10 Weirdest Museums You Really Should Visit
By: Laurie L. Dove
Some museums get all the glory. There’s the Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum (9.7 million guests in 2012) [source: Torre]. Other big names include the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These museums may bring to mind stately architecture, dignified collections and scholarly discussions in hushed tones.
Then there are the other museums, ones in which quirky is king. These 10 admittedly offbeat attractions on our list are in a category all their own. They may not draw the same number of visitors as their well-known cousins, but they showcase idiosyncratic treasures ranging from tapeworms to toilet seats, and breast-enlargers to Bigfoot prints. And that’s impressive, too, in its own way.
Thousands of visitors tour the Alamo in San Antonio, each year, unaware that within easy reach of the historic site marking a pivotal siege in the 1836 Texas Revolution lies another attraction: a one-man museum in a one-car garage featuring folk art created entirely on toilet seats.
Barney Smith, a retired plumber who once picked up a used toilet seat and saw a blank canvas, is the Toilet Seat Art Museum’s proprietor and sole artist. Since his initial flash of inspiration, Smith has crafted more than 1,000 works of art by affixing found objects to toilet seats in homage to everything from cosmetic dentistry to Michael Jackson. There’s even a toilet seat layered with volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.
Smith, born in 1921, is as much a draw as his folk art. He opens the museum by appointment, sweeps the front walk before visitors arrive and is quick to explain his intent behind each piece in the carefully archived collection (which, by the way, is not for sale). He’s made arrangements for his toilet seat art to live on, long after he dies. One of Smith’s daughters has been charged with taking over museum operations until the Bemis Co., a toilet seat manufacturer, transfers the exhibit to its Sheboygan Falls, Wisc., headquarters [source: Roadside America].
Why go to the art gallery when You could embark on a visually stunning tour of the world’s largest collection of parasites? Established in 1953 as a research facility by Satoru Kamegai, M.D., the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, Japan, is devoted to parasite still life: ticks, tapeworms, infected fish, diseased reptiles, all encapsulated in jars of preserving solution.
Although the museum is small and the exhibit descriptions that accompany its 60,000 specimens are written in Japanese, there’s something universal about viewing the world’s longest tapeworm. A 29-foot (9-meter) tapeworm doesn’t really require explanation [source: Meguro Parasitological Museum].
Don’t be surprised if, in this otherwise quiet neighborhood, You find Yourself among the many couples who inexplicably flock to the offbeat museum on date night and linger in its gift shop. Who wouldn’t want a parasite-themed T-shirt to remember the occasion?
A “psychograph” machine to diagnose Your personality through measuring bumps on Your head. A “therapy chair” powered by electricity that rattled and claimed to cure constipation. They’re both on display at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.
Housed within the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, the collection showcases devices of questionable medical worth –- items that, absent of actual research, were designed to cure any number of physical or mental ailments.
Some of them are good for a laugh. But others were truly dangerous. During the late 1940s and 1950s, shoe-fitting X-ray machines showed shoppers images of their feet in shoes — all the while leaking radiation. By the 1970s, the devices had been banned in 33 states and regulated out of practicality in the remaining 17 states. However, one such machine, still being used by employees and patrons, was discovered in a West Virginia department store in 1981. It’s now, fittingly, on display at the museum [source: Museum of Quackery].
The 300 items from the Museum of Questionable Devices were donated to the Science Museum of Minnesota after the curator Bob McCoy retired in 2002. In 2014, just a portion of the questionable devices are on display. However, a larger traveling exhibit is being developed over the next few years [source: Science Museum of Minnesota].
In what is reportedly the only museum of its kind in the world, more than 800 ventriloquist figures stare glassy-eyed at visitors. The Vent Haven Museum (“vent” is slang for ventriloquist) in Fort Mitchell, Ky., has become a pilgrimage for hobbyists who employ the use of dummies.
William Shakespeare Berger, an amateur ventriloquist (and president of the Cambridge Tile Company), began collecting the figures as a hobby, and allowed visitors and other ventriloquists to stop by his home to see them. After his death in 1972, a museum officially opened in 1973 [source: Vent Haven Museum].
The diverse exhibition includes ventriloquist figures reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and a busty blonde named Christine. Displays dedicated to ventriloquists of the past (Edgar Bergen) and present (Jeff Dunham) are also featured [source: Truman].
The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pa., opened in 1863 after Thomas Dent Mutter, M.D., donated his collection of medical specimens and equipment for research and education. Today, the ever-growing and exceedingly diverse collection of medical abnormalities is tastefully displayed in the museum’s stately marble and oak halls. There’s a plaster cast of “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng, a 7-foot, 4-inch (2-meter, 10-centimeter) skeleton, and a display of 2,000 objects removed from people’s throats [source: Visit Philly, Mutter Museum].
The Mutter Museum’s collection has grown to include medical oddities, antique medical equipment and scores of anatomical and pathological specimens. Notably, the Mutter Museum is home to preserved and deformed infants, a 9-foot-long (3-meter-long) human colon distended with 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of feces (You can buy a plush version in the museum gift store), and wax models exhibiting puzzling conditions such as a woman with a horn sprouting from her forehead. Perhaps the museum’s most famous inhabitant is the “Soap Woman,” the remains of a 19th century woman believed to have died of yellow fever. After her burial in soil that contained a specific mix of chemicals, she turned to soap, was later uncovered during a construction project — and now resides at the Mutter Museum [source: Roadside America].
