The Best Offbeat Museums to Visit in All 50 States (And Washington, D.C.)
Don't get us wrong: We love museums devoted to art, history, and science as much as the next person (and maybe more than the next person). But sometimes, our curiosity demands quirkier territory. Here are our favorite institutions devoted to the stranger things in life.
Alabama // The Drive-Thru Museum
Location: Seale, Alabama
The Drive-Thru Museum isn't the kind of place where you walk around and look at all sorts of cool things. In fact, you don't even have to get out of your car at all. The popular roadside attraction, which is an offshoot of Butch Anthony’s taxidermy shop-turned-Museum of Wonder, is made from several stacked shipping containers with carefully cut windows that give visitors a clear glimpse at Anthony’s assortment of quirky treasures. So drive slowly and enjoy the views.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Hank Williams' Boyhood Home & Museum (Georgiana), Mobile Medical Museum (Mobile)
Alaska // The Hammer Museum
Location: Haines, Alaska
As the name suggests, The Hammer Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of hammers. Dave Pahl opened the museum in 2002 as a way to exhibit his impressive collection of hammers, and to educate the public on the fascinating history of the tool. Today, the museum houses more than 7000 specimens in total, approximately 2000 of which are on display at any given time.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Aurora Ice Museum (Fairbanks), Red Onion Brothel Museum (Skagway)
Arizona // World's Smallest Museum
Location: Superior, Arizona
Within this cramped, 135-square-foot shed is a host of curiosities and oddities, ranging from lighthearted bits of state pride to some pieces with real historical gravitas. The centerpiece of the museum is a large Apache tear, a semi-precious obsidian gemstone native to the area that the museum says is the largest in the world. There are also a few items that will catch the eye of any history buff, like the pins from past presidential campaigns, a piece of barbed wire from a WWII Japanese internment camp located in Chandler, Arizona, and a letter written by President John F. Kennedy.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Arizona Route 66 Museum (Kingman), Dwarf Car Museum (Maricopa), Tombstone Courthouse Museum (Tombstone)
Arkansas // Chaffee Barbershop Museum
Location: Chaffee, Arkansas
In 1958—at the height of his success—Elvis Presley traded in his blue suede shoes for a military look when he was drafted into the Army. On March 24, 1958, the King reported for duty at Arkansas’s Fort Chaffee, while media and fans camped out around the military base. The next day, Presley walked into the Chaffee Barbershop and, like his fellow soldiers, got a haircut. This barbershop-turned-museum, which is also known as the Elvis Barbershop Museum, is where it all went down. In 2008, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that fateful day, the barbershop—which still looks exactly as it did when Elvis visited—was turned into a museum so that fans around the world could celebrate this momentous occasion. In addition to Elvis-specific artifacts, including newsreel footage and a camera that was used to shoot what became known as "the haircut heard 'round the world," the museum also traces the wider history of Fort Chaffee itself, making it a great destination not just for Elvis fans but for history (and military history) buffs, too.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Walmart Museum (Bentonville), The Gangster Museum of America (Hot Springs), Maxwell Blade's Odditorium and Curiosities Museum (Hot Springs)
California // Museum of Jurassic Technology
Location: Los Angeles, California
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is no less confusing than its name suggests. Inside, visitors will find microscopic mosaics, artifacts salvaged from trailer parks, and a gallery of portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space program. Factual exhibits are mixed in with fabricated ones: One of the first items guests see is a preserved specimen of the so-called “stink ant of the Cameroon of West Central Africa"—a creature that doesn't exist. While most museums are meant to inform, every element of the Museum of Jurassic Technology is designed to make guests question their reality.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Museum of Death (Los Angeles), Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum (San Francisco)
Colorado // The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum
Location: Leadville, Colorado
