Museums on the edge of insanity and brilliance.
December 26, 2012 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Some of my favorite places on Earth are the House on the Rock, the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Mütter Museum. Not only do these places have a massive bevy of bewildering curiosities, they are also rich in depth and full of small, standalone stories. Each require many, many hours to appreciate fully. What other unconventional places in the world feature an equivalent mix of amazement, craziness and depth?
posted by eschatfische to Travel & Transportation (42 answers total) 205 users marked this as a favorite
Have you checked out the Atlas Obscura?
posted by Seboshin at 8:54 AM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

These are probably in the minor leagues of what you're looking for, but at least sorta in the same vein:
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore ; the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and the City Museum in St Louis.
posted by Fig at 8:58 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

In London you want the Grant Museum of Zoology - a tiny but fascinating Victorian museum full of oddities, the Hunterian - a lot like the Mutter, and last but not least the permanent collection in the Wellcome Collection- a bizarre curiosity cabinet is the only apt description.
posted by vacapinta at 9:11 AM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding AVAM and City Museum. For deeply-moving grimness, however, the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St Joseph, MO has no peer.
posted by scruss at 9:11 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The 24-Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, Oregon is something you might find interesting although it is way small compared to the other things listed.

Sir John Soane's Museum in London is pretty incredible.

The City Museum is awesome. Minor leagues it is not.
posted by grouse at 9:15 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is more conventional--not focused on the weird--but it does have that quality of feeling overly dense with surprise. They have bunches of 360-degree panoramas on their virtual tour page to give you a sense of what it's like. Note the drawers full of stuff in the upper levels.

An art museum that gives me the same feeling is the Musée Gustave Moreau. It's the home of Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, and the lower levels are furnished as they would have been in his time, but the upper levels feature a huge amount of his artistic output. You rise up and up on a narrow spiral staircase to enter large rooms full of strange and weird paintings. And most importantly, with respect to your question, you can spend many hours pulling out drawers/racks full of his smaller works and sketches. It's amazing.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:25 AM on December 26, 2012

I was there in the early 1990s, so I don't know if it still exists, but in Vancouver BC there was a museum called --as I recall -- Wild World. A couple of retired people who'd traveled all over the world in the 1950s and 60s had brought back exotic souvenirs, and opened their own museum. There were insects, and shrunken heads, and all kinds of good stuff. A tape recorder with a recording they'd made of a gorilla trying to get into their hut when they were somewhere in Africa, photos they'd taken... very much of its time.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:51 AM on December 26, 2012

Winchester Mystery House?
posted by elizardbits at 9:52 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Johnson Hall Museum in Wells, ME.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:13 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not full of weird, exactly, like the Jurassic, but it is rich in depth and just jammed with small, standalone stories. We spent so long there that we missed going to the more popular science museum. It's the Los Alamos Historical Museum.
posted by rtha at 10:30 AM on December 26, 2012

The Medieval Criminal museum in Rothenburg, Germany was quite cool.

Also the Munchhausen museum in Bodenwerder. The whole town has stuff dedicated to his legacy, including weird statues. If you haven't seen the movie by Terry Gilliam, please get a copy post haste!
posted by wwartorff at 10:44 AM on December 26, 2012

Musee d'art Brut in Lausanne is both deeply weird, technically virtuosic and profoundly moving. It is one of my favorite museums of ANY type in the world.

(Art Brut = Outsider Art) e.g. There is a HUGE madge gill painting there....
posted by lalochezia at 11:06 AM on December 26, 2012

In Pittsburgh there is the Bayernhof House which is quite a bit weirder than their website indicates. Not weird in the way the Mutter is, but in that someone lived here, and their implied lifestyle is over the top.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:08 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Graceland Too might fit the bill.
posted by Ms. Toad at 12:22 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Totally agree with Surgical Science and City Museum, but I also suggest the Museum of Appalachia. Basically it's one guy's vision and he saw a lot of people being moved out of appalachia so he hoarded EVERYTHING including actual houses which he moved to this location. He has hand written all the signs in the museum and it's a BIG museum--like 30 buildings plus. Also the cafe has just regular appalachian people making you food. It's mindblowing.
posted by jennybento at 12:26 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just outside of Washington, D.C. is the National Museum of Health and Medicine. I've never been to their new site, but they have some interesting medically themed exhibits including past exhibits on hairballs, and famously the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.
posted by forkisbetter at 12:32 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding the National Museum of Health and Medicine. It has Giant hairballs, brains in jars and what appears to be a chorus line of foetus skeletons.
Another museum that made me happy in a similar way to that and the MJT is the Scott Polar Research Centre Museum in Cambridge (the UK one). Tiny, but packed with relics of doomed explorers. Sample exhibit: a barrel organ that was taken on an attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
posted by gnimmel at 1:39 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another one you might look out for is the Museum of Everything. It doesn't have a permanent location, but stages periodic exhibitions in various European locations. The focus is mainly on outsider art - the one I went to had a room of Walter Potter's taxidermy scenes, for example.
posted by gnimmel at 1:52 PM on December 26, 2012

the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago

Agreed absolutely with this one as well as the National Museum of Health and Medicine (MeFi post it inspired back when it was the Walter Reed medical center). I have also liked

