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Nearly one hundred ventriloquist dolls posed sitting in rows
Looks like *these* guys are ready to hear more about America’s most awesomely offbeat cultural institutions…
Courtesy of Vent Haven Museum

Nine of the Weirdest, Most Wonderful Museums in America

Offbeat and outstanding spots you should visit ASAP

Matt Kirouac is an Oklahoma City-based travel writer whose work has appeared in Afar, Condé Nast, Thrillist, InsideHook and many other publications.

May 6, 2024 2:27 pm

Art. Science. Human history. Maybe even sex or ice cream. These are the (mostly) typical draws for museum visits. But what about ventriloquist dummies? Brothels? UFOs? Bigfoot? Jewelry made of…human hair? These are just a few of the truly bizarre — yet truly wonderful — delights you can find in quirkier museums all over this country. Fact is, a lot of organizations and people collect some wild stuff (have you ever spent an hour clicking through eBay?!), and sometimes, on rare and wonderful occasions, they decide to share their treasures with the public. And that’s precisely what these 9 museums provide. Who wouldn’t want to be a docent at one of these?!

International Museum of Surgical Science

An iron lung, X-rays from the late 19th century, the plastered death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte and over 7,000 surgical artifacts await inside the Italian marble halls of the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago — the only museum of its kind in North America dedicated to the topic. Look for the skulls from 2,000 B.C., historical amputation demonstrations and a collection of letters from the field from Clara Barton, the famous Civil War nurse. The 16th-century amputation saws make an impression: the vibes are more Sweeney Todd than delicate surgeon. By the way, did you know that barbers doubled as the original surgeons in the 1500s? That’s just one of the fun (and fairly terrifying) facts you’ll learn at this can’t-miss operation.

Paranormal paraphernalia abounds at this museum dedicated to cryptozoology
Kelly Verdeck/Flickr

International Cryptozoology Museum

Yetis! The Loch Ness Monster! Jackalopes! Trout covered in fur! Just a typical afternoon at the International Cryptozoology Museum. (FYI, cryptozoology is the study of animals that are extinct, mythical and/or unknown. In other words, it’s not exactly as well-known or firm a science as, say, physics.) Located in Portland, Maine, the place is easy to find, as the 10-foot-tall Bigfoot statue out front isn’t exactly the subtlest thing in the world. The two-story space is full of over 10,000 oddities: a replica of a dodo bird and the world’s only life-sized fiberglass model of a coelacanth (a prehistoric fish long thought to have been extinct, discovered off the African coast in 1938), petrified half-monkey-half-mermaids (are they real? You be the judge!), a detailed statue of the Jersey Devil (this one, not this one), and Nessie paraphernalia galore, from old newspaper clips and photos of alleged sightings to the cutest plushies imaginable. The newest permanent exhibit is “Sasquatch Revealed,” and it has enough artifacts to turn even the snarkiest skeptic into a believer. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining time for the entry fee, which is just $10.

Intricate hair accessories made of hair
Hair art, common in Victorian times, is also a common sight at Leila’s Hair Museum
Courtesy of Leila’s Hair Museum

Leila’s Hair Museum

If you’re the kind of person who’d wig out over crucifixes, brooches and necklaces made of human hair, then head on over Leila’s Hair Museum, just 20 minutes outside of Kansas City. The mane part of the collection is the institution’s everyday artifacts — some more than a 100 years old — constructed from hair: They’ve got over 600 wreaths and more than 2,000 pieces of jewelry made from human locks. (In the Victorian era, it was a fairly — fa-hairly? — common practice to memorialize loved ones by making mementos of their hair. Why? Well, there were no cameras, and human hair decomposes very slowly.) But that’s not all! You’ll also find lots of celebrities’ locks, from Elvis to Alexander Hamilton. (Not Yul Brynner’s for obvious reasons.) It won’t shock you to know the museum was founded by a former hairdresser, and has an on-site salon. So comb through the exhibitions, but leave time to try your own hand at braiding and weaving something beautiful from some strands. (Bequeathing it to your beloved isn’t required.)

Giant sculpture of baked potato behind the museum sign
Because, hey — when in Idaho…
Courtesy of Idaho Potato Museum

Idaho Potato Museum

French fries. Tater tots. Potato chips. Vodka! Who doesn’t love potatoes?! In Blackfoot, Idaho, the starchiest and most scrumptious member of the Solanaceae family is given icon status at the aptly named Idaho Potato Museum. Within the walls of a beautiful, century-old converted rail depot, you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know — and lots you didn’t — about the root vegetable, from its history of being transported throughout the globe, to how it became one of the most-consumed food items on Earth. But of course, you’re here for the fun stuff, so check out the world’s largest collection of potato mashers and the Guinness World Record-certified largest potato crisp ever made. Soooo many Mr. Potato Heads. At the Station Cafe, you can order three types of fries, but if you opt for a baked potato, it’s recommended you order it a minimum of two hours in advance for “maximum fluffiness,” so plan ahead. (The cafe sent me into a philosophical quandary: While it makes the museum interactive, isn’t it kind of like eating a fish lunch at an aquarium?)

