Today’s Obsession: Weird Museums!
A number of years ago I was visiting a friend in Minneapolis. Having never been there before, I made the rounds of all of the big museums—the Walker, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the like. They were all great, but while wandering around we found the best of all—The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. This little place, tucked in a cramped space below street level in downtown Minneapolis, was jaw-droppingly bizarre and wonderful. The work of collector Bob McCoy, it had some of the strangest medical quackery ever created, with fabulous names like The MacGregor Rejuvenator and The Relaxacisor. We got our heads examined by The Psycograph (an antique phrenology machine) and read up on Doctor Bell’s Electro Appliance for Men. (It’s worn around the waist—I’ll just leave it at that.) It was truly one of the best—and weirdest—collections I’ve ever seen. *
That visit was the beginning of my bizarre museum mania. Any place where people have gathered some kind of collection, I’d go. I started scouring the country, looking for those odd little places (bonus points if they had a gift shop!), and wow, did I find some doozies.
Let’s start with the museums dedicated to food. It’s no surprise that people can become fanatic about certain foods, but some of these places are just off the charts.
- Take the Jell-O brick road to the Jello Museum and Gallery in historic LeRoy, New York. Although the exhibit seems to focus on Bill Cosby’s influence as their spokesperson, it does look like it has an awesome gift shop!
- See the world’s largest Pez dispenser and more at the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia just south of the San Francisco Airport. As a bonus, you can also check out the Wheel-Os and Tinker Toys at the Classic Toy Museum.
- One word: SPAM. Sixteen thousand square feet of wonderfulness, all dedicated to the delicious treat. I have to admit, this is one damned impressive museum.
- With exhibits about pecan candy and barbecue, not to mention an entire gallery dedicated to absinthe, what else could it be but the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
- It’s all mustard, all the time at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin!
- Just a few states over, in Blackfoot, Idaho, is (you guessed it) the Potato Museum. They even have a potato signed by Dan Quayle—how can you go wrong?
- I’m a Pepper, He’s a Pepper … and this museum’s a Pepper. Yup, an entire museum dedicated to that 10-2-4 drink, Dr. Pepper, in Waco, Texas.
Okay, enough of that—there are at least 200 more food museums, and we don’t have all day. Let’s move on to the gems in America’s Heartland (and a few beyond). The Midwest is an absolute treasure trove of strange museums and attractions. From tractors to prisons, it’s all out there.
- I wonder if they give tractor rides at the John Deere Museum in Moline, Illinois.
- For the criminally minded, you can check out the Capital Punishment exhibit at the Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas.
- Barbed wire—lots of it!—at the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas.
- Elkhart, Indiana, is the proud home of The Recreational Vehicle and Manufactured Housing Museum and Hall of Fame, dedicated to “honoring the pioneers who have made contributions to the RV/MH industries.” Hopefully they have places to sit—the excitement of the Hall of Fame exhibit might just be too much for you.
- Since I’m still harboring my childhood fantasy of being a roller derby queen, I think I need to make a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to see the National Museum of Roller Skating.
- Ok, I’ll admit it—I actually want to see the exhibit on embalming during the Civil War at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas. Who wouldn’t?
- The World’s Smallest Museum in Superior, Arizona, says you can take “a step back in time and a stroll down Memory Lane/Waterfall Avenue!” I’m not quite sure what that means, either, but apparently this mini-museum honors the “world’s extra-ordinary workforce.” Hm.
- It’s worth the price of admission just to take your picture next to the utterly creepy “Wall of the Fallen” statue at The International Towing and Recovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
- If tow trucks aren’t your thing, for the more dainty among us there is the Lace Museum in Sunnyvale, California. Although I’ll admit, hundreds of lace samples exclusively from the West might be even too, well, “special” for me.
- Last, but certainly not least: why go all the way to Denmark to see some Lego when you can visit Bellaire, Ohio’s famous Toy and Plastic Brick Museum, featuring—for the first time in over ten years!—the Lego Soccer City! (I have no idea why, but they seem pretty jazzed about that.)
You say sideshows and carnival attractions are your thing? Here, for your edification, are a few attractions that would make P.T. Barnum’s head swivel.
- Given the fact that I have a gigantic phobia about ventriloquist dolls, the Vent Haven Museum, the world’s only (thank god) museum dedicated to ventriloquism, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, is definitely not on my list of must-sees. I nearly had a heart attack when I clicked on Jacko, this month’s featured doll.
- It’s Wild! It’s Incredible! Prepare to be shocked and amazed at the Palace of Wonders Sideshow Museum in Washington, D.C.
- You can bring home a permanent souvenir when you visit Baltimore’s Tattoo Museum—it’s both a museum and a functioning tattoo studio. (Just promise me you won’t get a tattoo of Jacko.)
- Strange medical exhibits and oddities are the bill of fare at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Chock full of antique medical equipment that will scare the bejesus out of you and medical oddities by the score (including a 9-foot human colon filled with 40 pounds of fecal matter, originally from a sideshow act called the Human Balloon), you need a steel stomach for this place.
- There’s a lot of ogling going on at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nevada. You can even book a weekend there. My favorite artifact: The Bazoomers Fan Club Card.
One last museum, from the religion arena:
In Mansfield, Ohio, sitting across the street from the old Ohio state prison, where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, is the wondrously quirky Living Bible Museum. I admit, I really just wanted to go because at the time I was collecting tacky religious memorabilia and desperately wanted a t-shirt from this place. I dragged my mom and my sister to it, telling them that we were just going to run through the museum and hit the gift shop—but oh, no. The only way to get through museum, which is actually a series of tableaux from the bible created with store mannequins, is to be escorted by a guide. So the three of us—the only three people in the entire museum, mind you—had to stand there in utter reverence, while our solemn guide pressed a button and lit up each scene, biting our lips to keep from giggling at the wise men decked out in Dolly Parton wigs and the booming “voice of god” recorded narration. It went on forever—there must have been at least 70 of those damned tableaux. I seriously thought my sister was going to kill me.
It’s been years since that fateful day (I did get the t-shirt, by the way, as well as a cool viewfinder with the three wise men), and now they’ve expanded to include a dinner theater and a museum of Christian Martyrs!
I think it’s time for another trip.