Road Trip: 10 Unique Museums Worth Seeing
While national monuments, big-city entertainment, beaches or theme parks may be your ultimate destination, there are often quick stops along the way where you can see something new and break up your road trip.
Here are 10 museums that celebrate the unusual, from action figures and funeral history to matchsticks and aprons. If you plan to hit the road with family or friends this year, consider making a detour to one of these archives of the odd — or do your own research to find a niche museum that fits your interests (there’s sure to be one out there).
While they may not be the reason you plan the trip, these stops could be the best (or most memorable) things you see on your next vacation.
1. The Museum of Bad ArtLocation: Somerville, Massachusetts (2 miles north of Boston)This just might be the perfect stop for comic relief if your road trip takes you near Boston. Founded in 1993, it exhibits — and celebrates — artwork that is “too bad to ignore,” in the words of co-founder and permanent acting interim executive director Louise Reilly Sacco. “Our curator can’t go past a thrift store without stopping in to see what he can find,” she says. “It’s got to be sincere. If somebody sets out to make something bad, it shows, and it’s just not interesting.”Photo: “Charlie and Sheba” by Anonymous, courtesy of The Museum Of Bad Art
1. The Museum of Bad ArtWhat you need to know: The collection is housed at the Somerville Theatre. Admission to the museum, housed in the theater’s basement, is one movie ticket or a free pass from the museum.Exhibit highlight: “Sunday on the Pot With George” is Sacco’s longtime favorite piece in the museum. “It’s pointillist (a painting technique in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image), which I understand is a very difficult thing to master,” she says. “So somebody put all this work and effort into a picture of a man in his tighty whities sitting on a toilet. Why would you do that? But it’s just wonderful.”More information: www.museumofbadart.orgPhoto: “Sunday on the Pot With George” by Unknown, courtesy of The Museum of Bad Art
2. The Mütter MuseumLocation: Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaNext stop, Philly! Perhaps more on the serious side, this museum of medical history is part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and seeks to “help the public appreciate the mysteries and beauty of the human body while understanding the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease,” according to its website.Serious, however, doesn’t mean boring. A large collection of “wet specimens” like brains, plus medical instruments, bones and more are on display in a 19th century “cabinet museum” setting.Permanent exhibits include “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia;” the Hyrtl Skull Collection of 139 human skulls; and “The Soap Lady,” a young woman whose body was exhumed in Philadelphia in 1875 (a rare chemical reaction had caused her flesh to turn into a soap-like substance).Photo: Main Gallery, courtesy of The Mütter Museum.
2. The Mütter MuseumWhat you need to know: The Mütter Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission ranges from free to $18, depending on your age and status. Backpacks, luggage and strollers are not allowed inside.Exhibit highlight: This is one of only two places in the world where you can look inside the head of one of the most well-known geniuses — Albert Einstein. Sections of Einstein’s brain are part of the museum’s permanent collection.More information: www.muttermuseum.orgPhoto: The brain of Albert Einstein on display, courtesy of The Mütter Museum.
3. Vent Haven MuseumLocation: Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (5 miles south of Cincinnati)Next time you’re on a road trip near northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, plan ahead to stop at this museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. It dates back to 1973 and houses more than 900 dummies, along with photos, playbills, letters and books, according to its website. “Our tourists are usually travelers who are looking for an off-the-beaten-path type of experience,” says the museum’s curator, Lisa Sweasy. “It is the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism.”And you don’t have to be a ventriloquist to enjoy it. “I am not a ventriloquist and knew very little about it when I first heard of Vent Haven,” Sweasy says. “After 16 years of being associated with the museum, however, I would say I am very interested in its history.”Photo: Figures on display, courtesy of the Vent Haven Museum
3. Vent Haven MuseumWhat you need to know: Tours run May 1 through Sept. 30 and are by appointment only; call 859-341-0461 or email email@example.com two days in advance. Walking tours typically run 45 to 90 minutes. The admission donation is $10 per person.Exhibit highlights: This collection of dummies, puppets, scripts, photos and more features items spanning over three centuries of ventriloquism.More information: www.venthaven.orgPhoto: A display honoring ventriloquist Jay Johnson, courtesy of the Vent Haven Museum