The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum may possibly be the highest-altitude museum in the U.S. It's located in Leadville, Colorado—the highest incorporated city in the country (altitude 10,152 feet). That's not its most appealing feature, of course: The 25,000-square-foot "Smithsonian of the Rockies" features a walk-through replica of a mine, a model house where you can learn about all the minerals that go into your household products, and almost 20,000 historic objects, archival documents, specimens (including a real lunar rock), and more, all related to mining history, industry, and science.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys (Denver), Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum (Eaton)
Connecticut // The American Museum of Tort Law
Location: Winchester, Connecticut
Connecticut is home to plenty of unusual museums, but our favorite is devoted to a subject that rarely gets its due: tort law. The American Museum of Tort Law, founded by Ralph Nader in his hometown of Winchester, is devoted to the often under-appreciated right of Americans to sue for wrongful injury. The museum highlights how trial by jury and tort lawsuits have benefited consumers in the U.S., holding those in power responsible for dangerous and defective products, environmental disasters, and malpractice. Exhibits explore some of the most misunderstood tort cases in modern American history, like the infamous Liebeck v. McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit. A visit is sure to make you rethink your views on the American justice system. It's also a great place to get a T-shirt emblazoned with an exploding Ford Pinto.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (Mansfield), Lock Museum of America (Terryville)
Delaware // Johnson Victrola Museum
Location: Dover, Delaware
A must-see for lovers of vintage audio technology, this museum in Dover features a vintage collection of phonographs (also known as gramophones) as well as plenty of related memorabilia and recordings. It's named for Delaware native Eldridge Reeves Johnson, who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1890s and went on to produce—you guessed it—Victrolas. Docents will even put socks in the Victrolas to control volume—allegedly the origin of the phrase "put a sock in it."
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum (Fenwick Island), Marvel Carriage Museum (Georgetown)
Florida // Coral Castle Museum
Location: Homestead, Florida
The whole backstory behind Florida’s Coral Castle Museum may be even more impressive than the 1100 tons of meticulously carved coral rock that make up this museum/art installation hybrid. As the story goes, the statues were crafted by Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian immigrant who traveled to the U.S. after his 16-year-old bride-to-be canceled their nuptials the day before the wedding. Heartbroken, Leedskalnin eventually settled in Florida where he decided to create this oolite limestone monument to his estranged love, a feat that took nearly 30 years to complete. To this day, no one quite knows how the 100-pound Leedkalnin moved the massive stones—there were no witnesses to the construction. You can now view these sculptures in all their mysterious glory on the South Dixie Highway in Homestead, Florida.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Penny Lane Beatles Museum (Dunedin), Skeletons Museums of Osteology (Orlando)
Georgia // David J. Sencer CDC Museum
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a federal agency whose official mission is to work "24/7 to protect America from health, safety, and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S." The CDC's scientists work more like a team of detectives to identify public health mysteries around the world, then apply old-school investigative techniques to discover their causes—and cures. The organization's Atlanta headquarters is home to a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that traces the organization's history and hosts a range of both permanent and temporary exhibitions, like this year's "The World Unseen," which featured the work of 10 international artists who look to science—microbiology, biotechnology, anatomy, and beyond—for inspiration.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Lunchbox Museum (Columbus), Delta Flight Museum (Atlanta), Expedition Bigfoot!: The Sasquatch Museum (Blue Ridge), Waffle House Museum (Avondale Estates)
Hawaii// Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House
Location: Wailuku, Hawaii
Run by the Maui Historical Society, the Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House is located in a former girl's school and royal residence. The museum showcases artifacts from the era before native Hawaiians made contact with Westerners, including religious statues, clothing, and tools, as well as 19th-century items. It's also home to more than 100 landscape paintings by Edward Bailey (a self-trained artist who once lived in the house) and a large collection of land snail shells—the most extensive assortment of rare Hawaiian land snails anywhere.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Laupahoehoe Train Museum (Laupāhoehoe), Pacific Tsunami Museum (Hilo), Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum (Kahului)
