Wisconsinites, it seems, are particularly good at taking a hobby and elevating it to unheard-of levels.
When you think about something Wisconsin has in abundance, you likely think about cheese, beer, cranberries, and residents with a penchant for donning green-and-gold on Sunday. What you might not think about, however, is the prolific number of hyper-specific museums. Sprinkled through the state are oodles of eclectic museums that focus on one theme (like mustard, clowns, and yo-yos) and build showrooms that explore every conceivable facet of that topic. Here are just a handful that we find particularly fun.
Top Picks for You
National Mustard Museum
While leaving his hotel in Washington D.C., Barry Levenson, who was then the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin, saw a mini jar of mustard on a room service tray in the hallway and decided to take it. He argued a case before the Supreme Court with the stolen mustard in his pocket and when he won, he decided to devote his life to mustard and mustard memorabilia. In 1992, he opened the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb (coincidentally the self-proclaimed Troll Capital of the World), before moving to Middleton in 2009 and renaming it the National Mustard Museum. There he has over 6,000 mustards from all 50 states and more than 80 countries, as well as hundreds of items of memorabilia.
World of Accordions
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a state with so many German immigrants has an affinity for accordions–the instrument and polka music go hand-in-hand. What is surprising is the sheer breadth of this exhibit. The myriad displays at World of Accordions are organized to show the chronological evolution of the musical device and include over 1,300 pieces (not including the non-musical artifacts that aim to show the apparatus’ lasting impact on the world and the scores of sheet music). Also housed there is the Accordion-concertina Repair and Technicians’ School that trains and certifies repairmen.
Evangeline Bergstrom, the story goes, loved paperweights. Specifically, one that her grandmother kept in the parlor that had resplendent colors and patterns. When her grandmother died, she sought out the ornament as something to remember her grandmother by, but couldn’t find it in her home. Years later, when she was 63-years-old, she found a similar one to the one she knew as a child and scooped it up. It was the start of a collection that would grow to over 3,000 pieces and would tour the Midwest before it’s permanent home was constructed.
National Brewery Museum
Considering Wisconsin birthed the likes of Miller Brewing Company and Pabst Blue Ribbon (companies that are 165-years-old and 176-years-old, respectively), it makes sense that they take beer and its history seriously. It’s also appropriate that the National Brewery Museum is found in a historical brewery–which means when you’re done exploring the exhibits on everything from bottles, cans, and labels to coasters, glassware, signage, and memorabilia, you can meander downstairs for a cold pint.
In the twilight hours of railroad circuses, the personal attorney to the Ringling brothers, John M. Kelley was faced with two choices: retire or find a way to keep the big-top spirit alive. He decided on the latter and over the next decade built the Circus World Museum where the original Ringling spectacle wintered. Now 70-plus years later, visitors can walk among the nearly 300 authentic and restored circus wagons (the collection accounts for two-thirds of all remaining wagons!), pursue vintage posters dating back to 1884 from a variety of companies, watch a three-ring circus performance, and entertain their own ringmaster fantasies.
Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum
You can’t be up a creek without a paddle at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum–mostly because they have hundreds. Open since 1979, the exhibits show the evolution and minute differences between boats designed in the Midwest, the eastern seaboard, and Canada. They also boast a canoe shop that’s intended to inspire and educate the next generation of wooden boat builders. Each Memorial Day weekend they kick off the summer with a boat show and construction demonstrations.
National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame
While every Wisconsinite has an “it was this big” fishing story, the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame has them all beat. Here they have a musky that’s half a city block long and four-and-a-half stories tall. Sure, it’s made of concrete, steel, and fiberglass, but it looks fairly lifelike. It also happens to be the museum. Guests walk into the fish near its tail (it’s gaping maw is a viewing platform) and can examine the more than 50,000 sportfishing historical and vintage artifacts ranging from lures to rods to accessories. There are also over 300 mounted fish and 1,000 vintage motors on display.
International Clown Hall of Fame
If you’ve already visited Circus World and aren’t done clowning around (ba-dum-tss), the International Clown Hall of Fame is just around the corner. Fittingly, the current owner is a clown and half of the comedy team, Steve & Ryan. Displays run the gamut from a trunk full of clown shoes and racks of costumes to portraits, and of course, many, many red noses.
National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
One of the newest museums on this list (and perhaps the only one that came to fruition through a successful crowdfunding campaign), the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum claims to be the largest collection of bobbleheads in the world, with exhibits on the history of the tchotchke, how the wobbling ornament is made, and more. They also sell merch ranging from figurines of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Chicago Bulls’ Benny the Bull to Carole Baskin.
Spinning Top and Yo-Yo Museum
This museum is one of the few where people are encouraged to touch the displays–it’s home to over 2,000 spinning tops, yo-yos, and other antique toys. They’re serious about spinning toys, and their dedication to their skillset has paid off. Employee Judith Sculz is credited with teaching Hollywood stars how to spin tops for movie scenes (she’s also been the spinning stand-in–her accuracy knows no match). Her biggest production was My Summer Story, the sequel to the holiday classic A Christmas Story (and yes, there are props from the movie at the museum).