Museums of Curiosities

Museums of Curiosities

Sarah Condon

A museum is generally thought of as a large institution that houses important collections of art, history, science, artifacts, or all of these things. But there are many other, smaller museums that house and exhibit items or ideas that might not be thought of as museum-worthy to some. These museums are sometimes lesser-known than their big museum brothers, but in a way are much more interesting because as a visitor you are assured to discover the truly unique, and not just see the typical museum fare or experience the same museum space.

Major art museums all have generally the same structure for displaying art. They have sections for the different periods of art history, or they might be devoted to only one period or artist. But they generally display only artists who are, for the most part, relatively well known or of the highest quality. The Museum of Bad Art (MoBA) goes against this rubric as they are, according to their mission statement, “dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition, and celebration of bad art in all its forms and in all its glory.” The MoBA started out in a basement in Boston, a cabinet of curiosities that has since turned into a museum of curiosities, but is still housed in a Boston basement (of the Somerville Theater). With the tag line, “art too bad to be ignored”, MoBA has developed three collections, including Unseen Forces, which, according to their website, is a “preeminent collection of artwork, expressing as it does the full scope of the human psyche and its feeble yet caring yet terrified use of artists’ materials and symbols such as the word “Love.” Indeed, it is not an easy thing to struggle against mighty forces like the giant orange cat consuming humankind. The artists here do not stoop to common human endeavors and limitations and only sometimes rise up to them.” While the MoBA has an obvious sense of humor about itself, this is not always the case with all museums of curiosities—some take their work very seriously.

The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum sounds at first like a funny concept, but exploring the history of the museum tells a different story. Founded in Baltimore in 1983, the museum was established with clear objectives in mind, including goals to “improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority and superiority” and to “stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often neglected facts of history.” This museum is also not small—it is nearly 30,000 square feet with plans for expansion. It houses over 100 wax figures and scenes, a full model slave ship exhibit, a small auditorium, and more. This is only one example of a wax museum; there are many others around the world dedicated to a variety of topics. The idea of the wax museum can be credited to Marie Tussaud, who traveled around Europe with wax sculptures in the late 1700s.

Many museums are dedicated to people or groups that have affected culture in some way. The Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa, is focused on a group that is often overlooked. The Hobo Museum is a not-for-profit corporation with a goal of educating about the history of the hobo. According to their website, “The separate dreams of three hobos came together in 1974 when they realized they shared the common goal of preserving hobo history. Hood River Blackie’s search for steam-era hobos brought him to Britt and introduced him to Steamtrain Maury and Feather River John. They drew up their letter of incorporation, filed for tax-exempt status and along with several Britt locals, became the Hobo Foundation. Today the Foundation carries on the ambitious goals of these original hobos”. The museum contains extensive memorabilia as well as crafts, photographs, and paintings created by current hobos (some of which are for sale on their website, and strikingly authentic). Each August the museum hosts the National Hobo Convention, which draws hobos from around the country and even gained a television feature on CBS. During this convention a new King and Queen Hobo are inducted for the year, and the website lists previous royalty going back to the year 1900.  The Hobo Museum also oversees the nearby Hobo Cemetery, where those who have “caught the westbound” are laid to rest.

The Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, is where dummies go to die. Being the world’s only museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism, it was started by William S. Berger and his collection of dummies (after they took over his house, garage, and a second home he built for them). Vent Haven currently houses over 700 figures, thousands of photographs and playbills, and a library of books (some of which date to the 1700s). Between 900-1200 people visit the museum each year. Vent Haven also hosts their annual ConVENTion for over 400 ventriloquists.  The event boasts that it is “the world’s oldest and largest continuing gathering of ventriloquists. It is THE place to be if you want to better yourself as a ventriloquist or learn the art of ventriloquism”. At the last convention, famous ventriloquist Jeff Dunham (as seen on television’s Comedy Central) was there to share his expertise. This is a prime example of a museum that was started as a collector’s cabinet of curiosities and grew into a true museum.

As some museums of curiosities are focused on the obscure or specific, other museums are focused on broad subjects that almost anybody can relate to. When thinking about museums, one might not consider sex as a high priority to be explored and create exhibitions about. However, The Museum of Sex proves this is not the case. The Museum of Sex (MoSex) in New York City opened in 2002 with the exhibition, NYCSEX: How New York Transformed Sex in America and has since attracted worldwide attention and acclaim.  Founded by Daniel Gluck, the museum’s mission of “advocating open discourse surrounding sex and sexuality as well as striving to present to the public the best in current scholarship unhindered by self-censorship” is achieved by its unprecedented exhibitions, of which they have had 14 physical and 5 virtual installations. Like a traditional museum, the Museum of Sex includes a lecture series, events, and publications with each show, and is “committed to addressing a wide range of topics, while simultaneously highlighting material and artifacts from different continents, cultures, time periods and media”.

