Eclectic or oddball museums that are worth a detour?
February 22, 2019 11:52 AM   Subscribe

The lovely Mrs Fnorde and I were at the Bennington Museum in Vermont the other day, and she was again reminded of how much she likes that kind of quirky museum, where the collection might have more to do with the accidents of local history and donor hobby horses than with a mainstream curatorial vision. Can you recommend other museums that might scratch a similar itch?

Other museums we've been to that we've enjoyed and might qualify:
* Shelburne Museum, Vermont
* American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
* Joseph Skinner Museum, Mount Holyoke College
* Paris Sewer Museum
* Mutter Museum, Philadelphia
posted by Jasper Fnorde to Travel & Transportation (58 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if I'd make a trip to Boston just for this, but the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard has always tickled me.
posted by praemunire at 11:59 AM on February 22 [2 favorites]

It has negligible value as an educational resource, but The House on the Rock in Wisconsin is truly batshit.
posted by castlebravo at 11:59 AM on February 22 [13 favorites]

If you are passing through the Chicago suburbs, you should visit the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art - note that it is moving some time this year from Elmhurst to Oak Brook with some down time expected. I'm sad that it's moving, as I really like the current small mid-century building and also the location (in a pleasant park with an ornamental greenhouse) is unusual and charming. (TBH, a loss for Elmhurst, which used to be a small and secretly a bit odd town but which has only gotten more gentrified and generic as the years have passed.)

But anyway, the museum is neat. I loved it as a child.
posted by Frowner at 11:59 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

Forney and Kirkland museums in Denver, CO
posted by nickggully at 12:04 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

The Warther Museum in Ohio is kind of mindboggling. Also in Ohio is the Auman Museum of TV & Radio, which is one man's labor of love and collecting.
posted by brookeb at 12:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

In central VA, the Frontier Culture Museum, with mostly original houses from the lands of immigrants to the area and residents of the area: 1700s West African Farm, 1600s English Farm, 1700s Irish Farm, 1700s Irish Forge, 1700s German Farm, 1700s Ganatastwi (Native American settlement), Tending Tobacco farm, 1820s American Farm, Early American Schoolhouse, 1850s American Farm, and Mount Tabor Log Church.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:09 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

I doubt you'll wind up there any time soon, but for anyone who passes through Southeast Alaska on their travels: the tiny Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska, has one of the finest collection of Alaska Native artifacts anywhere in the world, primarily because it was formed around the personal collection of Reverend Sheldon Jackson, a missionary who traveled widely throughout the state in the 19th century.

The museum, which is located on the grounds of what was formerly Sheldon Jackson College (a religious educational institution which closed in 2007) survived the demise of the associated college and was such a gem it was adopted by the state of Alaska in order to preserve its incomparable collection.

Despite its location in Southeast Alaska the collection is actually heavily weighted towards artifacts from other regions of the state. (But while you're there you can also get a very nice sampling of Southeast Alaska native totem poles at the nearby Sitka National Historic Park, less than a block away.)

If you should visit, don't just look at the items that are hanging on the walls or out in obvious display cases. The museum's collection is much larger than the display space available and most of the collection is stored in pull-out display drawers. There are so many treasures in such a small space!
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:11 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

If you ever make it across the Atlantic, go to the UK's own Pencil Museum (does what it says on the tin), which is in the Lake District and there is plenty more stuff to see there.
posted by altolinguistic at 12:17 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

The museum of the Mainstee Historical Society in Manistee, Michigan (kinda near Sleeping Bear Dunes) is a wonderful place. Unpredictable and quirky and disorganized in the best way.

We taunted our kids that we were going to spend the whole afternoon there instead of at the beach, with no intention of actually going at all. Then we walked past it and popped in and...spent the whole afternoon there instead of at the beach. We'll likely not return to Manistee, but I sent in dues to become a member when I got home purely out of a desire to further support their existence.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:21 PM on February 22

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, for sure.
posted by look busy at 12:24 PM on February 22 [11 favorites]

The City Museum, in St. Louis, kind of.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:28 PM on February 22 [9 favorites]

The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe houses a mind-boggling collection of folk art from around the world, arranged in fascinating ways.
posted by GoldenEel at 12:31 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is terrific.
posted by LizardBreath at 12:37 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]

There's a Math Museum at the University of Bonn that houses an enormous collection of calculators, both mechanical and electrical. We've been and it's fantastic.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:38 PM on February 22

The Hinckley Fire Museum is worth a stop if you are in the area. Fire Museum. In the same general area, the Duluth Train Museum, which is much bigger and has a working train you can take short excursions on, is also pretty cool.

