There are more than 17,500 museums in the U.S. The following dozen (or so) force you to dust off your conception of what makes a museum. Instead of glass-covered cases with historical artifacts and educational placards, imagine wall-to-wall animated dolls in one corner and wall-to-wall clowns in another, or a dizzying array of human organs in jars. Stop shuddering and start investigating history you didn’t even know existed.
10. Kansas Barbed Wire Museum
Move over, Winchester rifle. The West was won by … barbed wire? The brains behind this facility walk us through how this fencing, introduced in the 1870s, transformed the West from great expanses of prairie to divided territories. Cows and bison no longer ran free as farmers and ranchers delineated their property. Yes, settlers tamed this wild land. If ever in the central Kansas town of La Crosse (pop: 1,342), you’ll learn more about the 2,000 varieties of barbed wire and its role in shaping the development of the plains than you ever imagined.
9. Museum Of Bad Art
Just one look at the nudes with pets, the plethora of portraits depicting a blue-faced race, and the demented, giant orange cat with a man in its mouth (really), and you quickly understand what the creators behind MOBA mean by works boasting that special quality which sets them apart from the “merely incompetent.” The Louvre, this ain’t — or is it? We have “talented artists” whose works somehow went “awry” to blame for the head-scratching paintings, drawings and sculpture found in MOBA’s online collection or at its three brick-and-mortar galleries in Boston. Of course, there are also amateurs to blame for these unfortunate errors on canvas, who MOBA staff contend are “barely in control of the brush.” See for yourself at MuseumofBadArt.org.
8. Burlesque Hall of Fame
It’s probably best if you leave Grandma (unless she’s the one dragging you here!) at home when visiting this homage to a bawdy art form, located inside a creative co-op in, of course, downtown Vegas. The museum was the dream of the late burlesque legend and exotic dancer activist, Jennie Lee, whose other legacy was to create affordable housing options for retired dancers. Many items from her personal collection continue to be housed inside of the Emergency Arts facility. Artifacts recently featured on its website include Lee’s scandalous personal holiday cards, a colorized photo of exotic dancer/spy Mata Hari and burlesque legend Tempest Storm’s G-string.
7. Willow Creek-China Flat Museum
Whether you think of Bigfoot as fairy tale or fact, this museum boasts an entire building dedicated to Northern California’s most mysterious, hirsute resident. The lower floor of the Bigfoot building has a lot of, well, big feet — cast after cast of alleged footprints from the elusive creature — as well as famous photos and other written and visual “evidence” that the legend really lives. The upper floor is set aside for research into this behemoth, which is said to range from 350 to 800 pounds and towering over eight feet. If you’re inclined to make the six-hour drive from San Francisco, you might as well check out Bigfoot’s alleged stomping grounds in the heart of picturesque Six Rivers National Forest.
6. Trash Museum
Other states, take note: The Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority has established a museum in Hartford dedicated to the history of how we dispose of our trash. It’s one thing for kids to be given statistics on “why” they should recycle, but it’s quite another to walk through a towering “Temple of Trash,” fashioned from all the stuff once loved but now discarded — tennis rackets and Cheerios boxes, Butterfinger wrappers and fuzzy dice. From this visual depiction of how much we waste, visitors gets a bird’s-eye view, courtesy of its mezzanine gallery, of how a recycling facility works as glass, plastic and metals from dozens of towns are sorted. Many other interactive exhibits are to be had, solidifying the concept that, “One man’s trash is another man’s [educational] treasure.”
5. International UFO Museum
There really is no other place for a museum devoted to alien beings than this city of some 40,000 in southeast New Mexico, near the ranch where that strange object crashed in 1947. More than 150,000 annual visitors check out the museum started by UFO researchers in the early 1990s. The facility definitely plays up the alien angle of that 1947 incident, leaving little room to wonder if that crashed craft might have been a weather balloon (the official government story) or a military experiment. If you go, you’ll see an exhibit about the “great cover-up,” displays about where the greys came from and information about crop circles and ancient aliens.