- the Michigan Museum of Surveying which I guess has moved to Springfield IL and undergone a name change (my pix, MeFi post it inspired)
- The George Washington Carver museum in Tuskeegee, AL - very of a place and time, I wouldn't call it crazy but definitely interesting and odd
- The Old Depot Museum in Selma AL - all of Selma is interesting and has some odd quirky stuck-in-time things going on there
- The Museum of Family Camping was scheduled to be moved from where it resided in Allentown NH, don't know if that happened or not.
- Vent Haven museum for ventriloquist dummies (MeFi post) - maybe not extensive enough but a weird and wacky place
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jumped in to recommend the Pitt Rivers, beaten up thread. Will add the description given to me: "Imagine you had a crazy great aunt whose husband traveled with the British Empire, went to exotic places, met interesting people and took their stuff. [Ed.: Not kidding. There's an item in the collection with a label of something like "Taken from 6 yr old Malay girl."] The Pitt Rivers is her attic."
posted by PMdixon at 2:53 PM on December 26, 2012

The Miracle of America museum in Polson, MT is kind of creepy, but deeply weird. It's best to visit in the summer when you can visit all the buildings in the yard.
posted by Duffington at 3:13 PM on December 26, 2012

The Lightning Field in...nowhere, NM (once you move beyond insane/brilliant museums to insane/brilliant land art installations)
Cabinetlandia in nowhere, NM (similar)
Spiral Jetty in nowhere, UT (also)
posted by unknowncommand at 5:15 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm chiming to add, once again, that The City Museum in St. Louis is exactly what you're looking for. It has man-made caves, a collection of scrap metal fashioned into tunnels that connect a couple old airplanes, a flippin' ten-story circular slide (it's a 23 second ride!), and a warehouse's worth of found oddities, almost all of which can be clambered upon. It's one of my favorite places.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:25 PM on December 26, 2012

Tinkertown in nowhere, NM
posted by unknowncommand at 5:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen the Roadside America site as such mentioned yet, but it's the mother-lode online guide to such places--for America, at least, and you'll find it here.

Good hunting! You might want to start with the Perot Museum...
posted by dr. zoom at 6:34 PM on December 26, 2012

Fairbanks Museum in VT is basically a museum of what museums used to be, in that it is more or less unchanged since the place was first established. Rotting taxidermy of all types! Huge pieces of art made entirely of preserved insects! Creepy doll collection! Items ganked from other countries in the 1800s, with inaccurate informational placards! All housed in a truly gorgeous building.
posted by Wavelet at 8:43 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not exactly a museum, but Deyrolle, in Paris

A little closer to home, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:21 PM on December 26, 2012

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago has great programming and an impressive permanent collection, some of which is usually on display. They also have the best URL.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:35 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam contains embryos and anatomical abnormalities.
posted by neushoorn at 2:12 AM on December 27, 2012

Sir John Soane's Museum in London is pretty incredible.

Seconding this. It is a weirdly wonderful little place.
posted by srboisvert at 2:48 PM on December 27, 2012

If you ever find yourself in Berlin, the Peristal Singum is not to be missed.
posted by wretched_rhapsody at 6:42 PM on December 27, 2012

Cabinetlandia is an astonishing destination, but it might be a bit farther off the beaten path than some of the other suggestions. (I say this having been to Cabinetlandia, but nowhere else.) I strongly suggest having a smartphone/GPS handy, and leaving by sunset lest the dirt roads turn invisible. Here it is on Google maps: And here's what the official directions have to say for context:
Cabinetlandia is located 10 miles east of the town of Deming in Luna County, New Mexico, off Interstate 10 heading east. This is approximately 240 miles from Albuquerque, NM, 110miles from El Paso, TX, 320 miles from Phoenix, AZ, and about 36 miles from Mexico.
So. Pretty out there.

