Often and rightfully a line item on many travel itineraries, major museums house important relics and offer insight into a range of cultural, historical, scientific and artistic achievements representing not just the cities they’re located in or the country at large, but humankind as a whole. Throughout the U.S., both in big cities and small, another class of museum exists as well and this week’s Bucket List highlights a few.
While you won’t find a Monet or moon rocks at any of these eight quirky U.S. museums, you will enjoy something altogether different. Some of these museums are completely devoid of traditional displays or relics and instead focus on experiential exhibits, while others proudly preserve and display oddities not likely found at the Smithsonian or MoMA.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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Housed in a 140,000-square-foot Frank Gehry-designed facility, Seattle's EMP Museum is completely dedicated to pop culture. Home to both traditional exhibits and interactive activity stations, the museum focuses on cinema, art, video games, science fiction and music. The museum contains an impressive collection of artifacts dedicated to Seattle musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, including personal instruments, hand-written lyrics and rare photographs. There's also a massive guitar sculpture containing 500 instruments and 30 computers. Visitors can also perform real instruments in front of a virtual audience at the On Stage exhibit. Each year EMP, in partnership with the Seattle International Film Festival, also hosts the Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival at Seattle Cinerama Theater.
Photo by Jubilo Haku, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Occupying 600,000 square feet in a former shoe factory, the St. Louis City Museum is unlike any other museum you've likely visited. It's described as "an eclectic mixture of children's playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects." The City Museum celebrates art and the imagination and thrills children and adults alike. Unlike traditional museums, it welcomes visitors to touch, play and climb their way through the space. Across its 11 floors and outside the facility you will find an assortment of idiosyncratic exhibits and displays. The first floor is home to the country's largest continuous mosaic, a life-size bowhead whale you can walk through and a giant Slinky you can climb. There is an elaborate system of hand-carved caves, a 5-story indoor slide, a skate park with ropes hanging from the ceiling for visitors to swing over the ramps sans skateboards. Outside the museum you'll find an old Ferris wheel and school bus on the roof, as well as a massive metal praying mantis. Elsewhere outside there's a fire engine, two aircraft fuselages, a cupola and turret, as well as two pits filled with big rubber balls. Most of what is found at the City Museum was created using reclaimed materials and was the work of the museum's late co-founder, sculptor Bob Cassily, and his team of artists.
Photo by Aaron Fellmeth Photography, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Home to the largest collection of international espionage artifacts, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. both educates and invites guests to play spy for a day. "It is the only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage and the only one in the world to provide a global perspective on an all-but-invisible profession that has shaped history and continues to have a significant impact on world events," states the museum's website. "It is committed to the apolitical presentation of the history of espionage in order to provide visitors with nonbiased, accurate information."
Among its permanent collections you'll find 750 items related to espionage, including photographs and videos, as well as film. Guests are invited to adopt a cover identity for their visit, attend a school for spies and learn what skills it takes to be one. Visitors can even sign up for Operation Spy, where you can take part in a "Hollywood-style spy simulation." Other less interactive displays take you through the history of espionage from ancient times through modern day.
If you leave feeling like you've found your true calling, the museum store is stocked with merchandise based on the exhibits and tools of the spy trade.
Photo by Sabl3t3k, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Circus World celebrates the golden era of the great railroad circus. The museum is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society and is located on the original winter grounds of the Ringling Brothers Circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It features a variety of exhibits relating to circus heritage. Collections include eight of the 10 original Ringling structures, the world's largest collection of authentic circus wagons, show posters, photography and other relics. There are also regular circus performances each summer in the Hippodrome, the museum's permanent big top.
Photo by Jason Mrachina, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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The National Museum of Play located in Rochester, New York is solely dedicated to celebrating and exploring play. While technically a history museum, its interactive exhibits make it feel otherwise. It houses the National Toy Hall of Fame, International Center for the History of Electronic Games, World Video Game Hall of Fame and Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, among others. Its exhibits and collections feature children's storybooks, video games, television shows, comic books, nature, history and so much more.
Photo by Sean Liu, CC BY-SA 2.0
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Just like the city it calls home, Austin's Museum of Weird is dedicated to celebrating just that. Within this museum's walls visitors will find life-size wax statues of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera, among others. There are sideshow favorites like the Feejee mermaid, the Minnesota Iceman and an entire exhibit dedicated to the Texas Bigfoot, complete with photos, plaster casts and even a life-size model of the creature. Other oddities include mummies, zombies and shrunken heads. In addition to the exhibits, there are a number of shows featuring performers with names like Blockhead Benny, Motormouth Marti and a sword swallower who goes by Juan Martinez.
Photo by Sean Hobson, CC BY 2.0
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New York City's Mmuseumm packs plenty of fascinating items into its considerably small and unconventional spaces. Currently spread across two locations, both located in an alley in lower Manhattan. The first, known as Mmuseumm 1, can be found in a former elevator shaft. Mmuseumm 2, which opened a few years later, is located a few doors down from the original. Both spaces are dedicated to displaying modern artifacts. Current exhibits cover ISIS currency, the fake U.S. fast food franchises of Iran, as well as a Donald Trump display that serves as "an examination of the colognes, energy drinks, liquors, balls, cufflinks, casinos, airlines and games that bear his name, and a close look at their design, substance and backstories, provide insight into the man himself."
Photo by Bitch Cakes, CC BY-NC 2.0
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It should come as no surprise that in Roswell, New Mexico you'll find the UFO Museum and Research Center. The museum is dedicated to all things pertaining to unidentified flying objects, especially the infamous Roswell Incident of 1947, in which large metal debris believed by some to be from a UFO crash was found on a ranch outside the city. The museum explores the crash, as well as other sightings and theories about extraterrestrial visitors. In addition to the exhibits, there's a souvenir shop with UFO-related gifts.
Photo byTiffany LeMaistre, CC BY 2.0