Idaho // Idaho Potato Museum
Location: Blackfoot, Idaho
Idaho's official nickname may be "The Gem State," but everyone knows that the potato is its true claim to fame. The Idaho Potato Museum pays tribute to the simple spud. Located inside a 1912 railroad depot, the museum traces the evolution of the potato industry, covering such seminal events as the first potato planted in Idaho and the largest Pringle ever made. And when all that potato talk inevitably has you craving something starchy, the onsite Potato Station Cafe's baked potato bar has got you covered.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Oasis Bordello Museum (Wallace), Shaddow Domain Dime Museum (Idaho Falls), Butch Cassidy Museum (Montpelier), Museum of Clean (Pocatello)
Illinois // International Museum of Surgical Science
Location: Chicago, Illinois
The International Museum of Surgical Science is not the place for tourists with a weak stomach. The often-overlooked gem of a museum just north of Chicago's Magnificent Mile explores the surprisingly long history of medical surgery and features a plethora of antique medical instruments you might not want to imagine being used on you—from a replica of an ancient Roman speculum to a 16th-century Austrian amputation saw. There are also plenty of paintings, drawings, and historical artifacts related to anatomy and the practice of medicine through the centuries, from paintings of 19th-century C-sections to Napoleon's death mask to prosthetic eyeballs. On a more modern note, the museum also runs an artist's residency and hosts contemporary art exhibitions related to anatomy, the body, and other medical subjects.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Spinach Can Collectibles Popeye Museum (Chester), American Toby Jug Museum (Evanston), Busy Beaver Button Museum (Chicago)
Indiana // The Indiana Medical History Museum
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
What was once the pathology building on the grounds of the Indiana Hospital for the Insane is now a charmingly creepy museum of preserved medical artifacts and primitive equipment used during the early days of psychiatric medical research. Once inside the ominous red structure, patrons can browse a collection of preserved brains and skeletons, view heart-stopping exhibits like an early 20th-century autopsy room, and see shudder-inducing artifacts like an iron lung designed for toddlers with polio. It’s unsettling, it’s intense, and it’s an absolute must-see if you’ve got a morbid streak.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum (Elkhart), Mid-America Windmill Museum (Kendallville), Santa Claus Museum (Santa Claus)
Iowa // Matchstick Marvels
Location: Gladbrook, Iowa
Pat Acton of Gladbrook, Iowa, has chosen a highly specific medium for his artwork. He builds elaborate structures out of matchsticks, and you can view his creations at the Matchstick Marvels museum in his hometown. The models on display include recreations of Notre Dame Cathedral, the United States Capitol, and Hogwarts Castle. Most exhibits took thousands of matchsticks to build, and the largest sculptures at the museum contain over 1 million of them.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Squirrel Cage Jail (Council Bluffs)
Kansas // Strataca: The Kansas Underground Salt Museum
Location: Hutchinson, Kansas
The town of Hutchinson sits atop a huge geologic feature called the Wellington Formation. Along with its 300-million-year-old fossils, the formation is a rich source of salt, which became the basis of a thriving industry in the early 20th century. This underground museum takes visitors on a tour by tram of a massive salt mine, with subterranean chambers featuring exhibits about local geology and mining. You'll also find out why the Atomic Energy Commission considered Strataca for a nuclear waste storage site.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things (Lucas)
Kentucky // Vent Haven Museum
Location: Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
If you are afraid of clowns, dolls, or animatronic toys, do not visit the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, the world's only ventriloquism museum. Its founder, W.S. Berger—who was not a ventriloquist—collected hundreds of ventriloquist dummies and memorabilia during the first half of the 20th century. Today, the museum owns more than 900 dummies, as well as scripts, photos, recordings, and more. You can even try your skill at throwing your voice with a puppet.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (Bardstown)
Louisiana // Abita Mystery House
Location: Abita Springs, Louisiana
