I love museums, but I’m fairly picky about the ones I spend time visiting. My personal interests veer towards history and culture more so than art, and thanks to that natural proclivity I’ve discovered some fairly amazing museums around the world. Any museum I believe is to be treasured because it means that someone or a group of people cared so deeply about a subject that they devoted a significant portion of their lives to showcase what makes it so great. That’s to be admired I think and it makes the museum, almost no matter what the topic, worth at least a short visit. Granted, not all museums are made the same and believe me, I’ve visited some truly horrible ones over the years. But I’ve also had the great opportunity to visit smaller, quirky and off the beaten path institutions that I think are well worth anyone’s time to visit. There are almost too many to list, but in this post I want to share just some of those quirky museums around the world that have resonated with me for one reason or another.
Basel’s Smallest Museum, Switzerland
Walking around Basel, Switzerland had many unexpected surprises from colorful architecture to amazing river views and markets with delicious food. What I didn’t expect to find though was the smallest museum in the city and most likely the world, the so-called Trouser Pocket Museum or Hoosesagg Museum. This undeniably quirky museum started more than 20 years ago partly out of frustration. The owners live in a historic building on a common tourist route. Hundreds of people passed by every day, many of who took the opportunity to peek through the windows to marvel at the ancient home. Naturally, the owners grew somewhat frustrated but instead of shuttering up their windows, they decided to offer something of value. There in the window they created a small, very small, exhibit space where they feature a variety of collections. It can, and has been, just about anything. The day I visited it appeared to be a set of antique barometers. The subjects don’t really that much, what’s amazing to me is that the tiny museum has now lasted decades and draws as much interest as any other site in town.
Old Ghan Heritage Railway and Museum, Alice Springs Australia
The town of Alice Springs in the heart of Australia’s Outback is a decidedly quirky place. It makes sense then that the tourist offerings are just as odd and one of the best in town is the Ghan Museum. Construction of what we know of today as the Ghan train began in 1878 in Adelaide, South Australia. It wasn’t until the 1920s though that train service extended to Alice Springs, prior to that the final leg of the journey had to be made by camel. The Ghan didn’t extend all the way across the continent to Darwin in the north until the 1980s, when Australia’s railroads were all standardized. For whatever reason, Alice Springs is home to both the Ghan Museum as well as the Road Transport Hall of Fame. The Ghan Museum is housed in a former train station, and is also the final resting spot for strange bits of railroad paraphernalia, from full sized locomotives, to random bits of iron rusting away. The museum itself though was clean, well organized and infinitely interesting. I found myself reading through mid-century travel posters and gazing longingly at proper dinner service sets, a remnant of a more civilized era of travel. The museum isn’t large and is a little dusty in areas, but if you love trains then this is a must visit attraction.
Pig Museum, Stuttgart Germany
When I heard that I was visiting the home of the world’s largest pig museum, I knew I couldn’t stay away. Located in Stuttgart, Germany, the concept started in 1988 when Erika Wilhelmer, a passionate collector of all things pig for years, decided to start a small and simple museum. Over the years it grew, eventually winning that vaunted Guinness title and moving to a permanent exhibition space in Stuttgart. As you can imagine, the museum is a little odd but it’s actually very well curated and I found many of the exhibits to be interesting. But there are a lot of pigs; 50,000 pieces in 25 rooms means there’s a lot to see. For an added dimension of schadenfreude, be sure to eat at the adjacent restaurant that naturally specializes in pork.
Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo
One of the strangest expeditions ever undertaken, the story of the now infamous Kon-Tiki is known around the world. But it all started with one slightly outlandish idea by the famed Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. If you’re not familiar with the story, in 1947 Heyerdahl and his crew sailed by raft across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia in an effort to prove the theory that people from South America populated Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Using only materials and methods available to ancient South Americans, the journey took 101 days but they did eventually make it, proving that technically it could have been done. Scientists have since debunked this theory, but it’s not the anthropology that makes the Kon-Tiki such an exciting story. It’s the adventure of it all that has fascinated people since the first day of Heyerdahl’s expedition. As humans, that spirit of adventure and discovery appeals to us on a very base level and in an era when such experiences seem impossible, Heyerdahl proved that the world still holds many mysteries for us to discover. The museum captures this spirit and tells the story well and is probably the only place in Oslo where you can buy Hawaiian print shirts.