Although, my favorite example of making something surprisingly fun and cool out subject material, has to be The Spam Museum.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 12:46 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

I happened across it accidentally on a road trip about 20 years ago, and it looks as if the Dan Quayle Museum (excuse me, the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center) still exists.

It's a little surreal if you're not a Dan Quayle fan.
posted by inexorably_forward at 12:47 PM on February 22

Le Roy, New York has the Jello Gallery Museum. Lots of jello recipe's and advertisements. The basement is filled with random equipment. t

Farther afield is the Devil's Museum which was begun from one man's large collection of devil figures.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:48 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

The Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, NM.
posted by Gneisskate at 12:52 PM on February 22

Oh, also - Fantasy of Flight! It's an airplane museum, sure, but it's mostly (or completely, I think) one person's (Kermit Weeks) private collection of vintage airplanes. And they're not hangar queens, I'm pretty sure every single aircraft is airworthy and they fly them on rotation.

It looks like it's changed a bit since I was there years ago, but back then you walked through all the hangars where the restoration work was being done, right off the flight line. They had spare parts strewn all over the place. Kermit himself was there and talked about some of the lengths they had to go to to get vintage reproductions (like convincing Goodyear to do a limited run of tires that hadn't been produced since the '30s).
posted by backseatpilot at 12:52 PM on February 22

The Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner New Mexico is a completely nuts experience that I heartily recommend. It's like they started off with Billy the Kid paraphernalia, of which they have A LOT (more, perhaps, than one might want) and then decided, oh well, let's just put everything anyone in town has ever owned in here. It's great. I will also second House on the Rock for sheer sensory overload.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:00 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

If you ever find yourself in Montana, check out the Carter County Historical Museum, which is a tiny little county museum that happens to house world class dinosaurs, because a huge number of our dinos come from the area.

Also, there is a really cool computer museum in Bozeman, tucked away in what is basically a strip mall.
posted by Grandysaur at 1:13 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

Cahokia Mounds, across the river from St. Louis, is a World Heritage Site with an excellent museum. The location is the remains of what was probably the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.

(...and according to my father-in-law, it was also a bitchin' place to go snow-sledding before anyone realized hey, maybe we should treat the place with respect!)
posted by notsnot at 1:36 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]

Donor hobby horses, hmm? You might enjoy Northlandz, the world's largest model railroad layout. It's three floors, each the size of a Walmart, and entirely the work of one industrious nutter.

When he wasn't building the railroad, he was collecting dolls and rebuilding pipe organs; there are displays about these interests on site as well.
posted by apparently at 1:40 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

If you ever make it across the Atlantic, go to the UK's own Pencil Museum (does what it says on the tin), which is in the Lake District and there is plenty more stuff to see there.

If you make it across the pond, there is no shortage of quirky museums on offer in the UK. Personally I'm greatly looking forward to the day I get to visit the Lawnmower Museum, but even if you never set foot outside London there's more than enough options to choose from.

However, if you're trying to focus on North America, I'd plump for Chicago's Museum of Surgical Science.
posted by myotahapea at 1:49 PM on February 22

Come to Alberta, Canada and visit the world famous Torrington Gopher Hole Museum! You haven’t lived until you’ve seen hundreds of taxidermied gophers dressed up in period costume dioramas representing the history of the townsfolk... Gophers in covered wagons! Greaseball gophers on mini motorcycles! A gopher Mountie!
posted by Vindaloo at 1:52 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]

If your profile location is correct, next time you're headed north on I95, check out the Woodman Museum in Dover, NH*. The collection is eclectic, to say the least. There's a room full of creepy dolls, a giant lobster, a three-legged chicken, a chain mail vest dug up from a WWI trench, and an entire colonial era garrison house that was dragged two miles up hill to the museum site. If you're looking for a carefully curated collection where everything is labeled, this is exactly the opposite.

