All Things Weird and Wonderful
By John Rossheim for MSN City Guides
You know the feeling: You’re looking for a brief cultural diversion in town, maybe one that won’t even take up a whole morning or afternoon. You’re not up for the crush or even the decision-making that comes with a visit to a major museum, but you want to see something new and different.
Lucky for you, the U.S. of A. is dotted with an enormous variety of idiosyncratic little museums that offer a very particular slice of civilization, often from the personal point of view of a very small number of curators or curatorial subjects.
So if you’re in the mood for a serving of intellectual frisson that won’t fry your brain, these offbeat museums should be just the ticket—and a cheap or free ticket at that.
Don’t open that jar
Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum says its mission is to educate the public on medical history. But for most visitors, viewing the collection of the College of Physicians is about indulging their gruesome fascination in a unique collection of human anatomical abnormalities preserved in glass jars.
From the tumor extracted from the jaw of President Grover Cleveland to safety pins pulled from careless patients’ throats, the Mütter is a showcase of everything that can go wrong with us. It’s hard to miss the giant colon, but make sure you don’t.
The museum is also notable for its displays on the history of medicine and changing exhibits on contemporary medical science.
Step right up
New Yorkers may think of Bridgeport, Conn., as merely a bedroom community, but the city has at least one claim to fame: The Barnum Museum. This collection of artifacts from the life and work of circus impresario P.T. Barnum ranges from the marriage bed of 33-inch Tom Thumb and his 32-inch wife, to one of the most elaborate hand-carved miniature circuses ever created.
The three-floor edifice, built in a mix of Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque architectures, also houses Victorian toys, correspondence between the grand promoter and his would-be peers, and even an Egyptian mummy. For a small museum, the Barnum is unusually well-suited to visitors of all ages.
A one-of-a-kind collection
It’s not hard to get the bottom of the story at Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas: Smith has created more than 700 folk-art collages on the lids of commodes.
Throne covers hang from every surface of his garage, presenting assemblages of everything from keys that have lost their purpose to a million dollars’ worth of shredded legal tender, straight from the Federal Reserve Bank. Other seats collect horseshoes, eyeglasses (with a few hearing aids thrown in) and bullets. A recent addition pays tribute to Pope John Paul II.
When you want to visit, call Smith at (210) 824-7791 to arrange a time. He’ll show you his one-of-a-kind collection at no charge.
So bad it’s good?
Why a Museum of Bad Art? Because some attempts at creative expression fail so spectacularly that they fairly screech for the attention of the art-appreciating public, say the free museum’s founders.
Housed “just outside the men’s room” in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater near Boston, MOBA displays a selection of paintings which–in their color palettes, compositions and choices of subject matter—range from the unfortunate to the nearly criminal.
“Works must be original, sincere, emotionally appealing, and indisputably bad” to be included in the museum, says Louise Sacco, permanent acting interim executive director. MOBA accepts about 10 percent of works offered and says it never pays more than $6.50.
The king of kitsch
If you live in Las Vegas, you’re jaded, almost by definition. A visit to the Liberace Museum should dispel any darkness in your mood, with enough costume-jewelry-encrusted pianos and cars to light up the Strip.
A temple to supersized kitsch, the museum’s collection of automobiles includes a 1934 Mercedes Excalibur paved with rhinestones, a 200-pound King Neptune costume that Mr. Showmanship wore to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, and a ring shaped like a piano and adorned with 260 real diamonds. The museum also recreates Liberace’s bedroom in his Palm Springs, Calif., mansion.
Students can arrange in advance to view photos and other mementos from Liberace’s personal collection.
What rock celebrity do inhabitants of Portland, Ore., have to brag about? The Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals just outside the city, in Hillsboro.
It’s all about some of the most spectacular geological specimens of the Northwest and the planet: Minerals (emeralds, obsidian, rubies, rhodochrosite, rutilated quartz, lapis lazuli), fossils (a 2-foot-long Psittacosaurus baby dinosaur, a 25-million-year-old petrified white oak), meteorites and more. Oh, and don’t forget the thundereggs—the state rock of Oregon that’s like a geode born of a volcano.
Claim a chunk of Earth history—perhaps an opal or a carnelian agate—with an 80-cents-per-pound specimen from the museum’s rock pile.
Don’t touch the hair
When you’ve had enough of Independence, Mo.’s Truman Museum, try something completely different: Leila’s Hair Museum, perhaps the world’s greatest collection of jewelry and other artifacts made of human hair.
On display are hirsute necklaces, hat pins, wreathes and even hair trees, one of which resembles a palm. No pruning necessary.
Beyond the thousands of just plain curiosities, the museum gathers strands of history. “We have a mourning broach that contains a lock from Daniel Webster with 32 seed pearls representing tears, and it’s dated the day of his death,” says Linda Goldsmith, tour guide.
Duck and cover
If, like most Americans, you’re too young to remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Cold War “duck and cover” civil defense drills, you owe it to yourself to visit the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, N.M. Artifacts, photos and text dramatically illustrate the birth and youth of the atomic age and its potential to light the world with nuclear energy, advance medicine, and bring on Armageddon.
Exhibits include replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs that killed hundreds of thousands and forced Japan’s surrender, and B-29 and F-105 nuclear bombers, displayed outside.
Fear not; although the museum still gets first dibs on many nuclear weapons being decommissioned by the U.S. military, nothing radioactive makes it through the front door.
Cabinet of curiosities
The visitor shouldn’t take much at face value at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Calif. Start with the name: Given that the Jurassic period ended about 150 million years ago, “Jurassic technology” can’t be taken literally.
This small museum has developed an oversized reputation for its apparently successful efforts to stir up creative confusion and make viewers question what museums are all about. The exhibits mix science and conceptual art, often labeled erroneously—or is there some underlying truth to the “legends”?
The exhibit “Garden of Eden on Wheels” chronicles Los Angeles trailer park culture. “Mice on Toast” illustrates a purported solution to bladder control problems. “The Lives of Perfect Creatures” is about the dogs of the early Soviet space program.
Go figure; that’s what it’s all about.
John Rossheim is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience covering travel, city life, the workplace and employment trends, technology and other topics. He works from his office in Providence, R.I., through his company, Rossheim.com Inc.