According to John Preble, founder of the Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs, the No.1 comment from visitors to this oddball museum is "Oh my god!" They could be reacting to any of the thousands of folk-art pieces, artifacts, or junk collections at this classic roadside attraction, from Buford the Bassigator (a half-fish, half-alligator sculpture) to the animatronic diorama of a New Orleans jazz funeral and the mosaic-paneled House of Shards.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (New Orleans), Avery Island Tabasco Museum (New Iberia)
Maine // International Cryptozoology Museum
Location: Portland, Maine
Serious scholars of cryptozoology (the study of mysterious and unknown animals, duh) come to Loren Coleman's famous museum in Portland to examine evidence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and many more pseudo-real creatures. On display: a plaster cast of a Thylacine (a.k.a. Tasmanian tiger) footprint, hair samples from Sasquatches and Abominable Snowmen, a movie prop of a FeeJee Mermaid, and the pièce de résistance—Yeti poop.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (Brunswick), Maine Coast Sardine History Museum (Jonesport)
Maryland // Havre de Grace Decoy Museum
Location: Havre De Grace, Maryland
Even if you don't know mallards from teals or canvasbacks from gadwalls, you can appreciate the artistry and skill behind this museum's collection of duck decoys. Originally a craft of necessity—duck hunters used decoys to lure actual birds within shooting range—decoy carving eventually grew into a form of folk art. Some pieces by known artists now go for more than $10,000 on eBay. At this museum on the Chesapeake Bay, you can browse fine examples, including a massive mute swan and a diminutive bufflehead.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Urology Museum (Linthicum Heights), National Cryptologic Museum (Fort Meade)
Massachusetts // Museum of Bad Art
Location: Somerville, Massachusetts
If you're tired of going to museums to admire priceless masterpieces, make a trip to the Museum of Bad Art in Somerville, Massachusetts. MOBA is dedicated to celebrating the tacky, amateur creations that usually end up in second-hand stores and trash bins. Collection titles include "Poor Traits," "Oozing My Religion," and "In the Nood." Note: The museum's gallery is currently undergoing renovations, so be sure to check with the museum before dropping by.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Plumbing Museum (Watertown), Salem Witch Museum (Salem)
Michigan // Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum
Location: Farmington Hills, Michigan
The late Marvin Yagoda’s 5500-square-foot establishment in Farmington Hills combines all the interactive childhood fun of playing games at an arcade with the mysterious, macabre fascination of exploring the animatronic oddities at a circus sideshow. Some of the coin-operated machines act out medieval torture scenes or real-life historical murders, but if mechanical horror isn’t your thing, you can always stick to traditional games like Pac-Man and Skee-Ball—and you can even trade in your tickets for prizes at the end of your visit. Admission is free, but you might end up spending your weight in quarters at this jam-packed, marvelous museum.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Michigan Air Zoo (Kalamazoo), Pickle Barrel House Museum (Grand Marais)
Minnesota // SPAM Museum
Location: Austin, Minnesota
Even if you think it’s best not to ask too many questions about canned meat, the SPAM Museum is too fantastic not to visit if you’re ever near Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of Hormel (the makers of SPAM and other meat products). Walk through vibrant displays that chronicle the history of SPAM and its perhaps surprising impact on the world since it landed in casserole dishes and military supply packs in the late 1930s. Find out how many SPAM cans tall you are, learn how to package SPAM like a factory professional, and sample some salty SPAM yourself—served on pretzel sticks to eliminate waste.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: House of Balls (Minneapolis), Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden (Minneapolis)
Mississippi // The Apron Museum
Location: Iuka, Mississippi
The secret behind America’s only museum devoted to aprons is its enthusiastic owner, Carolyn Terry. She started to build her collection from estate sales, and has now amassed more than 3500 aprons, some dating back to the Civil War era; one woman in Denmark even donated her grandmother’s dowry aprons from 1922. There’s no need to sift through placard upon placard to learn the unique, intimate details about each apron—Terry will answer any questions you might have, personalizing your museum experience based on your interests. “If you’re into art, we can look at how artists drew their aprons out. If you’re into history, we can get into the needleworks of a time period. If you’re creative, it’ll move you up a notch,” Terry told Mississippi Today. “Sometimes there are surprises.”