4. Super MuseumLocation: Metropolis, IllinoisThis Superman-themed museum is a fun stop between St. Louis and Nashville. Started by Superman superfan and collector Jim Hambrick, it has more than 70,000 items on display, from toys and collectibles to movie props and costumes, according to Morgan Siebert, owner and curator of the museum. “We get people who have no interest in Superman who come along with a family member or significant other, and that person, just like everyone else, comes out amazed,” Siebert says.There’s plenty to see, she adds, as the museum is organized based on the different portrayals of the Man of Steel and covers his place in TV, film and comic book history.Photo: The museum in Superman Square, courtesy of The Super Museum
4. Super MuseumWhat you need to know: The museum is open seven days a week: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission for everyone over the age of 5 is $5. Each June, the museum and town of Metropolis host the Superman Celebration, which includes exhibits, live music, an amusement park and a costume contest.Exhibit highlights: Siebert says the first item in the museum is always a favorite: a Superman lunchbox with thermos from 1954. It was a birthday gift to 5-year-old Hambrick from his mom, and it’s what first got him interested in Superman. And, of course, you’ll want to have your picture taken standing next to the 15-foot bronze statue of the hero in Superman Square.More information: www.supermuseum.comPhoto: One of the Superman figures on display, courtesy of The Super Museum
5. Matchstick Marvels MuseumLocation: Gladbrook, IowaWho knew you could see the Notre Dame Cathedral on a road trip through the United States? It’s a small version, of course, but it’s worth a look. Artist Patrick Acton created a scale model of the Parisian landmark and many other attractions using matchsticks, and they’re on display at this museum. It’s no small feat: His model of the U.S. Capitol, for instance, is 12 feet long.“Pat [Acton] always wanted a place to showcase his work,” says museum manager JoAnn Ruopp. “When the city of Gladbrook created a building for a movie theater and city offices, they wanted to include his matchstick works. And thus, Matchstick Marvels was born.”If you can’t make it to Iowa to see these creations, you can find Acton’s work in other locations, including a full model of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! in Baltimore, Maryland.Photo: Artist Patrick Acton’s matchstick model of Notre Dame, courtesy of the Matchstick Marvels Museum.
5. Matchstick Marvels MuseumWhat you need to know: The museum, previously named Iowa’s Tourism Attraction of the Year, is open seven days a week April 1 through Nov. 30, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids ages 5-12. There is no admission fee for children under 5.Exhibit highlight: A model of the 1970 Dodge Charger from “The Fast and the Furious” movies will be the newest addition to the museum in 2019.More information: www.matchstickmarvels.comPhoto: Artist Patrick Acton working on his model of the new World Trade Center, courtesy of the Matchstick Marvels Museum.
6. Apron MuseumLocation: Iuka, MississippiIf your travels take you near the Natchez Trace Parkway or southwest Tennessee, consider a stop at the world’s only museum dedicated to aprons. Opened in 2006, the Apron Museum has amassed a collection of more than 3,000 pieces from throughout the United States and around the world.The goal of the museum, according to owner and curator Carolyn Terry, is not only to celebrate the history of this once ever-present piece of clothing, but to also tell the stories behind them. Most pieces in the collection come with a story directly from the person who donated the piece — many of them handwritten.“It’s not what you expect,” Terry says. “You probably think it is just looking at aprons and it’s boring. But it turns into history and fashion really quickly.”Photo: The museum wall soon after it opened. It now holds thousands of aprons rather than hundreds. Courtesy of the Apron Museum.
6. Apron MuseumWhat you need to know:Call 662-279-2390 to see when the museum will be open or to schedule a time to visit. Admission is $3 per person.Exhibit highlights: The museum’s collection includes two Civil War-era aprons and aprons made by Claudia McGraw, a well-known designer who even made aprons for actress Greta Garbo and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Terry’s favorite: the first aprons that she received as a little girl from her grandmother.More information: The Apron MuseumPhoto: A Claudia McGraw apron, courtesy of the Apron Museum.
