Maha Sarakham city is never going to become a top tourist destination, but if you do find yourself here, there's an abundance of museums that can keep you occupied. None are worth a special trip – in fact, several are so small they hardly qualify as museums – but each has its own appeal.
Boon Tam Tan Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์บุญตามทัน)
This small private museum on the southern outskirts of the city feels more like an antique store than a museum, especially at the front where things like bottles, lanterns, and typewriters are kept. The collection gets older the further back you go with household and farm equipment like an old ox-pulled plow, food making pots, silk weaving equipment, and wooden dolls. There are no English labels. It in the small Kaeng Loeng Chan Convention Center. Ask someone in the gift shop to open the door for you.
Details – 8.30am-5pm Tue-Sun, 20/10B adult/child, 043-777717, www.kmcmk.com
Center of Excellence for Silk Innovation (ศูนย์นวัตกรรมไหม มหาวิทยาลัยมหาสารคาม)
Maha Sarakham University's silk research department, also known as the Silk Innovation Center, is open to the public. The main room has a few displays about silk and mulberry trees, whose leaves are the only food that most silkworms can eat. It also showcases various products other than fabric, including soap, cosmetics, paper, and mulberry jam. In front of this building is a modern silk worm nursery where you can usually see worms, and occasionally people spin silk thread from the cocoons here. About fifty meters to the southeast, next to the little coffee shop, is the weaving center with a few looms. There's next to no English here, written or spoken, but the workers are friendly.
Details – 8.30am-4pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-753314, http://ias.it.msu.ac.th/silk-innovation-center/index.php
Confucius Institute Maha Sarakham University (สถาบันขงจื๊อมหาวิทยาลัยมหาสารคาม)
Not really a museum, but it's included here for the sake of being thorough. This Chinese-funded education organization's musty meeting room has twelve little displays about Chinese arts and entertainment, from musical instruments to masks. There are only Thai and Chinese labels. Ask in any office you find open for someone to get the key.
Details – 8.30am-4pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-754333
Isan Art and Cultural Center (สำนักศิลปะและวัฒนธรรม)
This small but varied collection of historical artifacts fills the second floor of the Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University Office of Art and Culture. It has three main sections. Stuff from the recent past, including musical instruments, animal traps, and household goods; ancient items, mostly pottery and a few fragments of Khmer-era stone carving; and temple equipment made of wood. There's no English, and even Thai labels are scant. You'll need to ask someone in the ground-floor office to open the door for you.
Details – 8am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-721839, http://culture.rmu.ac.th/main.php
Jewels of the Sea Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์เปลือกหอย)
A grand name for just sixteen glass cases of seashells, about half from Thailand. Though there aren't that many seashells, most are beautiful. There are also a few displays about wasps, moved here when the old Insect Museum was converted to a meeting room. The names of the shells and where they came from is given in English. It's on the fourth floor of the Maha Sarakham University Faculty of Sciences Building #2 (SC2); the same building as the mushroom museum. Ring the bell (repeatedly if needed) of the nearby lecturers' office, room 401/1, to get the key.
Details – 8am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free
Maha Sarakham City Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์เมืองมหาสารคาม)
This is the best designed and decorated of the historical museums in Maha Sarakham, but it offers the least to see. Mostly just a few baskets, votive tablets, model houses, an old photo studio, and some paintings. There is some English signage, though not on all the displays.
Details – 8.30am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-723467
Maha Sarakham University Art Gallery (หอศิลป์พระพิฆเนศวร)
Rotating exhibitions of student, faculty, and outside artists are held in two separate rooms on the ground floor of the MSU Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts building. It's also known as the CLMTV Art Museum (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam) and there are sometimes collaborations between universities from these countries. The doors are kept unlocked, but you may have to turn the lights on yourself.
Details – 8am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-754384, www.facebook.com/คณะศิลปกรรมศาสตร์-มหาวิทยาลัยมหาสารคาม-159544477416333
Maha Sarakham University Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์มหาวิทยาลัยมหาสารคาม)
The MSU Museum consists of seven old Isan buildings: six stilted wooden houses and one made of mud. Three of them are used for displays, the others for storage or meetings. One wooden building holds "The University Story" with pictures of students and faculty, and another is partly furnished to show what homes were like in the past. The home display also has signs about seasonal food gathered in the forest, much of which is still done today. Mud buildings were used by Chinese immigrants, though the real ones were much bigger; this one was just built to show how the walls were made. There's nearly no English signage in any of the buildings, but the office under the largest building (where you can find someone to open the doors for you) has a brochure with English explanations of the buildings. Alongside the museum is a small "zoo" with deer, birds, and guinea pigs.
Details – 8.30am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-754380, https://museum.msu.ac.th
Natural Medicinal Mushroom Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์เห็ดที่มีฤทธิ์ทางยา)
Professionally produced, this museum at Maha Sarakham University is more interesting than you'd expect by the name. Some of the specimens are gigantic and others have been carved into art. There's also a display about parasitic fungi that can hijack the minds of cicadas. Pretty much the only English information is the scientific names. It's on the third floor of the Faculty of Sciences Building #2 (SC2); the same building as the shell museum. Stop in the Academic and Research Affairs office on the second floor to have somebody unlock the door for you.
Details – 8.30am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-754247, https://mushroom.msu.ac.th
Palaeontological Research and Education Center (ศูนย์วิจัยและการศึกษาบรรพชีวินวิทยา)
This one-room museum at Maha Sarakham University holds fossils from various ancient animals including dinosaurs (mostly excavated in Kalasin) and crocodilians plus some petrified wood, coprolite (fossilized feces), and modern animal skulls. It's small, but dinophiles will like it. There is just a smattering of English information. It's easy to find because there are two large dinosaur skeleton statues out front.
Details – 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-754373, https://prc.msu.ac.th
The Research Institute of Northeastern Art and Culture (สถาบันวิจัยศิลปะและวัฒนธรรมอีสาน)
Maha Sarakham University maintains this small, somewhat neglected collection about Isan culture in a large, striking building. It essentially has four sections: basketry, musical instruments, palm-leaf manuscripts, and mut mee silk weaving. The Thai labels are thorough, but there's no English. It's on MSU's old campus in the city proper.
Details – 8am-4pm Mon-Fri, free, 043-721686, https://rinac.msu.ac.th/en
Wat Mahachai Northeastern Local Culture Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์วัฒนธรรมท้องถิ่นภาคตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ วัดมหาชัย)
Established in the 1960s to protect ancient artefacts in Isan from being sold and sent overseas, the highlights of this cluttered collection are the pottery, including many large vessels in excellent condition; various stone carvings, some from Khmer ruins; and old Lao wooden Buddhas. There are also some more recent cultural objects including musical instruments. Palm-leaf manuscripts are kept in a second building. It's rather dark and dusty and there's little in the way of labels (none in English), but it's definitely worth a visit for history buffs, especially those who speak Thai and can get explanations from Phra Khru Arun, who is the only one with the keys to open it up. He enjoys showing people around.
Details – no set hours, free, 061-1359147