America’s Most Unusual Museums

Courtesy of Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia

Museums are often considered a staid affair: Visitors walk through walls lined with paintings, sift through historic documents, or look at artifacts behind sheets of glass. But some institutions stray from the norm and offer more than your textbook visiting experience. Whether you’re browsing terrible paintings at Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, or encountering life-size aliens at New Mexico’s UFO Museum & Research Center, you’ll find yourself enlightened—and entertained. Here are our picks for America’s most unusual museums.

By Emily Wasserman

Used with permission of MOBA, www.MuseumOfBadArt.org

Museum of Bad Art

WHERE: Boston

Most art is subjective—but at Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, the art is objectively terrible. The museum features work from artists who have somehow missed the mark, and divides its collection into different problem areas: “Portraiture” includes drawings with distorted faces and bodies, while “Unseen Forces” features bizarre paintings and sculptures that represent the human psyche. Each piece includes a short narrative that highlights the work’s questionable origins.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Boston Guide

“The Brain of Albert Einstein
Evi Numen, 2011, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia”

Mutter Museum

WHERE: Philadelphia

Only those with a strong stomach should brave Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum: Run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the museum features hundreds of anatomical and pathological specimens, including 139 skulls and a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s neck tissue. Visitors can get an up-close look at the tallest skeleton on public exhibition in the United States, and browse medical instruments dating back to the 19th century.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Philadelphia Guide   

Courtesy of Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

WHERE: Alexandria, VA

Take a trip back in time at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria. Founded in 1792, the museum was once a popular apothecary shop with customers like Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee. Today, the museum features a historic collection of medical equipment and memorabilia, and visitors can browse the largest collection of apothecary bottles in the United States.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Alexandria Guide

Courtesy of National Mustard Museum

The National Mustard Museum

WHERE: Mount Horeb, WI

Founder Barry Levenson first had the idea for Wisconsin’s National Mustard Museum during a trip to an all-night supermarket. Since then, Levenson has amassed more than 5,000 jars of prepared mustard from 70 countries, and offers visitors free samples at the museum’s tasting bar. Flavors range from spicy to sweet, and include favorites like tequila and wasabi.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Wisconsin Guide

Courtesy of Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia

WHERE: Burlingame, CA

Indulge your inner child at the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia. The tiny, two-room museum features a colorful collection of Pez dispensers dating back to the 1950s, and boasts the world’s largest Pez dispensing machine—a towering white snowman. Owner Gary Doss gives visitors private tours, and entertains with Pez trivia and collectors’ tips.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's San Francisco Guide   

Leila’s Hair Museum

WHERE: Independence, MO

Founded by a former hairdresser, Leila’s Hair Museum features an impressive collection of art pieces made entirely from human hair. Visitors can browse jewelry and wreaths dating back to the Victorian period, and rare collectables with locks of celebrities’ hair. Rare items include a mourning brooch with strands from an early American statesman, and a framed portrait with Michael Jackson’s hair.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Missouri Guide

UFO Museum & Research Center

WHERE: Roswell, NM

Life-size aliens and flying saucers abound at Roswell’s UFO Museum & Research Center. Located in an old movie house, the museum features extra-terrestrial memorabilia and souvenirs that depict the infamous 1947 UFO crash. Watch videotaped accounts from locals who claim to have seen the incident, or browse exhibits about crop circles, astronauts, and alien abductions.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Roswell Guide

Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum

WHERE: McLean, TX

Two giant spheres of barbed wire greet visitors at the entrance of the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum. The believe-it-or-not museum features more than 2,000 variations of wire, and offers guests an inside look at fencing. Visitors can browse patent models, view wire tools, or take a closer look at historical memorabilia.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Texas Guide

By Laurascudder [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license], via Wikimedia Commons

The Circus World

WHERE: Baraboo, WI

For anyone who has wanted to run away with the circus, Wisconsin’s Circus World is the perfect escape. Located on site of the original Ringling Bros. Circus, the museum features a variety of artifacts—including more than 210 wagons and vehicles from international circuses. In addition to browsing exhibits, visitors can also partake in circus activities and watch big top performances.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Wisconsin Guide

Courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD.

National Museum of Health and Medicine

WHERE: Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is not for the faint of heart: Founded in 1862 to document the effects of war wounds and disease, the museum houses a rare collection of medical artifacts and human remains. Exhibits include preserved organs and pathological specimens, and guests can also get an up-close look at some of the nation’s most famous artifacts: The presidential collection showcases the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, as well as pieces of his skull.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Washington, D.C. Guide

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum

WHERE: Gatlinburg, TN

Most of us take salt and pepper for granted—but Gatlinburg’s Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum elevates the duo to an art form. Founder Andrea Ludden was inspired by her mother’s collection of salt and pepper sets, and used her background as an archaeologist to collect more than 20,000 salt and pepper shakers for the museum. Shakers are arranged by category and color, and the collection ranges from vegetables and Amish farmers to lobster claws and antlers.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Tennessee Guide

International Cryptozoology Museum

WHERE: Portland, ME

Come face to face with a life-size Bigfoot at Portland’s International Cryptozoology Museum. The museum features more than 10,000 artifacts and archeological remnants that try to prove the existence of mythological creatures. Director Loren Coleman guides visitors on a tour through his bizarre menagerie, including Yeti footprints, Fiji mermaids, and a taxidermy fur-bearing trout. Visitors can also browse glass-enclosed exhibits with “living fossils” of swamp creatures and apes.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Portland Guide

Courtesy of International Spy Museum

International Spy Museum

WHERE: Washington, D.C.

Located steps away from some of the nation’s most classified agencies, the International Spy Museum offers an inside look at espionage. The museum is home to the world’s largest collection of spy artifacts, and museum advisers include former CIA, FBI, and KGB operatives. Visit the “Secret History of History” exhibit for a behind-the-scenes look at spy operatives, or walk through a maze of mirrors to learn about Cold War espionage. Participate in your own high-stakes mission in “Operation Spy,” a one-hour simulated foreign intelligence operative.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Washington, D.C. Guide

National Museum of Funeral History

WHERE: Houston

Bring a tissue to Houston’s National Museum of Funeral History. The museum holds the country’s largest collection of funeral service artifacts, and features exhibits on everything from mourning rituals to presidential funerals. Take a trip through time in the “History of Embalming” exhibit, where visitors can view Egyptian mummification tools and a Civil War-era embalming station. “Ghana and Fantasy Coffins” features 12 custom-designed resting places, including a Mercedes Benz, shallot, and a KLM airliner.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Houston Guide

Image © by Museum of Sex

Museum of Sex

WHERE: New York City

It doesn’t get much kinkier than New York’s Museum of Sex. The 14,000-square-foot museum contains predictable items like pornographic photos and S&M paraphernalia, but also gives sex a serious treatment with exhibits: Visitors can explore topics ranging from desire on the Internet to the sex lives of animals. The museum is also home to the Play Bar, which serves a wide range of sex-inspired cocktails and entrées. A word to the wise: The museum only admits visitors over 18.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's New York City Guide