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Catfish Museum (Belzoni)
Missouri // Leila's Hair Museum
Location: Independence, Missouri
Next time you’re unclogging your shower drain, just remember that soggy mess of matted hair could be museum-worthy. At Leila's Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, patrons can observe the follicular beauty of wreaths (600-plus pieces), jewelry (2000-plus pieces), and other items, all made of human hair, preserving a tradition that can be traced back to the 12th century. Owner Leila Cohoon’s collection spans centuries and comes from all over the globe, with the oldest brooch in the museum dating back to 1680. Her assortment of hair art has been collected by her and her family through art auctions, garage sales, estate sales, and antique dealers, and it’s still growing to this day. (The collection, not the hair itself.)
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Titanic Museum (Branson), World's Largest Toy Museum (Branson), World’s Largest Small Electrical Appliance Museum (Diamond)
Montana // Historic Dumas Brothel Museum
Location: Butte, Montana
This two-story brick building didn't start off as a museum. In fact, it was a brothel from 1890 until 1982, making it America's longest-running house of ill repute. Now, it serves as a museum filled with historic artifacts, and the new owners are working to preserve and protect this iconic building. It's also a supposed paranormal hotspot.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: American Computer and Robotics Museum (Bozeman)
Nebraska // Hastings Museum Kool-Aid Exhibit
Location: Hastings, Nebraska
Simply being known as the birthplace of Kool-Aid wasn’t enough for the city of Hastings, Nebraska—instead, an entire wing of the city’s museum is dedicated to this sugary childhood staple. “Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream” is a crash-course in all things Kool, featuring relics from the drink’s history. Vintage advertisements, old-school merchandise, and endless packets of multi-colored powder fill display cases just blocks from where Edwin Perkins invented the drink nearly a century ago. The crème de la crème, however, may be the museum’s display of the original Kool-Aid Man suit. For novelty beverage aficionados, this is basically their Graceland.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (Grand Island), Bigfoot Museum & Research Center (Hastings), National Museum of Roller Skating (Lincoln)
Nevada // The Neon Museum
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
The Las Vegas strip has been home to an endless array of neon signs advertising everything from casinos to motels to 24-hour restaurants. The Neon Museum is a kind of retirement home for the signs, which are often massive and have intriguing stories behind them. Be sure to check out the giant pirate skull from the now-defunct Treasure Island casino and take in the splendor of the décor from the Liberace Museum.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Pinball Hall of Fame (Las Vegas), Goldwell Open Air Museum (Rhyolite), The Haunted Museum (Las Vegas)
New Hampshire // Woodman Museum
Location: Dover, New Hampshire
An eclectic display of taxidermy, old medicinal cures, and other remnants of New Hampshire history are on tap at the Woodman Museum in Dover. Four separate and historic homes (including the Damm Garrison House, the oldest house in Dover) showcase the exhibits, including a selfie-ready stuffed polar bear.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Crane’s Snowmobile Museum (Lancaster), The Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff (Portsmouth)
New Jersey // Insectropolis
Location: Toms River, New Jersey
Get a buzz on at Insectropolis, a museum in Toms River devoted to all things insect. This “bugseum” puts live and preserved creepers and crawlers on display. Now you can safely observe a beehive without having to flee.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Morris Museum (Morristown), USGA Museum (Liberty Corner)
New Mexico // American International Rattlesnake Museum
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Satisfy your curiosity for rattlers alive and dead at the American International Rattlesnake Museum, an Albuquerque den that lets you get up close and personal to these misunderstood—but still unnerving—creatures.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Toy Train Depot (Alamagordo), Roswell UFO Museum (Roswell)
New York // Jell-O Gallery Museum
Location: Le Roy, New York
