Most of these museums were founded by people who had a single passion and followed a thread, accumulating collections as they went along. Many of the museums are roadside stops, highway thrills, and utterly informative leg-stretching breaks. All of them reveal some facet of America – whether it’s the simple meat-in-a-can that kept American troops fed all through World War II, or about how our society recycles and where trash goes; our culture’s macabre fascination with serial killers and medical anomalies, or a peek into the days of vaudeville entertainment and traveling circus shows. There’s exhibits dedicated to railway-rolling hobos, tricked out jewelry made with human hair, found art given a true analysis and a jolt of comedy – and they’re all over the country, from Minnesota to Hollywood, piecing together a darker but more fascinating view of the American dream. Riding down the highways of the USA? Check out these 10 unique museums.
As the slogan suggests, some of the art adorning the walls of the Museum of Bad Art is truly too bad to be ignored. Much of it is found in the trash, some of it is donated; every single piece has a backstory. But for the plebes among us, what exactly is "bad" art? Is art not art? Is a single expression of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings splashed on a canvas not as valid as, say, Picasso’s The Weeping Woman or any number of paintings by Salvador Dali? This is for the visitor to uncover, but once the visitor observes the acrylic portrayal of a shapeless dog with rabid yellow eyes and cheekbones which seem to melt into surrounding snowcaps, the comparisons just seem trite. Located in Somerville, Massachusetts, the permanent collection now includes 500 pieces of art, and each is accompanied by a thoughtful artistic analysis.
You may not eat SPAM, but you certainly know it. A regular grocery store staple with a reach of over 41 countries, the canned pork meat product was introduced in 1937, helped sustain overseas American soldiers during World War II and was synonymous with American patriotism until it became synonymous with "annoying ubiquity" (having lent its name to "spam e-mail" and the legendary Monty Python SPAM sketch). There’s a history of the mystery meat ingrained in the American Dream, and visitors who are truly interested in uncovering this history as well as its universal reach can stop into its somewhat hokey but always entertaining Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. The museum includes a family-friendly film, and a SPAMburger alley, which is hung with a SPAM patty 4,800 times larger than its life-sized counterpart. There’s a replica SPAM plant, a canning station which traces the history of SPAM cans, a mock assembly line in which visitors can participate and a store which stocks the whole line of SPAM products.
Visitors with a proclivity towards the morbid or even just the "death" portion of a life in our society should direct themselves to the National Museum of Funeral History. For a little-known museum in Houston, the 35,000-square-foot space boasts a surprising amount of valuable and unique artifacts and presents them in a comprehensive way. Visitors can get up close and personal with the actual Popemobile from 1982, learn about the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mesoamerican cultures, and map the history of embalming from the rituals of ancient Egypt to the techniques used in America in the early 20th century. The museum displays authentic items from funerals of various past presidents (like the authentic bill from George Washington’s funeral), and models of caskets from the ages, including a full-scale recreation of a casket-factory in the 1900s.
This unassuming roadside box-building, signified only by the large letters spelling "LEILA’S HAIR MUSEUM," is actually a treasure trove of artifacts nobody ever thinks about, carrying the DNA of people like Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, JFK, George Washington and more. One stroll around the premise reveals some interesting framed wreaths, intricately woven jewelry, Victorian brooches, and ornate religious relics – but quickly, it becomes apparent that the one linking characteristic of all of these scattered items is that they are all, in some way, made of human hair. Most people equate recycling human hair with something creepy or morbid, but this museum explores the relationship between relic and keepsake; memory and morbidity. In Victorian times, it wasn’t uncommon to exchange a lock of hair as a souvenir, or weave hair into jewelry as an heirloom to future generations. This museum has over 2,000 pieces of such jewelry and 159 wreaths made of human hair.