(*We've also got some tasty restaurants and we're much less crowded than Portsmouth.)
posted by damayanti at 1:55 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum in Joshua Tree, California features Noah Purifoy's assemblages, sculptures, installations, etc., out in what's nearly the middle of nowhere Joshua Tree. It's absolutely a must-see if you're out in Joshua Tree.
posted by yasaman at 2:00 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

I don't know why you would ever be in my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, about an hour north of Kansas City, but it's chock full of stuff like this. St. Joe was the eastern terminus of the Pony Express and a big frontier town in the 1800s. Now it is Not Much, except for some beautiful but dilapidated mansions and lots of small, weird museums, including:

- The Patee House Museum, a huge trove of random local treasures owned and operated by one family for the past several decades. It has lots of Pony Express stuff but also a full sized steam engine, souvenirs from when the tallest man in the world visited town in the 1960s, and a large collection of creepy dolls. Also whole big rooms set up as storefronts of various types with artifacts from earlier times. And a room featuring exhibits about all the significant murders in the town's history.
- The Jesse James House, where he was killed (you can see the dent his head made in the floor!), affiliated with the Patee House.
- The Pony Express Museum, complete with old stables
- The Glore Psychiatric Museum, which even alone would be a good reason to take a trip up from Kansas City. We used to go here on elementary school field trips. Memorable exhibits include early torture devices used to "cure" psychiatric patients and a huge collection of straight pens removed from a patient's stomach.

I can strongly recommend the Shakespeare Chateau if I have managed to woo any of you into visiting. I've stayed at B&Bs all over North America and the best is right there in my home town.
posted by something something at 2:00 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

Oddball is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I live in Chattanooga and we have a variety of atypical museums I would not have encountered when I lived in New York State:

* The International Towing and Recovery Museum, which I imagine would be nifty for anyone who likes old cars and trucks.

* The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is an in-depth educational experience and can include any of four rides, from a two-hour Bunny Train ride for the kids, a Dinner on the Diner, the Missionary Ridge Local (about an hour) local history train tour, and a freakin' nine-hour trip on a double steam engine with multiple options of travel style, from coach to observation-deck luxury. It's a museum, it's a tour, it's two things in one!

* The Bessie Smith Cultural Center's mission is to "preserve and celebrate African American History and Culture in Chattanooga through art, education, research and entertainment." It started as the Chattanooga African American Museum and has grown from there.

* Songbirds Guitar Museum -- pretty much what it says on the tin. Rare, vintage guitars, as well as a performance space and "player experiences."
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:07 PM on February 22

Come to Memphis to experience our Pink Palace Museum! You won’t be disappointed. Specifically:
posted by elisebeth at 2:11 PM on February 22

Virginia City/Nevada City, Montana has a Music Hall Museum with a large collection of automated musical instruments, many of which you can drop a penny or nickel into and they still work.
posted by BooneTheCowboyToy at 2:57 PM on February 22

If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Hot Springs, Arkansas, you should definitely check out The Gangster Museum of America. Hot Springs, surprisingly enough, was a favored vacation spot for Al Capone and his associates, and the museum is fascinating.

If, on the other hand, you end up anywhere near Phoenix, Arizona, Arcosanti is well worth the drive.
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:05 PM on February 22

The American Precision Museum is also in Vermont, and is not to be missed!
posted by TheCoug at 3:21 PM on February 22

Honestly worth a stop if you're travelling through the Luberon wine region in Provence: the corkscrew museum in Menerbes, a lovely hill town to visit in any case. The museum is in a beautiful valley with great views.
posted by Elsie at 5:46 PM on February 22

The MV Museum just moved to a new, huge location, so a lot more of their eclectic collection can be displayed.
posted by vrakatar at 6:18 PM on February 22

collection might have more to do with the accidents of local history and donor hobby horses than with a mainstream curatorial vision.

Why not visit Moundsville, WV? While we initially planned to pass through on a trip to Indiana with a stop for the historic prison tour, we also visited the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, and the mound's associated museum.
Where else could I see the following: Non-creepy dolls someone's grandma dressed up - a sample of almost all the Fiestaware made prior to the 1990s - Creepy dolls - Glass sculptures - Adena era tribal artefacts - high school art - and dioramas old enough to be museum exhibits themselves?

It's actually a very sweet town to stop in for a long afternoon.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:26 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

In Glover, Vermont check out the Museum of Everyday Life. It is located on the side of Route 16 just south of town and features exhibits on locks and keys, toothbrushes and dust, among other items. From there I'd go to the Bread and Puppet Museum which is a huge old barn full of incredible paper mache puppets from years of performances. If you are there on a Sunday or Friday in the summer you can catch one of the shows. The Fairbanks Museum in St Johnsbury is more of a natural history collection and a planetarium which they've just renovated. Over in Waitsfield there is the Madisonian Museum of Industrial Design, which has been on my list for a few years now.
posted by bookrach at 7:19 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]

How about Fruitlands in Harvard,MA, the short term childhood home of Louisa May Alcott during one of her father's utopian experiments?