The history of this gelatinous treat gets the deluxe treatment at the Jell-O Gallery Museum in its birthplace of Le Roy, New York. Check out vintage ads, marvel at the iconic boxes, and grab some unique recipes.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Kazoo Factory, Museum, and Gift Shop (Eden), Museum of Sex (New York City)
North Carolina // North Carolina Maritime Museum
Location: Beaufort, North Carolina
The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort covers nautical history in the state. From artifacts taken from Blackbeard’s wrecked flagship to the skeleton of a sperm whale, you’ll feel as though you’re practically underwater.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Brady C. Jefcoat Museum (Murfreesboro), Gourd Museum (Angier)
North Dakota // National Buffalo Museum
Location: Jamestown, North Dakota
The National Buffalo Museum is home to a 26-foot-tall, 46-foot-long, 60-ton buffalo statue named “Dakota Thunder” as well as a herd of much smaller, living buffalo (a.k.a. bison). For years, another major draw was the herd’s rare albino mother-and-son pair, White Cloud and Dakota Miracle. Though they’ve both passed away, you still have the opportunity to see an albino buffalo up close: The taxidermied White Cloud is on display inside the rustic log museum, along with other buffalo relics including a 10,000-year-old bison skull and a complete bison skeleton.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Badlands Dinosaur Museum (Dickinson)
Ohio // Lucky Cat Museum
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
According to Japanese lore, a maneki-neko—a cat figurine with its paw raised—is supposed to bring good fortune to those who look upon it. So exactly how much good fortune will seeing hundreds of lucky cats bring you? Only a visit to Cincinnati’s Lucky Cat Museum can answer this question. The collection includes Pokemon cats, Hello Kitty cats, inflatable cats, wooden cats, dancing cats, and even one with his paws crossed in an apparent act of defeatism. As museum owner Micha Robertson explained to a Cincinnati Public Radio program in 2015, she loves the cats for their eccentricity and individuality along with their alleged luck-bearing qualities.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum (Logan)
Oklahoma // Museum of Osteology
Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
After Jay Villemarette's skeleton supply company Skulls Unlimited built a reputation among academics, veterinarians, and hobbyists, he decided to open a museum nearby. His Oklahoma City-based Museum of Osteology is distinctive for a few reasons. Upon entering the building, you’ll get to see flesh-eating beetles cleaning the carrion from a soon-to-be-displayed skeleton. And, while Villemarette houses normal bones from animals like elephants, giraffes, and whales, he also exhibits plenty of bizarre ones, like those of a two-headed calf and hunchbacked human skeleton. The skeletons are also arranged in ways that suggest movement, life, and even personality—take, for example, the raccoon skeleton clutching a box of Milk Duds.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: American Pigeon Museum (Oklahoma City), Toy and Action Figure Museum (Pauls Valley)
Oregon // National Hat Museum
Location: Portland, Oregon
Celebrate the history of headgear at Portland's National Hat Museum, which features almost 2000 hats dating back to the early 1800s. Make a reservation (they're required for a visit), and a docent dressed in 19th-century attire will guide you through the collection. You'll see hats from Hollywood and famous designers, as well as millinery made from surprising materials like cork and mushrooms. You'll also learn how war and industry has literally shaped hats, and why hat-wearing is on the decline. The museum's website promises, "You will leave this experience armed with enough information to speak confidently with others on the subject of hats."
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Kidd's Toy Museum (Portland), Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals (Hillsboro)
Pennsylvania // Mütter Museum
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In the 19th century, a surgeon named Thomas Dent Mütter went out of his way to collect remarkable medical tools and specimens that could be used for education. Today that collection makes up the bulk of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The institution is home to more than 5500 medical instruments, 100 skulls, and 2300 swallowed objects removed from patients. Some oddities come from noteworthy sources: A piece of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra and Albert Einstein's brain are both on display (and you can get a peek on some things you won't see on display here).