Now this is morbid. Around the Mütter Museum are jars of foetuses, skeletons and anatomical specimens encased in formaldehyde under 150-year-old glass and wood in a 19th century "cabinet museum" setting. Most of its artifacts are older, belonging to either famous people in history (for example, a specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra, a jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland, and even Einstein’s brain); or have been considered medical anomalies of yore, like a nine-foot long human colon that once contained over 40 pounds of fecal matter, and a cast plaster and conjoined liver from the original "Siamese twins" Chang and Eng Bunker. The Mütter Museum also has over 189 skull specimens and a variety of different Victorian-era medical instruments in their collection. Visitors with a strong stomach and an interest in the odd and often perverse nature of Victorian era medicine will get a thrill out of Mütter.
Ever wanted to know where your trash goes? There’s a museum for that. In Hartford, Connecticut, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority have devoted a museum with a single-stream recycling facility that allows visitors to view what happens to newspapers, cardboard, junk mail and other recyclables from the tipping floor on through to the sorting machine. The 6,500-square-foot facility consists of large structural art pieces built from old paper, plastic, metal and other miscellany, and something called a Temple of Trash, which is a walled space made up of all sorts of literal junk to convey what it feels like to be in a landfill. Families who visit can learn about the ins and outs of recycling as well as the pitfalls of past recycling programs.
Considered a kind of mecca for the ventriloquist community all over the world, the Vent Haven Museum is a modest and unassuming collection of houses tucked away off Highway 75 in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The story begins with a man named William Shakespeare Berger, a ventriloquist with a passion for collecting dummies. After having outlived the rest of his family members, he bequeathed his collection of 500 dummies and his house to create a museum. Now there are 800: celebrity likenesses of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; there are the famous dummies, like Edgar Bergen’s iconic dummy, Charlie McCarthy and Señor Wences’ Victor from the Ed Sullivan Show; even Shari Lewis’ "Lamb Chop" puppet and, oh, hundreds more, of all nationalities dating from the vaudeville years and later. The last building on the tour is a mock classroom of dummies assembled in school chairs, occupying all but one seat at the back for visitors to get in their photo-op.
Located in an old Chief Theatre, the Hobo Museum is the only one of its kind, a unique tribute to the thousands of people across America and throughout history who constructed their lives around folk music and art, traveling the railroads and sleeping away from the comforts of home. The museum tells the story of men and women who were hit by the Depression and scattered down railways to find work and a home. Its collection includes the folk art, garments worn by hobos, exhibits profiling individuals who would otherwise be lost to time, and an informative video on the hobo phenomenon of the ‘30s. Across the street is a café run by the proprietor of the museum, where walls are decorated with photos and paintings of members of the hobo community and a few blocks away, visitors can walk through the Hobo Memorial Cemetery.
"Quackery" is the best word to describe generations of people so gullible as to aim X-ray machines on their feet to see how well new shoes fit, or don a "Natural Eyesight System" designed to massage out all vision problems, or a take a seat in a vibratory chair from 1900 that promises to cure back pain and headaches with violent shaking. These are less important artifacts in the medical realm, but key to understanding a population bred on consumption and advertising. While the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices is no longer a standalone museum, the collection now resides as a permanent exhibit in the Science Museum of Minnesota. There, visitors may observe and, in some cases, test a variety of quacky inventions which once claimed to cure any number of chronic diseases or treat psychological disorders and learn about how each of them were debunked.
Death gets edgy at the Museum of Death, which, unlike the National Museum of Funeral History, adds more focus on murders and serial killers. The self-guided tour begins with an exhibit of funerary customs which display antique mortuary equipment and empty embalming fluid bottles. It’s a relatively painless start, but the rest of the tour will reveal full-sized models of execution devices, crime scene photos from the Black Dahlia slaying, Manson Family murders, and President Kennedy’s assassination and other repulsive periods in history. Find preserved original newspaper covers detailing murder rampages and cannibalism, taxidermy displays, films about murder and original artwork by such famed psychopaths as John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson are all on display; even the real guillotined head of Henri Landru, the infamous French "Bluebeard" killer. Visitors on Hollywood Boulevard with a strong stomach and an interest in the deeply, unsettlingly macabre will be suitably bombarded by death in the Museum of Death.