Twelve museums I loved that you might not know about


I’ve been on mostly-vacation for the past week. I thought I’d share something different. Some of my favorite museums are ones that usually don’t make it to the top of must-do lists. If you find yourself in the vicinity of one of these, you might be in for a treat.

1. Museum of Appalachia, Norris, TN, USA

The Museum of Appalachia is a charming self-portrait. In 1982, Alex Haley went to speak at the World’s Fair in Knoxville. There, he met up with John Rice Irwin, the founder of the Museum of Appalachia: “He came and picked me up and took me to the museum. And I was just absolutely captivated. I’ve always loved the expression ‘living history’ and what it’s supposed to mean. That museum seemed to me more than any place I’d been around to symbolize living history.” Haley ended up buying a farm across the street and made it his home. I can’t imagine passing through Knoxville again without taking half of a day to visit.

2. American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, CA, USA

Folk art, or “outsider art,” or whatever you want to call it, is made by people who don’t have formal art training and don’t market their work in traditional art marketplaces. The term visionary is apt. The AVMA places the work of outsider artists and showcases them in the context of fine art, elevating this work to a wholly appropriate station. There are exhibits in the AVAM that will make your jaw drop in amazement. While you’re in the area, the aquarium is nice and definitely swing by Fort McHenry, but don’t forget the AVAM.

3. The Garden of Eden, Lucas, KS, USA

Fifty years after the Civil War, a veteran moved into his home in the middle of Kansas, and spent twenty years converting it into a cement sculptural environment depicting fantastic religious and political ideas. This spot is kin to other art environments by other visionary artists, like the Watts Towers in LA, The Orange Show in Houston, Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea, and the Coral Castle south of Miami.

4. The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, USA

musee de jouet, Brussels

The Toy Museum. image: A. Chapman ©

The Huntington is not an obscure museum. But it’s rarely at the top of the list for anybody visiting Los Angeles. Henry Huntington — who made his money in railroads and land speculation — loved to collect expensive historical books. He always had a thing for his aunt-in-law, who was an art collector. When his uncle died, Henry married Arabella, and they built a mansion for their art, libraries, and some spectacular gardens as well.

If you’re interested in history or science — and especially if you’re interested in the history of science — this place will blow your frickin’ mind. Yeah, they’ve got a whole Gutenberg Bible, Shakespearean First Folios, and Audubon’s Birds of America. In the exhibit about the history of science, they have the earliest editions of everything that is foundational, Hooke’s Micrographia, Vesalius’s Epitome, Leeuwenhoek’s Collected Works, Newton, a 13th century copy of Ptolemy, and Edwin Hubble’s personal copy of Copernicus.

5. Musée du Jouet, Brussels, Belgium

If you miss the robot on the sidewalk, you’d think this is just a door to a home in this non-commercial city block. And once you get inside, it’s a gloriously disheveled three-story 10,000-square-foot mine of toys – whch are both historic and you can play with! Imagine you had created a rummage sale from the toys of a thousand households after the kids had moved away to ollege, and you put them all in one place, organizing them by themes and piling them so high and deep that navigating through the isles isn’t so easy.

6. Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, CA, USA

The MJT is mostly beyond description. Lawrence Weschler wrote a whole book trying to explain the place, and came up short. One friend of mine said it took him a while to get it, but now thinks it’s an ironic sendup of museums. However, it’s far too sincere to be characterized that way. Another person I used to know, who wasn’t fond of LA, said that the Museum of Jurassic Technology redeemed the city. That would be true if the City of Angels was in need of redemption. I don’t try to explain the place, but if a friend is visiting from out of town and has yet to visit the MJT, it’s definitely high on the agenda.

7. Kartchner Caverns State Park, near Benson, AZ, USA

Two cavers used their knowledge of geology to sneak onto the Kartchner ranch to find some new stomping grounds. They literally stumbled into one of the world’s most extraordinary caves, which had yet to be discovered by another person before. They decided that the only way to protect this cave was to not attempt to keep the secret, but to protect it as a public resource. The story about how the Kartchner Caverns were discovered, kept secret, and then developed to become one of our nation’s most amazing natural parks was told by NPR in 1999. Have you ever visited a cave that is still alive and growing? This is like no other cave you’ve ever been in before.

8. Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France

Like The Huntington, this is not an obscure museum. But it’s also probably not high on the list of most museum-goers visiting Paris. While it’s an architectural showpiece, the collections and exhibits of indigenous and folk art from all over the world are stunning in beauty and exposition. I have yet to visit every museum in Paris, but this might be my favorite, if not the Museum of Magic.

9. The National Building Museum, Washington DC, USA


If you’re in DC for a short period of time, you probably will want to hit up a few of the branches of the Smithsonian. But you might want to hop off the metro at Judiciary Square, and head into the gorgeous building that looms in view as you ascend the escalator. If you erect a museum about buildings, then the building that houses the museum better be special. This one is. It houses the historically grandest inauguration balls that continue there to this day. The building is a charm but are on par with the museum exhibits. The gift shop also gets an A+.

DSC0251810. Center For Puppet Arts, Borgarnes, Iceland

The story and the history of Iceland is fascinating. The country is as populous as Wichita, but I am guessing that Iceland has many more museums. (In the 2.5 weeks I spent there, I might have visited most of them.) The most charming might be the folk art museum in Akureyri (pictured at the top of the post), but the puppet center is a special manifestation of a small number of people who love puppets, and it shows. What I know of puppetry only comes from the Hitchcock Puppet Theater in San Diego, and the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theater in LA. And I guess having seen Being John Malkovich. But the Center for Puppet Arts in Iceland transcends.

11. Titan Missile Museum, Sahuarita, AZ, USA

In the US, schools teach kids far with lockdown trainings. As a kid, I was on the tail end of the “duck and cover” era. If you feel a need to get a tangible sense of nuclear terror that permeated the Cold War, drive half an hour south of Tucson and visit a decommissioned missile silo. You can learn about the lives of the men who were stationed on this base and were empowered with keeping these nuclear missiles running and prepared to launch them when given the orders. The scale of this facility, and the environment that generated its production, is staggering when you consider how many these were produced. (After we visited and talked about it, my spouse found out that she worked with someone who was once stationed on this base. And they confirmed that everything we learned on the tour was terrifyingly spot on.)

12. Western Australia Museum Shipwreck Galleries, Fremantle, Australia

One of the world’s most spectacular truth-is-stranger-than-fiction chronicles is the mutiny and sinking of the Batavia. (A book I often recommend is Batavia’s Graveyard, by Mike Dash – spectacular summer reading material.) Even though the Batavia went down in 1629 off the west coast of what we now call Australia, some spectacular technology was employed to bring the ship to the surface, now the centerpiece of this underwater archaeology museum. If you read the story of the Batavia before visiting this ship, it’s a special moment to find this artifact from 400 years brought from the depths. (Even more moving was to travel through an exhibit at the National Geographic Society on the Saga of Shackleton, to arrive at the end where the actual James Caird itself was there – the vessel that made the most unlikely rescue journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. There is no replacement for the tangibility of museum artifacts.)

While writing this up, I was ever so bummed to discover that the Hertzberg Circus Museum in San Antonio closed down in 2001. That was a special place.

Other places on my list that I really want to visit, but haven’t been able to get to, include City Museum in St. Louis, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, the Redpath Museum in Montreal, Down House in England, and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Do you have any favorite museums that aren’t on the beaten path? Comments are welcome.

4 thoughts on “Twelve museums I loved that you might not know about

  1. You are right about Iceland. I missed the puppet museum, but perhaps you missed the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, in Bildudalur, in the western fjords. It commemorates sea monster sightings in the area and cryptozoology all over the world, and it’s both campy and fascinating. A little more about in a blog post here:

    Not quite a museum, but not to be missed; The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa ( People like to say things are indescribable. This is perfectly easily describable, but nobody would believe the description. It’s a mammoth (by which I mean you walk around in it, climb stairs in it, lose your kids in it) collection of Roman Catholic-textured religious shrines built from petrified wood, semiprecious stones, bits of melted Coke bottles, stalactites – wait, I said you wouldn’t believe the description anyway, so why am I? It’s amazing on many levels, from sociocultural to engineering, but even if you’re not interested in those things, you’ll never again see so much petrified wood and so many geodes in one place. I promise.

  2. I love this list! Thank you… I will be sharing it around with friends who travel and love museums. Best, Neva

  3. I just recently visited the Diefenbunker, the 4 story high nuclear fallout shelter that was supposed to house the Canadian government in the event of nuclear war. I found it a moving tribute to human’s willingness to spend immense sums of money on blowing each other up, and a tribute to the fact that, for the lat 70 years we haven’t.

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