018, The Field Museum marked its 125th anniversary by exhibiting a cast of the biggest dinosaur ever discovered. This was thanks to a $16.5 million gift from one of the largest private contributions to a Chicago museum on record. This may have bolstered attendance for the year.

Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, USA
Interior of Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, USA – by Curtis & Renee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

16. Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Attendance: 1,487,000

Number 16 on our most visited museums list is in Denver, CO. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is a treasured four-storey landmark featuring award-winning wildlife dioramas, gems, minerals and more.

Attendance increased from 2018 to 2019 by 5.1% – 2018 tallied 1,415,000 visitors while 2019 tallied 1,487,000 visitors.

Three 2019 exhibits that may be responsible for the attendance increase are:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius,
  • Our Sensed: Creating Your Reality,
  • Extreme Sports: Beyond Human Limits.

17. Museum of Science. Attendance: 1,458,000

Our number 17 top visited museum is located in America’s East Coast city, Boston, MA. The Museum of Science enjoyed the exact same attendance numbers in both 2018 and 2019: in both years, 1,458,000 visitors enjoyed exhibitions and education inside this Boston museum.

The museum’s mission is “to play a leading role in transforming the nation’s relationship with science and technology”.

Their 2019 line-up kept attendances strong by including a variety of exhibits and events targeting different audiences and interests.

Some of the best included College Fridays in September, celebrating National Chemistry Week with Marvelous Metals, Women & Girls in STEM, Music Under The Dome and many more.

18. The J. Paul Getty Center. Attendance: 1,439,000

Ranking number 18 on our top 20 list is the J. Paul Getty Center located in sunny Los Angeles, CA. Commonly referred to as Getty, this center is popular for its permanent collection of pre-20th century European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts.

A total of 1,439,000 people visited the Getty in 2019 compared to 1,509,000 people in 2018, marking a 4.6% decrease.

In 2018, The Getty made one of the most significant acquisitions in its history – it featured the original works of some of the most celebrated European draftsmen of all time, including Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto and Degas.

The J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles
The J. Paul Getty Center in sunny Los Angeles, CA – by Philip N Young (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

19. Museum of Science and Industry. Attendance: 1,388,000

Our number 19 spot is located in Hyde Park, Chicago, IL. The Museum of Science and Industry – one of the largest science museums in the world – reported 1,388,000 visitors in 2019, a 10.7% drop from its 1,555,000 visitors in 2018.

Visitors explored award-winning exhibits covering everything from tornadoes to Teslas. Their mission is to inspire inventive genius.

The museum’s attendance decrease in 2019 may be due to the closing of their celebrated and popular The Science Behind Pixar exhibition.

Museum of Science and Industry located in Hyde Park, Chicago, IL
Aerial view on Museum of Science and Industry located in Hyde Park, Chicago, IL – by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

20. California Academy of Sciences. Attendance: 1,321,000

The San Francisco landmark of the California Academy of Sciences is recognized as one of the largest research institutes of natural history in the world, housing over 46 million specimens.

Their mission is, “to explore, explain and sustain life around the world”.

The Academy is an aquarium, planetarium, rain forest and natural history museum all wrapped up into one exciting venue. It’s thought that their new outdoor stage featuring live entertainment and concerts will transform the facility into one of San Francisco’s most unique live music venues.

A total of 1,321,000 folks visited the academy in 2019 compared to 1,295,000 in 2018, a 2% increase in attendance.

California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum in San Francisco – by Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)