National Atomic Testing Museum, Nevada
My trip to Nevada last year was all about exploring the more rural side of the state and driving the famous Extraterrestrial Highway. To get ready for the adventure, I stopped off at this small but incredibly informative museum to see a special exhibit they’re currently featuring as well as to tour the larger collection. Since 2011, the National Atomic Testing Museum – located just east of The Strip – has been a national museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, making this small site one of just 37 national museums in the country. The extremely well curated exhibits cover the history of the nuclear age, from the first test at the Nevada Test Site through to the modern era. It’s informative, interactive and incredibly engaging and I’m really happy that I spent some time visiting. It’s a place that frankly is easy to drive by, but I think this should be near the top of every visitor’s to-do list. In addition to their main exhibits, they’re also hosting a special collection all about Area 51. Since my drive along the ET Highway included a stop at Area 51, the exhibit was the perfect introduction to better understanding not only the history of this military installation, but the cultural impact that the belief in aliens has had on our country and the world. It’s an interesting, quirky exhibit and a lot of fun to discover.
Frietmuseum, Bruges Belgium
The Belgians take their food very seriously, and this is seen especially with the art of the French fry. Not just the soggy potatoes one sees so often around the world, the Belgian fry truly is a revelation in the world of culinary science and this love affair with the spud is on full display at the Fry Museum in Bruges, Belgium. The museum is well thought out and much larger than I expected. The guest is led through the history of the fry, from the first cultivation of potatoes in South America, to its introduction in Europe and the day of days, when the fry was invented. A combination history museum and assemblage of artifacts and curios make the experience fun and interesting. After spending an hour or so learning everything there is to know about the fry, it’s logical to want a taste. Luckily the folks at the Frietmuseum thought of this and at the end of the tour is a small fry cafe where you can taste crispy Belgian fries for yourself.
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
I like museums, but they’re not usually the reason why I visit a new city. That being said, the museums in Stockholm actually were a major reason for my visit and one in particular was number one on my to-do list. ABBA: The Museum may not sound like one of the great museums of the world, but believe it or not I soon discovered that it’s one of the best-curated and organized museums I’ve been to in a long time. Whether or not you’re a fan of the music, I find it hard to believe anyone won’t enjoy singing along to “Mamma Mia” in a private recording booth, or dancing with holograms of the musicians themselves on stage. It’s fun, quirky and a must-do activity in Stockholm. Luckily, the ABBA Museum is within walking distance to several other great Stockholm museums making it a convenient stop.
The Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas
If you were alive on November 22, 1963, it’s a day you’ll never forget but even if you’re like me and missed the event by many years, the date still has incredible importance for you. That was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The plaza itself is now a National Historic Landmark, thankfully preserving it for future generations, but that’s not the only important site preserved. Located in the very building where Lee Harvey Oswald fired those far too impactful bullets (formerly the Texas School Book Depository) is today the exceptionally well-curated Sixth Floor Museum. Using photos, film, narration and interactive displays, this thorough and very well researched museum takes guests through the turbulent era of the early 1960s, the events that led to the President’s assassination and ultimately the murder itself, along with the impact Kennedy’s death had on the world. Standing there in the same position as Oswald once stood, looking out across at Dealey Plaza was an eerie feeling, it brought the event to life in a way that has always been hard for me, since I wasn’t alive in 1963. I can’t recommend this museum strongly enough, it really is just that good.
Currywurst Museum, Berlin
So I talk about currywurst a lot; an odd love affair for what is admittedly an inelegant snack. But I’m a big fan of regional foods, city-specific snacks that serve as exemplars of their communities. Currywurst had an important role to play in the formation of modern Berlin, from a cheap way to feed the working poor to the tourist food it has become today. Even better than just eating it, head on over to the Currywurst Museum for a look at the snack through the years, where it’s consumed around the world and what it is that makes this unlikely combination of flavors so very popular.
Botero Museum , Bogota Colombia
Although I was a little skeptical at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels in love with the amazing Botero Museum in Bogota. Even if you’re not familiar with the name, I guarantee you’ve seen some of the many famous works created by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. You know the ones, the plump, oversized people and animals that look like they’ve been inflated? Well, the Botero Museum is the beautiful home to many of his paintings and sculptures. In 2000, Botero donated the works, along with his own private art collection, creating the museum in the La Candelaria neighborhood in the process. Open to the public free of charge, Botero wanted to share his works in a way of his choosing. He still decides on the layout and even the wall colors in the museum, but as I quickly learned the building itself is just as amazing as the works of art it houses. Built in the 1720s, this was the colonial mansion of the Archbishop of Bogota, one of the most powerful men in the city. Beautifully restored, you can easily imagine the lavish lifestyle enjoyed here and for as much as I enjoyed the artwork, it was the building itself that truly won my heart. Bogota is a city of intensely creative people seen through the literature, art but even in graffiti and street buskers. It’s exciting and this is surely one of those “must-see” places in this enormous city.