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Mercer Museum (Doylestown), Donora Smog Museum (Donora), Living Dead Museum (Evans City), The Stoogeum (Ambler)
Rhode Island // Newport Tower Museum
Location: Newport, Rhode Island
This museum aims to answer a single question: Who built the Newport Tower? To conventional historians, the squat stone tower in the city's Touro Park resembles the remains of a windmill-type structure, and carbon dating of the building material indicates that it was constructed in the 1600s. To Jim Egan, founder of the Newport Tower Museum, the mysterious building has a more esoteric provenance. He argues that the tower was built in 1583 using a design by John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Its purpose? To serve as a celestial timekeeping device for a new English colony in what is now Rhode Island. But that colony apparently dissolved before it began, leaving a tower with few clues to its reason for being there. Find out more at Egan's jam-packed museum.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: New England Wireless & Steam Museum (East Greenwich), Edna Lawrence Nature Lab (Providence)
South Carolina // Kazoo Museum
Location: Beaufort, South Carolina
The Kazoo Museum in Beaufort contains one of the world's largest collections of the buzzy musical instrument. The historical gallery is attached to the Kazoobie Kazoo factory, so visitors can take a guided tour of the facility to see how kazoos are made from beginning to end. You can even design a kazoo to take home as a souvenir, making this museum entertaining for all ages.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Macaulay Museum of Dental History (Charleston)
South Dakota // International Vinegar Museum
Location: Roslyn, South Dakota
You may not consider vinegar the most exciting subject, but after a visit to the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, you'll hopefully have a new appreciation for the acidic liquid. The institution claims to be "the world's first and only museum dedicated to the wonder that is vinegar." In addition to educating the public about how vinegar is made and the dozens of uses for vinegar, the museum also hosts the annual Vinegar Festival.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: National Music Museum (Vermillion)
Tennessee // Chasing Rainbows Museum
Location: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
No visit to Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains would be complete without a visit to Dollywood, Dolly Parton's famed theme park in Pigeon Forge. And no visit to Dollywood would be complete without a stop at the Chasing Rainbows Museum. If you want to experience what it feels like to walk in Dolly's shoes—and see just how sparkly those sequined dresses she's so famous for are—this interactive museum offers a treasure trove of memorabilia from the singer-actress-pop culture icon's career, including a collection of her Grammy, CMA, and People's Choice Awards gowns, as well as some of her most famous costumes from movies like 9 to 5.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum (Gatlinburg), Bush's Beans Museum and Visitor Center (Dandridge), Cooter's Place Dukes of Hazzard Museum (Gatlinburg), Johnny Cash Museum (Nashville)
Texas // National Museum of Funerary History
Location: Houston, Texas
If you're the type who's more fascinated than fearful when it comes to death (or if those emotions balance each other out), you'll love the 30,500-square-foot National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. The 15 major exhibits include a collection of vintage hearses, caskets, and coffins from around the world, sections devoted to the history of cremation and of embalming, memorabilia from famous funerals, 19th-century hair art, and much more. Plus, their motto is memorable: "Any day above ground is a good one."
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Museum of the Weird (Austin), Devil's Rope Museum (McLean), Texas Prison Museum (Huntsville)
Utah // Pioneer Memorial Museum
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Next time you take a plane across the country, spare a thought for the pioneers who made the trek in Conestoga wagons. At the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City, you'll find artifacts associated with the area's early settlers, from the relatively expected (quilts, guns, a stagecoach) to the more uncanny (a jar of human teeth). They also have a large collection of Victorian-era hair art, which was an important part of 19th-century mourning traditions—key in an era where you were lucky if you didn't die of dysentery.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Museum of Ancient Life (Lehi), Hutchings Museum (Lehi)
Vermont // Museum of Everyday Life
Location: Glover, Vermont
While many museums build their collections by curating the rare and unusual, the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover does just the opposite. Everything about what they have dubbed an "exhibition barn" is different. First, it's completely self-service—you walk in on your own, turn on the lights, and leave a donation at the door. Then you make your way through the space, which is exactly what its name advertises: an assemblage of items you see and probably use every day, like a toothbrush. As the museum's website explains, "We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday." They're not kidding. But there is something about seeing these items put on display in an unheated barn in the middle of nowhere that creates a sort of contemplative experience that allows you to realize the beauty in commonplace things. A rotating series of exhibitions give context to the artifacts, explaining their history and relevance to our daily lives. You'll never look at a simple safety pin the same way again. Most importantly: Be sure to turn the lights off when you leave.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Bread + Puppet Museum (Glover)
