If "Night at the Museum"had been set somewhere other than New York’s Museum of Natural History, it would be a very different movie. This 2006 blockbuster starring Ben Stiller made hundreds of millions of dollars and, reportedly, boosted museum attendance. But it could have been a much stranger beast. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt and Pocahantas, one night in Philadelphia’sMutter Museum could've led to a romance between Siamese twin skeletons and the corpse of an obese woman whose fat has turned to soap. At the Venthaven ventriloquist museum, the big laughs could've given way to the scariest "Twilight Zone" episode ever.
World-class museums aside, a lot of people find second-rank museums lacking. At best, they're hermetically sealed repositories of dusty culture; at worst, they're tourist traps teeming with children on field trips. Sometimes, you gotta take a walk on the weirder side.
Doug Kirby, publisher of the book series and Web site Roadside America, has catalogued bizarre museums and other attractions best avoided by elementary school field trips. By heading off the beaten path, he says, “you’ll see amazing things—but just duck your head and make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date.”
There’s little chance of being physically injured at Kentucky’s Venthaven Museum, the world’s only public collection devoted to ventriloquism. Many visitors are unnerved by the hundreds of dummies that line bleacher-like seats, waiting to dredge up childhood nightmares inspired by the "Twilight Zone" and "Poltergeist." According to curator Lisa Sweasy, who leads tours by appointment only, visitors are charmed by tour's end.
“There are no scary ventriloquists,” she says. “Some people will come in with a prejudice against them, but that always goes away once they've learned more.”
Venthaven’s exhaustive focus on dummies is unique, but the museum’s singularity of focus isn’t. The Museum of Toilets in New Delhi presents a complete history of the world’s commodes. Exhibits include a reconstruction of Louis the XVIII's toilet-and-throne combo and a microwave technology toilet that (they say) we’ll use in the future. Meanwhile, over in Iceland, the curators of the Phallological Museum focus on the symbol of the phallus from ancient times straight through to the present. There is also a sizeable collection of Icelandic animal penises.
Clearly, some museums are founded by men and women with an intense interest in one subject. Others are motivated by what Kirby calls water-cooler value. Because many small and strange museums lack the wealth and clout of larger institutions, they’re forced to become more creative in their exhibitions. “We don’t have the resources of the Museum of Natural History or MOMA," says David Wilson, founder and curator of the Museum of Jurassic Technologies in California. "So what we’ve done is look to the margins, to the edges of things. And we find an extraordinary body of stuff there.”
Wilson was awarded a MacArthur fellow “genius” grant for his work with the 20-plus-year-old museum, which "provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts" emphasizing things that "demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities." In other words, it's a whimsical but not frivolous collection of objects that interest Wilson, such as microscopic sculptures and a collection of trailer park art. One advantage of running your own museum, says Wilson, is "you can present pretty much whatever you want.”
Other weird museums have firmer footholds in history and science. And some, like their legitimate counterparts, strive to educate the public. The Glore Psychiatric Museum in Missouri grew out of State Lunatic Asylum Number Two. In the 1960s, asylum official George Glore began collecting and displaying artifacts and replicas of antiquated devices for treating mental illnesses, like a human-sized hamster wheel meant to treat patients suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. According to museum spokesperson Kathy Reno, the museum is intended to help remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
On the other end of the learning curve, there's the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, which is dedicated to mocking artists who erred in their attempts to create beauty. If you’ve ever been mad at Picasso for being a better artist than you—of if you've ever muttered "My kid could paint that!"—this is the place for you. In its own way, even the MOBA is trying to educate the public. “People who don’t know anything about art, and are intimidated by serious art museums and art galleries, like the idea of coming someplace where it’s okay to have a laugh,” says Louise Sacco, MOBA's Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director.
Whether you're looking for laughs, scares or a few moments of squirmy discomfort, somewhere in the world is an obsessive curator waiting to show you his or her collection.