7. National Museum of Funeral HistoryLocation: Houston, TexasDon’t be fooled by the name. This museum has a sense of humor, as demonstrated by its motto on its website: “Any day above ground is a good one.” Founded in 1992, it has an exhibit for almost anything related to one of “man’s oldest cultural rituals.” Celebrate the lives and deaths of celebrities and popes, explore the celebration of Día de los Muertos or gape at fantasy coffins from Ghana.Photos: Colorful coffins from Ghana on display, courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History
7. National Museum of Funeral HistoryWhat you need to know: The museum is open daily: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets range from free to $10 for adults to $7 for children ages to 6-11. Discounts are available for seniors and veterans, and there is no fee for children 5 and under.Exhibit highlights: In the exhibit on presidential funerals, you can see the original eternal flame from John F. Kennedy’s grave site in Arlington National Cemetery, as well as an authentic program from the funeral of George Washington and a full-scale recreation of Abraham Lincoln lying in state.More information: www.nmfh.orgPhotos: Intricate hearse on display, courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History
8. The Toy and Action Figure MuseumLocation: Pauls Valley, OklahomaSwing by this museum as you travel around northern Texas, Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Your kids — or your inner child — just might thank you. This museum, founded as part of an effort to attract more visitors to Pauls Valley’s downtown area, is a cornucopia of cartoon characters, superheroes, dolls and pop culture icons.Visitors will be treated to several exhibits, including a collector’s bedroom that serves as a “Where’s Waldo?” of action figures ranging from Deadpool to KISS dolls to “The Simpsons,” as well as a bat cave, original “Star Wars” toys from the 1970s and a My Little Pony exhibit.The great thing about the museum is the memories it generates, says museum director Erica Block. “Different people find different touchstones on what triggers that nostalgia for them. It’s a great place to spend a couple of hours that is not dry or academic.”Photo: One of the museum’s display walls, courtesy of The Toy and Action Figure Museum.
8. The Toy and Action Figure MuseumWhat you need to know: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. (The hours are shortened from November through February, opening at noon on Monday-Friday.) Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for children ages 3-12 (free for those 2 and under) and $5 for seniors, veterans, active military personnel and people in groups of 10 or more.Exhibit highlights: Exhibits are continually rearranged and updated. There is a dress-up area for kids and various events throughout the year.More information: www.actionfiguremuseum.comPhoto: This display at the museum is designed to look like a “collector’s bedroom,” courtesy of The Toy and Action Figure Museum
9. International Banana MuseumLocation: Mecca, CaliforniaLocated in the Coachella Valley in Southern California, this museum — which includes more than 20,000 banana-related items from toys and records to lotions and perfume — has lots of “a-peel.” Visitors can also browse bananas made from nearly every material imaginable — stone, glass, paper, plastic, alabaster, jade and resin.Owner Fred Garbutt says his goal with the museum was to make visitors feel enchanted when they walk in the door. “I wanted them to just go, ‘holy cow.’ I wanted to deliver. I love that,” he says. “It makes me feel good, like my efforts paid off.”Photo: The front of the museum, courtesy of the International Banana Museum
9. International Banana MuseumWhat you need to know: Call ahead for rates and seasonal hours.Exhibit highlights: Once you’ve finished browsing all the banana novelty items, treat yourself to something from the banana bar, like a banana shake, a chocolate-covered frozen banana or a banana split.More information: www.internationalbananamuseum.comPhoto: Stop at the Banana Bar for a shake or banana split., courtesy of the International Banana Museum
10. Idaho Potato MuseumLocation: Blackfoot, IdahoVisitors traveling to or from Boise, Idaho; Sawtooth National Forest; Yellowstone National Park or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, might find their way to this homage to the iconic Idaho potato.Exhibits at the museum range from educational (a look at antique farm equipment or a history of potato farming technology) to quirky (a display of potato heads and burlap sack clothing).The ultimate goal behind each exhibit, according to museum executive director Tish Dahmen, is to explore and celebrate how Idaho potatoes are different from ones grown in other parts of the country and the world. “The potato is amazing because it can be grown at any altitude or any condition,” she says. “But factoring in Idaho makes it a perfect storm.”“The potato has universal appeal,” she adds, with the pun intended. “Not only do people want to know about their food source and reconnect with it, but they want to have a good time. And the museum is full of fun — with exhibits like the world’s largest potato crisp and the giant potato outside where they can capture the moment for years to come.”Photo: Visitors pose in front of the museum’s giant potato, courtesy of the Idaho Potato Museum
10. Idaho Potato MuseumWhat you need to know: From September through May, the museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. If you visit during June through August, it’s open 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $4 for adults; $3.50 for seniors and military; $2 for children ages 5-12 and free for children 4 and under.Exhibit highlights: The museum has entered a new phase, according to Dahmen, and now has a café serving all things potato. And of course, you won’t want to go home without having your picture taken in front of the giant Idaho potato that greets you on your way into the museum.More information: www.idahopotatomuseum.comPhoto: Exhibit at the museum about potato farming throughout history, courtesy of the Idaho Potato Museum
Originally published on March 22, 2016.