Virginia // Poe Museum
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Once upon a midnight dreary ... Edgar Allan Poe spent his formative years in Richmond. It was here that he first began his career as an assistant editor at the Southern Literary Messenger, a literary magazine. He was fired just a few weeks later for being drunk on the job, but that didn't matter. When the building that housed the magazine was being demolished, its pieces were used to create a memorial garden to the late writer. In the nearly 100 years since the Poe Museum and Enchanted Garden were opened to the public, the museum has acquired more of "The Raven" author's personal possessions than any other institution in the world. In addition to personal artifacts, like his boyhood bed and a staircase that once stood in his childhood home, there's also a research library that is home to an enviable collection of Poe's manuscripts, personal correspondences, and first-edition copies of his work.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum (Alexandria), DEA Museum & Visitors Center (Arlington), United States Army Women's Museum (Fort Lee), Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (Alexandria)
Washington // SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention
Location: Bellingham, Washington
Take a trip through the history of electricity at the small but jam-packed SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham. The collection includes a Tesla coil, Leyden jars, Edison light bulbs, manuscripts by Galileo and Benjamin Franklin, and the largest assemblage of 19th-century electromagnetic apparatus in any private collection in the world. Many of the exhibits are interactive, and if you time your visit right, you can catch live demonstrations in the auditorium.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Of Sea and Shore Shell Museum (Port Gamble), Kelly Art Deco Light Museum (Port Townsend), the Northwest Carriage Museum (Raymond), Museum of Un-natural History (Walla Walla)
West Virginia // Mothman Museum
Location: Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Mothman is one of the more obscure cryptids to have a whole museum dedicated to him, but the fabled creature—supposedly a large man with moth-like wings—is a local celebrity in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Head to the Mothman Museum to learn about the history of the figure, from the first sightings in 1966 to how the 2002 movie, The Mothman Prophecies, made him famous.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Archive of the Afterlife (Moundsville), West Virginia State Farm Museum (Point Pleasant), Oglebay Institute Glass Museum (Wheeling)
Wisconsin // National Mustard Museum
Location: Middleton, Wisconsin
Do you feel like you just don’t quite know enough about mustard? Well, you can make those fears a thing of the past at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. Within these stone-ground walls are more than 5600 mustards from all 50 states and 70 countries. The museum is a collision of eras—ancient tins of Colman’s mustard stand alongside modern German, Scottish, and French imports you won’t find in any supermarket. You can do more than browse, though—at the National Mustard Museum you can take part in taste tests and purchase your own jars of whatever mustard you desire, curated by the museum's founder, Barry Levenson.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum (Milwaukee), A World of Accordions Museum (Superior)
Wyoming // Wyoming Frontier Prison
Location: Rawlins, Wyoming
Originally opened in December 1901, Wyoming’s first state penitentiary is a notorious relic of Western folklore. It housed more than 13,000 inmates during its existence and was known for its brutal forms of discipline designed to quell unruly inmates, including the use of a literal dungeon. When a new, more modern prison opened up nearby in 1980, the old one was declared a historic site and turned into a museum called the Wyoming Frontier Prison. Now, you can tour this abandoned prison and its seemingly endless rows of haunting, old-timey cells.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: Museum of the National Park Ranger (Yellowstone National Park), Cody Dug Up Gun Museum (Cody), Campbell County Rockpile Museum (Gillette)
Washington, D.C. // National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
Our nation's capital is overstuffed with world-renowned museums and opulent art collections. Think of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum as an antidote to the big, crowd-pleasing collections on the Mall. (Penjing is the Chinese version of Japanese bonsai). In this small, peaceful gallery on the grounds of the National Arboretum, you can browse the outdoor display of teeny-tiny trees and marvel at their resilience. Some bonsai have been "trained"—carefully shaped and pruned to a miniature size—for more than a century.
Other Offbeat Museums We Love: The Interior Museum (Washington, D.C.)
By Michele Debczak, Shaunacy Ferro, Ellen Gutoskey, Kat Long, Bess Lovejoy, Tara Rahimi, Jason Serafino, Jennifer Wood