Museums are big business. The American Alliance of Museums estimates that there are approximately 850 million museum visits every year, and as you might expect, most of those are to museums dealing with art, history, culture, science and nature. But beyond the realm of modern art and historical reviews of human culture, there is another subculuture of museums—places dedicated to telling the curious stories of funerals, bananas, mustard, spies and even medical oddities.
Across America, there are hundreds of these museums that don't fit in the standard categories. Some started as personal collections, and it's clear they are the passion work for their proprietors—still others have become big business. Here are 12 of the strangest—not including the Ripley's Believe It or Not museums, which are an entire category unto themselves.
International UFO Museum and Research Center
The International UFO Museum and Research Center is located in Roswell, New Mexico (where else?), and is the home for information about the famed “Roswell Incident” of 1947, in which a flying saucer supposedly landed in the desert. It also houses other research, photographs and displays dedicated to otherworldy phenomena, including a re-creation of an alien autopsy. For a souvenir to take home, purchase a 6-foot-tall inflatable green alien on the way out.
The International Cryptozoology Museum
The logo of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, is that of a coelecanth fish, and it's the perfect emblem of this curious museum that focuses on the study of "hidden" animals. The coelecanth was a type of fish believed to be extinct for 66 million years, since the end of the Cretaceous Period. But then in 1938 off the coast of South Africa, a real coelecanth was caught. Today, the museum studies other animals that are rumored to exist: You will find supposed hair samples from the Abominable Snowman and Bigfoot, fecal matter from a small Yeti, a doll of a baby Bigfoot and the movie prop of the FeeJee Mermaid from the 1999 AMC film “P.T. Barnum.” Whatever you do, though, don’t feed the Bigfoot.
Museum of Bad Art
Forget all that good stuff at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Instead, head out to the city's suburbs where the Museum of Bad Art (MoBA) has enough pieces for three galleries—in Dedham, Somerville and Brookline—mostly in the basements of community theaters. At the galleries, guests will see all kinds of art in categories such as landscape, “in the nood,” blue people and “poor traits." Is it intentionally bad or did the pieces just turn out that way? We may never know.
Glore Psychiatric Museum
Fans of psychological horror films, pay attention. Imagine the exhibits that came from the 130-year history of St. Joseph's Lunatic Asylum, later renamed the St. Joseph (Missouri) State Hospital. Visitors can see a variety of unusual surgical tools, treatment equipment (including a device that dunks patients into an ice-cold bath, pictured), personal notes and artwork from mental patients and more. One rather macabre exhibit shows the 453 nails and other metal items that were swallowed by an inmate in one sitting. (She died in surgery while doctors attempted to remove the items.) The psychiatric museum is even on the adjoining grounds of the original hospital.
National Museum of Funeral History
This is one museum that tries to puts the "fun" in "funeral." Awful puns aside, this museum is dedicated to the “honor and compassion of the funeral services industry.” The Houston, Texas, museum has America’s largest collection of historical funeral items. There are caskets, coffins and hearses and a look at the funerals of presidents, popes, celebrities and more. The museum’s website even offers obituary and eulogy writing resources. Our favorite souvenir? That would be the coffee mug printed with this optimistic slogan: “Any day above ground is a good one.”
National Mustard Museum
Whether you like it sweet, spicy, honey-flavored or another way, it's all here. This museum pays homage to everybody’s favorite tangy yellow condiment. In Middleton, Wisconsin, see more than 5,000 jars and tins of prepared mustard from 70 countries. Such a museum wouldn't be complete, though, if you couldn't taste the mustard. Belly up to the bar and try the spicy, sweet, tequila or wasabi mustard. The store contains a variety of apparel and cookbooks—“50 Shades of Mustard,” anyone?
Museum of Sex
Sex is everywhere in this small museum in Manhattan's NoMad district, and not surprisingly, visitors have to be at least 18 to enter New York City’s MoSEX. As expected, there are explicit exhibits (as well as more academic exhibits), so you'll have to make a personal judgment call on whether this is an appropriate visit.
International Spy Museum
The world’s only museum dedicated to espionage is in Washington, D.C. Hands-on and interactive exhibits show some of the tricks of the trade for real and fictitious spies, including a model of the Trojan Horse. No museum dedicated to the spy trade would be complete without a James Bond exhibit, and this one looks at 50 years of Bond villains. No small oddity, the International Spy Museum encompasses more than 20,000 square feet and was built at a cost of $40 million, since becoming one of the capital's most popular museums. The response to this privately owned museum's niche focus has been staggering, and the museum is planning a major move to a new space in 2018.
Burlingame Museum of Pez
Pez was invented in 1927 in Vienna, Austria, as a simple peppermint breathmint, but today, the brand is best known for the Pez dispenser—a long, plastic tube with a cartoonish head that folds back to deliver little rectangular candies. The dispensers arrived on the scene in the later 1940s, styled originally to look like cigarette lighters, but in the 1950s the company made its game-changing move, releasing candy-flavored mints along with its now-iconic character-themed dispensers. Today, the Burlingame (California) Museum of Pez has an example of every Pez dispenser ever sold, more than 1,000 pieces, from jack-o-lanters to Disney characters to comic-book superheroes. Also on display is the 2008 Guiness World Record largest Pez dispenser—a white dispenser with a snowman head that stands 7 foot, 10 inches.
Vent Haven Museum
If you find ventriloquist dummies to be creepy—ever seen the film "Dead Silence"?—then don't visit the Vent Haven Museum located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, an easy afternoon trip from Cincinatti, Ohio. Founded by William Shakespeare Berger (a show-stopping name if there ever was one), the museum was created after the collector’s dummy collection got too big to fit in his garage. Today, the museum contains more than 800 figurines, thousands of photos, playbills, letters and books. The museum even plays host to an annual international ConVENTion for more than 600 ventriloquists.
Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum houses a small but diverse collection of odd and peculiar medical artifacts. See slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, a collection of 139 human skulls, 2,374 objects that have been inhaled or swallowed and a cast—and the livers—of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Butler. For a strange souvenir, visit the museum store and take home a cookie cutter in the shape of those conjoined twins. Depending on your sense of humor, it will either be the best—or worst—$6.50 you will ever spend.
The International Banana Museum
Who knew the “most aPEELING destination on the planet” was in North Shore, California, near the Salton Sea? As the name implies, this museum is completely dedicated to the tropical yellow fruit. There are more than 20,000 banana-related items, from stuffed toys to art and advertising displays. Pull up a barstool and enjoy a banana shake, banana soda ice cream float or chocolate-covered banana. Sorry, no banana daiquiris here.