4. National Museum of Funeral History
Nothing quite says “fun vacation” like the country’s (and possibly the world’s) largest collection of funereal artifacts and exhibits related to the death customs of various cultures. If you can suspend that cultural fear of death long enough, interesting exhibits cover everything from Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration and the history of embalming, to coffins and caskets of the past. One of the more colorful exhibits explores the fantasy coffins of the West African country of Ghana. Unlike anything you’ll likely see at a service in the States, it’s not uncommon for the dearly departed in that country to have a royal send-off in coffins shaped like a Mercedes Benz or KLM airliner, or resembling a tiger or eagle. Still other exhibits look at the farewells of influential people, including presidents. In fact, the space set aside for the lives and deaths of popes required close collaboration with the Vatican and a 10,500-square-foot expansion to accommodate the likes of the popemobile, and create a real sense that visitors were at Pope John Paul II’s funeral.
3. House on the Rock
This resort/tourist destination located in the scenic Wisconsin Dells is so much more than a mere “museum” that it turns any idea of what it means to be a museum completely on its head. The House on the Rock’s history is shrouded in myth, but at the heart of the story is an early 20th century meeting between architect Alex Jordan Sr. and the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in which Wright allegedly said he wouldn’t hire Jordan to design a chicken coop. On the drive home, Jordan supposedly pointed to a 60-foot rock outcropping and vowed to build a house on top to show Wright. Alex Jordan Jr. took control of the project in 1940, finished the Japanese-style house and opened it to the public in 1960. More than 50 years later, the attraction is a complex of rooms, exhibits, gardens and shops housing collections of seemingly anything a human can collect. This experience in a dizzying array of rooms is like walking inside of a manic genius’ brain; you start with a strange house, then walk your way through a series of themed rooms. By the close of this tour, none of the rooms seems to have any rhyme or reason — there is a Main Street modeled after the towns of yesteryear and a procession of carousels here, with a 200-foot sea monster model and collection of teddy bears there. Not to mention the famous Infinity Room, a room that seems to defy the laws of engineering and physics and stretch on for eternity.
2. Creation Museum
From death to theories about the creation of all things, this museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (near the Cincinnati airport) is committed to “bringing the Bible to life.” That said, you’ll see the likes of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. You’ll even see dinosaurs and read about the 50 different species, to be exact, traveling on the Ark with all the other pairs of animals. What you won’t see are any depictions of an asteroid hitting the earth and wiping out these giants, or the earliest humans emerging millions of years later. The more than 160 exhibits all staunchly uphold the young earth creationist perspective — meaning the earth was created 6,000 years ago over a six-day period, as reported in the Book of Genesis. As reported by scientists, the earth was created 4,499,994,000 years before that, and the dinosaurs went extinct 65.5 million years before Creationists believe these enormous creatures appeared in the first place.
1. Medical Oddities
There are an inordinate number of strange yet fascinating museums devoted to the medicine and medical knowledge of yesteryear. The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (aka the Museum of Quackery), now housed at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, touts all the items that give the term “quack” a bad name. There’s a phrenology machine said to determine your character traits by measuring the bumps on your head, weight-reduction glasses, and a foot-powered breast enlarger. The collection formerly belonged to a mental health activist, the late Bob McCoy, who famously demonstrated the questionable devices to Johnny Carson and David Letterman through the years. Located just outside D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland, the National Museum of Health and Medicine got its start during the Civil War as an army medical museum. This legacy lives on in the form of artifacts like the bullet that took Abraham Lincoln’s life, and even fragments of bone and hair collected from the former president during his autopsy. You’ve probably heard about the Mütter Museum and its ghoulish galleries, showcasing medical curiosities that have been known to make even medical professionals queasy. Located in the birthplace of American medicine, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the museum is home to a colon so distended it resembles a long, leather sack, wax models of people boasting unicorn-like horns in the center of their heads and the 19th century “soap lady” whose body is encased in a waxy substance, believed to be her corpse’s reaction to chemical properties in the soil.