The Phallus Museum goes to great lengths to present an impressive collection, one that features phallic specimens from nearly all the land and sea mammals whose species live in the country. More than 215 penises and related parts line the museum’s galleries, including those belonging to mice and whales. Lest the collection go unfinished, four men have legally donated their penises upon death.
The museum was founded by Sigurdur Hjartarson, a former principal and teacher, whose interest in the field was piqued when he received a pizzle — a whip made of a bull’s penis. The museum is now curated by his son, Hjortur Gisli Sigurosson, a self-proclaimed second-generation phallologist.
In keeping with the curator’s inspiration, be sure to stop by the gift shop before You leave. You won’t find a pizzle, but You will find an assortment of designer condoms, and penis-shaped bottle openers [source: The Icelandic Phallological Museum].
Located in the basement of the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass., is the Museum Of Bad Art (MOBA), a tribute, as its Web site says, to “art too bad to be ignored.” (There’s a second location in the Brookline Access Television lobby).
Some of the featured works in the aptly named museum include a dachshund juggling brightly colored bones while wearing a hula skirt, a painting of a nude woman riding a crustacean and a spewing Rubik’s cube. Then there’s the obviously titled painting, “Sunday on the Pot with George,” depicting a middle-aged man in tighty-whities at repose on the toilet (which leads to a number of additional questions, actually).
The best part (if You’re into belly laughs) may be the interpretive descriptions accompanying each piece. It’s a high compliment to the art recovered from thrift stores, garage sales and trash bins by the museum’s enthusiastic volunteers [source: Museum of Bad Art].
The museum’s exhibition includes 20,000 pairs of shakers and was founded in 2001 by Rolf and Andrea Ludden, a husband-and-wife team comprising a jewelry designer and archaeologist, respectively. Their massive collection began when friends saw a few sets they’d purchased set on a windowsill. They mistakenly believed the couple was collecting salt and pepper shakers and began showing up with scores of seasoning sets. Before long, the Luddens began actively adding to their collection, too.
The Luddens’ largest set is 30 inches (76 centimeters) tall, carved of wood, both items topped with the likeness of a pineapple. The smallest set is made of silver, with the capacity to hold only a smidgen of salt or pepper. Some of the sets are cast of pewter, while others are ceramic, painted with 14-karat gold. Perhaps the collection’s most valuable pair is made of Depression-era glass, thought to be worth thousands. There are shakers shaped like toilets, skulls, alligators, feet, dachshunds, flamingoes and several with moving parts, including a lawnmower and kitchen mixer [source: Henderson].
To make additional room for the ever-growing collection, and with an eye toward a retirement nearer their European roots, the Luddens opened a second Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Guadalest, Spain in 2010 [source: The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum].
There are more than 10,000 items in the museum’s collection, which is devoted to the study of hidden or unknown animals. Notable items on exhibit include a baby Bigfoot, a fur-covered human-like doll, and dozens of plaster casts allegedly made from Bigfoot footprints. Also on display are the wooden feet the late Ray Wallace — the man credited with coining the term “Bigfoot” — used to make fake footprints, which he would later call attention to during a number of Bigfoot sightings [sources: Live Science, International Cryptozoology Museum].
Don’t be fooled into thinking the International Cryptozoology Museum is all about Sasquatch, though. There is a sample of Yeti hair and plaster casts of the Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp Monster (later determined to be alligator prints), as well as a creepy movie prop of a “Fiji Mermaid,” which was billed as part ape and part fish. The museum, which doesn’t take itself too seriously, also stocks artifacts like a Jackalope, a fictional rabbit with antlers, and a fur-covered trout [source: Live Science].
Ever wondered whether ancient Mesopotamians ate sorbet or pondered the role frozen desserts played in the 16th century? Your curiosity is about to be satisfied, deliciously. From the earliest iced treat recipes to modern gelato artists, the Carpigiani Gelato Museum in Bologna, Italy, offers a comprehensive nod to la dolce vita. It’s a fitting tribute to a dessert that came into its own when the Medici family in Florence, Italy, hosted a contest to find the tastiest frozen treat in the 1500s. The icy fruity mixture that won evolved into the milky sweet concoction known as gelato [source: Why Gelato].
The museum is located inside the headquarters of Carpigiani, which manufactures ice cream machines and equipment. The Gelato Museum displays a collection of gelato machines, showcases an interactive tour on the history of gelato, and of course, offers plenty of samples. The adjacent Gelato University offers hands-on lessons in gelato creation. In addition to familiar flavors like cookies and cream and Nutella, don’t be surprised if You encounter an original concoction a student dreamt up minutes earlier like figs or drunken cherries [source: Gelato Museum Carpigiani, Long].
To say I appreciate museums is an understatement. I’ve planned vacations around museum locations, made itineraries based on museum hours and, once, I lingered so long in London’s National Gallery I thought I might be locked in overnight (not a bad thing, really). I’m also a big fan of the odd, which made learning more about the world’s 10 weirdest museums all the more interesting. It’s difficult to select a favorite on this list, but the Toilet Seat Museum ranks near the top — for the authenticity of its owner and the sincerity of his work.
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10 Weirdest Museums You Really Should Visit