My understanding of the place is that a wealthy woman bought the land on which Fruitlands stands, without knowing it was there. When she found it in the brush, she ended up making over the family home entirely (it had become very decrepit) in such a way that it's been difficult to glean what it was like in Louisa May Alcott's time. But it does include some interesting family items, including Louisa's mom's old slipper. The owner of the estate eventually imported other buildings and artefacts so that there is also a Quaker pharmacy, a Native American museum, a good-sized collection of Hudson River school paintings, and an awesome collection of early 20th century clothing. And even if none of that thrills you, walking the grounds is free and affords a beautiful view to the west (as well as the sounds of artillery from nearby Fort Devens if you're there the right day).
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:09 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

I went to the Hiller Aviation Museum, down the road from San Francisco, a few months back to pass the afternoon with a friend. I wasn't expecting much, but it turns out to be down the road from where a factory made some of the earliest helicopters. There's a lot of them on exhibit and they're fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:27 PM on February 22

Both of these thanks to helloknitty:

Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

Independence, MO: Leila's Hair Museum
posted by jjray at 8:29 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

The Bily clock/Dvorak museum in Spilville IA
The banjo museum in Oklahoma city
posted by brujita at 1:20 AM on February 23

If you are ever in Decatur Illinois, for two dollars you can tour the Hieronymus Mueller Museum and learn about his many inventions and his link to the Panama Canal.
posted by SyraCarol at 2:24 AM on February 23

In Minnesota, north of the Hinckley Fire Museum (SO GOOD), you can also visit the house turned into the Judy Garland Museum. Keep driving to the (I think; am on phone) American Bear Center in Ely, MN.

When you return to the Twin Cities, go see the dioramas at the newly redone Bell Museum.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:22 AM on February 23

Clearfield PA has the Grice Museum - a collection of old and rare cars plus lots of taxidermy. I know it sounds like a weird combination but it's an expanded version of a whole lot of garages in rural PA.
posted by maurice at 7:46 AM on February 23

The Les Paul in Mahwah exhibit at the Mahwah Museum in North Jersey is worth seeing!
posted by limeonaire at 10:05 AM on February 23

Ooh I hope Les Paul invented the Wah Wah in Mahwah!

Also, the City Reliquary in Brooklyn, NY is pretty entertaining. And in Manhattan, the Mmuseumm which is entirely located inside a freight elevator.
posted by moonmilk at 12:34 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]

On the water in Portland, Maine, is the International Cryptozoology Museum, the only museum dedicated to cryptids -- that is, animals whose existence has not been substantiated. The exhibits at this little gem of a museum prove that the category includes but is far from limited to the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster. Just a quarter-mile walk from the Concord Trailways and Amtrak Downeaster station!
posted by virago at 4:54 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]

The Mad Max 2 museum in Silverton Australia blew my mind so much I drove the 13 hours from Sydney to visit it a second time.
posted by channey at 10:58 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]

The Main Street Museum in White River Junction, Vermont, is wonderful.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:20 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

Lots of great responses here! Too many for a best answer (though I was tickled that the first response was just a few blocks from my house).
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 12:52 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

It's been several years since I've been there, but I recall enjoying the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan.
posted by BeBoth at 1:23 PM on February 25

If you ever make it across the Atlantic, go to the UK's own Pencil Museum (does what it says on the tin), which is in the Lake District and there is plenty more stuff to see there.

If that's a bit dull, you can visit the Paul A Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum near Columbus, OH.
posted by revgeorge at 12:14 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]

Time to shine for my home state of Indiana!

National Model Aviation Museum in Muncie, Indiana.

Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.

Hall of Heros super hero figurine museum in Elkhart, Indiana.

The USA's only Vice President Museum: The Dan Quayle Center in Huntington, Indiana.

RV and Mobile Home Hall of Fame Museum also in Elkhart, Indiana.

Cookie Jar Museum in Metamora, Indiana.

James Dean and Jim Davis (of Garfield fame) both from Fairmount, Indiana. The Fairmount Museum celebrates them both.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 3:26 AM on February 28

Don’t forget the Mütter Museum of Human Abnormalities if you’re in Philadelphia. Or the Plumbing Museum and the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 2:49 PM on February 28

Birds of Vermont Museum! Hand carved birds!
posted by jessamyn at 11:42 AM on March 1

Durham, NC is home to the Tuba Museum, which has not only tubas but also sousaphones and euphoniums!
posted by ardgedee at 11:21 AM on March 6

I have a sad update concerning my earlier recommendation. The governor of Alaska is proposing that the Sheldon Jackson Museum be sold.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:02 AM on March 13

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