But it is also pretty out there. Look south or west and you might see lights from cars lumbering along the highway, but turn north and you'll see nothing but flat plains and low mountains. As someone who drove here from the east coast, this nothingness was accentuated even further by how long it took to get...well...nowhere. From the highway to Cabinetlandia is maybe 1200 feet, but getting there takes almost an hour given the lack of roads in the area. Honestly, I feel silly even calling some of those things roads. They are roads only in an ancient sense of the word: two ruts dug-in by travel, obscured by tall grass on either side. I know this all makes me sound like some sheltered city-folk, I know. Still, it is, again, just one more piece of the atmosphere which makes Cabinetlandia so great.

There are so many thoughts swirling around in my head about how it felt to drive 2500 miles to stand on that small plot of land which had no meaning, which had already been visited by dozens before me, which seemed both disheveled and perfectly intact...but this is getting (needlessly) long, so I will just put a Neil Gaiman quote here and be on my way:
"It's perfectly simple," said Wednesday. "In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or...well, you get the idea."

"There are churches all across the States, though," said Shadow.

"In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists' offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that."
--from American Gods (wherein we not-so-coincidentally also find the House on the Rock)
posted by isnotchicago at 7:21 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Would the Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art qualify?
posted by mon-ma-tron at 2:47 PM on December 28, 2012

Not a museum, but a fantastic seedy roadside tourist attraction: Natural Bridge, which includes not only the natural formation, which is pretty cool, but also stuff like a wax museum and caves. And a veritable fuckload of other roadside goodness a stone's throw away.

Stuff like Foamhenge-- It's a replica of Stonehenge! Made from Styrofoam! And you can grab a bite to eat at The Pink Cadillac (warning, flash autoplay) under the benevolent gaze of a seriously creepy Humpty-Dumpty. (The food is nothing spectacular, but the place has a certain run-down charm, and it's really quite hard to make a burger and milkshake be a bad thing.) There's even a safari park where you can feed zebras and camels right from your car! I'll admit that I haven't been to that last one, because every time I go out that direction, it is to take myself and the dog to one of the awesome swimming holes in Jefferson National Forest, and I don't think she'd take it too well.

If I sound like I'm gushing, I probably am, because I adore this stuff, and I further adore that it's less than an hour from where I live. It's one of the first places I take folks who come to visit from out of town, probably because it really is straight out of American Gods.
posted by dogheart at 11:05 PM on December 28, 2012

I'd like to give love to the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda CA. I'm trying to move there because I love it so much. What it lacks in scientific explanation it makes up for in hands on experimentation, every machine (aside from a few in the gift shop) is set to free play. I've visited favorites from college (the 90s) to really appreciating innovations in the 40s and 50s. The signage and whatever you know about pins is fine, but actually playing the games, on free play, and learning all their quirks of design and wear is amazing to me. The empirical experience of just playing a machine over and over again...okay, you're going to walk out being able to geek out about a table more than anyone who has a vague memory of what it was like thirty, forty or fifty years ago. There are other pinball museums that are probably similar but I haven't been to, notably the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, but as a kid who grew up loving the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia the whole hands on museum experience has really grown with me.
posted by Courtoly at 2:17 AM on January 1, 2013

My favorite unexpected, interesting museum is in Germany, in Kassel: the museum for sepulchral culture.

In Torino, Italy, there is a very odd museum of nineteenth century wax models of fruits. With no color photography, this was the best way of cataloguing fruit varieties. Some varieties have been lost. Food for thought and rather unusual.

This may sound odd but the San Francisco Airport Museum has the best temporary, wacky, sort of cabinet of curiosities-ish exhibitions I have ever seen. From the top of my head, I remember fondly an exhibition about head rests, automata, duck decoys, and another one showing the evolution of slot machines.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 10:55 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine is definitely on the edge of something (Reich invented Orgone Energy Boxes, among other things).
posted by susanvance at 2:09 PM on January 2, 2013

I found Mercer Caverns in Missouri to be a near-perfect balance between Natural Wonder and Kitsch. You do have to take a guided tour of the site - unfortunately you can't just go wandering around by yourself - but the tour is a packed one, and you get to see both striking natural features (I have NEVER seen stalactites like the ones in "the wine room") and cheeseball stuff (they have markers showing where they filmed scenes from Lassie movies and Art Linkletter tv shows and such).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:05 PM on January 3, 2013

I haven't checked it out yet but have been reading online about the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.
posted by Miko at 7:23 PM on January 3, 2013

I recommend the Florentine natural history museum and the Museo Galileo.
posted by bq at 9:42 PM on January 3, 2013

The Museum of Civilization in Quebec City is nothing like the run-of-the-mill anthropology/history showcase I'd expected, and I really wished I'd budgeted more time to spend there.
posted by psoas at 6:14 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Sneakin' around on the PS3   |   Making my dog happy on a rainy day? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.