Nearly one hundred ventriloquist dolls posed sitting in rows
Looks like *these* guys are ready to hear more about America’s most awesomely offbeat cultural institutions…
Courtesy of Vent Haven Museum

Vent Haven Museum

This one is either your dream, or, if Chucky scared you as a kid, your nightmare: ventriloquist dummies as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Vent Haven Museum — just a 10-minute drive south of Cincinnati, over the river and into Kentucky — the only place in the world dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. Here, there are over 1,100 dummies, the oldest of which date from the early 1800s. Among the highlights you wood not want to miss: a 5-foot-high, mechanized, walking vaudeville performer called Champagne Charliea trio of kangaroos that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show; and a pedal-powered toe-sucking baby named Baby Snooks. Tours explore the history of the craft, bluntly confronting the racist origins of early ventriloquist tropes before progressing through their impact on modern stage and screen (hi, Lamb Chop!). You may even see curator Lisa Sweasy demonstrating the craft herself.

Skeleton of calf with two heads with black background
This spot is great. No Several thousand bones about it. (That’s a two-headed calf, P.S.)
Courtesy of Museum of Osteology

Museum of Osteology

Into murder mysteries? Interactive theatre? Then live your best life and book a couple of tickets to Forensic Night at the Museum of Osteology — aka the Skeleton Museum — where you’ll play an NCIS-esque investigator, studying (replicas of) human remains to determine the deceased’s cause of death. (Best date night ever?!) The monthly event is a staple at this Oklahoma City museum, which makes no bones about the fact that skeletal remains — of humans and animals alike — are the star attraction. There are nearly 500 real skeletons on display, of species large and small. Lions, tigers and bears…literally. The most complete humpback whale skeleton in North America hangs from the ceiling. There are skeletons from seemingly every member of the animal kingdom, including tinier critters like the black-footed ferret and the common skunk. Not everything here is dead, though. Keep your eyes peeled for resident museum cat, Sir Indiana Bones, and the flesh-eating beetles used to strip soft tissue off bones.

Exhibit of alien statues with smoke behind
Maybe these guys can tell you what really happened back in ‘47…

International UFO Museum and Research Center

Does viewing an alien corpse and reading its autopsy report sound interesting? If you answered “yes,” this is the place for you. Disclaimer: Wondercade cannot verify that the alien lying on a stretcher in the surgical room is real, but as The X Files taught us, the truth is out there! Or rather, maybe it’s in here, at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Shuffle through the troves of news reports, first-hand accounts and in-depth analyses of the Roswell Incident. (The supposed crash-landing of a UFO in a New Mexico desert town in 1947, allegedly covered up by the U.S. government.) Believers will note that the museum was opened in 1990 by one Lt. Walter Haut, the public information officer of Roswell Army Airfield at the time of the initial ‘47 incident, with the goal of documenting what really happened (and who, or what, visited Earth) that fateful day. You’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about crop circles, abductions and spacecraft sightings, and you’ll see plenty of aliens — depictions of them, anyway. The ones wearing silver space suits are our favorites; they kind of look like background dancers on Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour.

Vintage hanging sign reading, "Historic Tours, The Brothel Deadwood"
Take a peek behind the curtain at the Deadwood Brothel Museum…
Deadwood History, Inc.

The Brothel Deadwood

“See a century of prostitution history up close,” teases the Brothel Deadwood museum, in Deadwood, South Dakota. This museum was a one-time — and longtime — working brothel, operating from 1876 to 1980, ‘til a federal raid put an end to the business after 104 years. Step inside, and you’ll be transported to the wildest (or at least randiest) scene in the Wild West: In the parlor room, you’ll see taxidermied peacocks sitting atop old-timey pianos; elsewhere you’ll marvel at the preserved boudoirs, ogle at countless corsets and other “evening wear,” and pause to take in the ceramic basins called “Peter Pans,” where the female sex workers would inspect male clients’ “members” for cleanliness before commencing the appointment. You’ll learn how sex work helped fuel the local economy, but you won’t see anything R-rated (sadly!). Still, tours are still restricted to guests 16 and older.

A vintage 1921 wood carved hearse
I mean, in a hearse like this, you’d be going out in style. Just sayin’.
Robert Kimberly/Flickr

National Museum of Funeral History

Mummies that are 5,000 years old. A copy of the Shroud of Turin. Vatican-endorsed replicas of dead popes. Even a three-person coffin. (It was built for a couple that planned on killing themselves and their child, but who didn’t go through with it. Phew.) Plus, a strand of Abe Lincoln’s hair! (Don’t tell Leila.) That’s just a taste of the ghoulish collection at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, which is a glorious testament to the macabre and the morbid. It opened in 1992 with a simple collection of hearses (they’re lined up like a sports car showroom — look for the ones that carried Presidents Reagan and Ford), and has since grown to 19 permanent exhibits, which cover the history of embalming, Dia de los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead), and funeral traditions from around the world, from Ghana (whose “fantasy coffins” include those shaped like airplanes and giant spring onions) to the rousing and joyous “second line” jazz funeral marches in New Orleans.

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