All too often, the mention of a museum leads to flashbacks of mandatory field trips — getting herded around sterile buildings and forced to look at fine works of art while standing a safe distance behind a red velvet rope. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, museums can also offer more specific, often unusual, looks into ignored corners of American history and culture. Outdated medical practices, unusual condiment collections, and restored neon signs all get the deep dive treatment in the nation’s more offbeat museums.
Here are nine of the strangest museums in the country for the next time you want to go off the beaten path:
International Spy Museum – Washington D.C.
For some insight into humanity’s complicated relationship with espionage, the International Spy Museum, conveniently located in downtown Washington D.C., has the largest privately owned collection of spy memorabilia ever displayed, some of which dates back to ancient Rome. The museum was founded by Milton Maltz, a former codebreaker in the Korean War, and since opening in 2002, has had several ex-FBI and CIA members on its advisory board, while focusing on the importance that spies played throughout world history.
The museum keeps varied hours through the year, and you’ll want to bring some cash, as it’s one of the few museums in D.C. that charges an admission.
The Action Figure Museum – Paul’s Valley, OK
When the city of Paul’s Valley got together in the year 2000 to brainstorm ideas on how to make themselves more of a tourist destination, it resulted in the only museum in the nation dedicated to the art of crafting action figures. Since opening in 2005, The Action Figure Museum, curated by local toy designer Kevin Stark, has been host to more than 50,000 visitors from over 50 countries, and now has over 13,000 figures and several pieces of original artwork on display.
The museum is open seven days a week, and offers a fully interactive tour available on their website.
Idaho Potato Museum – Blackfoot, ID
What better way to show off the food that your state is famous for than dedicating a museum to it? The Idaho Potato Museum, which is housed in the former Oregon Short Line Railroad depot, looks at everything from the first ever potato planted within state lines all the way through the most recent advances in the industry. This includes the largest ever potato chip ever made, courtesy of Pringles.
The museum’s hours do vary throughout the year, and they charge a small admission for entry. But, you know, “world’s largest potato chip.”
OZ Museum – Wamego, KS
Opening in 2004, this museum that boasts more than 25,000 original artifacts from the movie The Wizard of Oz. It also sponsors an annual OzToberfest every October, featuring parades, hot air balloon rides, and an actual yellow-brick road. It’s so popular that it’s lead to several Oz-themed businesses, referred to as the “Oz Cluster,” which includes an Oz Winery and a Tex-Mex restaurant named Toto’s Tacoz.
The museum is open every day of the week, and requires a small admission charge.
The Mütter Museum – Philadelphia, PA
A museum that proudly proclaims itself as “disturbingly informed,” The Mütter Museum is dedicated to the history of 19th century medical practices. It’s named after Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, the man who donated many of its artifacts back in 1958 for the purposes of higher education. Today it houses over 20,000 specimens, including several full skeletons, wax models, and a huge archive of medical photographs dating back to the civil war — many having never been seen by the public.
It’s open all week, with tiered admission costs for military, seniors, and children, and also offers special membership packages.
National Mustard Museum – Middleton, WI
Celebrating one of America’s most beloved condiments, the National Mustard Museum began as the private collection of founder and curator (and former assistant attorney general of Wisconsin) Barry Levenson back in 1986 before it was opened to the public six years later in 1992. After moving to Middleton, WI in 2009, the museum now boasts more than 5,600 jars of mustard, the largest known collection in the world, along with ample amounts of mustard-related memorabilia. It even sponsors its own holiday, National Mustard Day, which is held in Middleton the first Saturday every August.
Admission to the museum is free, but they encourage donations from visitors. You can’t run a mustard museum without some cash.
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum – New Orleans, LA
Located in the historic New Orleans’ Vieux Carre district, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum houses artifacts as well as provides interpretive seminars on the city’s rich history with medicinal care. Exhibits range from archaic practices like leeches, crude drugs, and “gris gris” potions, but stays active in promoting modern medicine’s ongoing development for public benefit.
The museum is open from Tuesdays through Saturday, and charges admission at the door.
The Neon Museum – Las Vegas, NV
Appropriately located in Las Vegas, Nevada, The Neon Museum is dedicated to the history and preservation of the city’s brightly-lit history. There are two parts to the museum, the first being the Neon Boneyard, which houses some of the most notorious signs from Las Vegas’ past. The second, the Urban Gallery, shows some of these restored signs in their natural habitat, illuminating the notorious Las Vegas Strip.
The museum is done by guided tour only, offering both day and night (though they encourage the night tour), with prices varying by season — though seniors, military, and Nevada residents are offered a discount year-round.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum – Alexandria, VA
Starting off as a family-run drugstore way back in 1792, it was relocated in 1805 and operated at their new location up until 1933. Today, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum offers an impressive array of hand-blown glass, botanicals, and antique medical equipment in its place. You can also peruse old customer records, which feature historical figures such as Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee.
There’s a small price for admission, and while it’s open to the public Wednesday-Sunday, it is guided tour only, each one lasting approximately half an hour.