Except for the subject matter, the Museum of Sex operates like any traditional, large museum institution. Their board of advisors is comprised of leading experts and academics, but also of artists and activists, who guide curators and guest curators toward “research resources, pertinent collections and exhibition relevant artists”. The Museum of Sex also has a permanent collection (of over 15,000 artifacts and growing), a research library, and a multimedia library.

Another museum that focuses on a subject that might be considered less than museum worthy is the Trash Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Founded by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the museum “offers unique exhibits and programs on the many challenges and solutions of waste management”. Some features of the museum include a viewing area where visitors can observe the working regional recycling center, art programs turning trash into treasure, Boy Scout programs, classroom outreach programs, and more. A current exhibit at the museum is “Fashion from Trashin” which is similar to the “Trashion the Place” show at the 407 this semester, but on a larger scale.

The Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority also created the Garbage Museum in Stratford, CT, which is similar to the Trash Museum. In 2008, more than 57,000 visitors of all ages toured both museums. The education centers for both museums recently received an $86,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Science which will be used for targeted recycling education programs in the museums.

Museums do not have to be connected with an object, a nation, or a place—some museums, such as the Freud Dreams Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, are connected with the non-specific. The Freud Dreams Museum is concerned solely with Sigmund Freud’s “ideas and dreams – with the realm of the ideal, the ephemeral, and the virtual.” The Museum of Dreams is, according to their website, a museum of “psychoanalysis – a museum of psychic (not material) reality: a palimpsest of words and images, feelings, intentions, and daydreams…a total installation. All of its walls, surfaces, floors, and ceilings – visible and invisible – are conceived, calculated, and arranged so that the visitor can reconfigure the museum’s visual elements in accordance with their own experience, fantasies, and desires. This is much different than the traditional museum which usually has a clear-cut mission and set strategies for providing visitors with specific information and educational opportunities.

The Museum of Dreams is much less structured than traditional museums and educates in a different way that requires more from the visitor. The museum consists of basically two rooms. The Introductory Hall is the “light” room and the “zone of conscious-preconscious”. In this hall you find twelve displays recounting the life and works of Freud. In between the Introductory Hall and the Hall of Dreams are eight light boxes with ten of Freud’s most famous dreams, illustrated by Pavel Pepperstein. The Hall of Dreams is the “dark” room and the “zone of the preconscious-unconscious”. In this space, the visitor must actively “co-participate in order to penetrate…some objects are barely discernible…as in a dream, we cannot make out everything; we cannot remember everything that emerges from the soul’s dark depths. In the end, we see what we want to see, and sometimes we can bring to consciousness what we want to see.” The Hall of Dreams also has a section in the center where visitors can project their own images onto a screen, creating their “own waking dreams”. The Museum of Dreams makes it possible for every visitor to “find something of your own in our museum. Every visitor is free to experience the joy, surprise, and anxiety of encountering oneself, of coming face to face with your own innermost thoughts, dreams, and desires.”

Museums can also be built on commemorating an event, or in the case of the Woodstock Museum, a concert. While other museums have commemorated Woodstock in exhibits (for example, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has a permanent Woodstock exhibition), the Woodstock Museum is entirely dedicated to the concert. On their website, a link to their mission statement brings you only to a scan of their provisional charter granted by the New York State of Regents, stating in part that the Woodstock Museum will, “gather, display, disseminate, and develop the concept and reality of “Woodstock”, encompassing the culture and history of a living colony of the arts” and to “encourage and increase public awareness of “Woodstock” by providing information to the general public through cultural events, displays of artifacts, outreach programs, communication media events and personal experiences, and to contribute, as an international attraction, to the cultural life and prosperity of our region.”

Current exhibitions include the 1960s Revelation Multimedia Light Show, in which you can book a party (“prices always fair”) to experience the “explosive era where rebels with a cause formed political, sexual, psychedelic, and spiritual movements that would shake the foundations of America…the music tells the story”.

The Woodstock Museum’s largest event is its annual film and video festival, which features screenings of performances by Sixties-era fixtures such as Jefferson Starship and Barry McGuire and Woodstock Museum founder Nathan Koenig’s film of the Dalai Lama’s 2006 visit to Woodstock. Koenig states, “We want to show that the hippies were right about a lot of things and our generation will resonate through history.”

The Woodstock Museum only has about 100 paid members, and is mainly supported by an anonymous Massachusetts based foundation. The museum also received a $25,000 grant for winning the Manes Peace Prize in 2008, which the museum plans on using for the construction of a promenade that will make it easier for people with disabilities to access the hexagonal, four-level building. The founder’s long-range plan is to expand the building, which is currently only 1,000 square feet.

Although there are thousands of obscure museums of curiosities in the world that are credible, I also must bring up the fact that there are other places that claim to be museums but in fact do not have not-for-profit status and do not function to serve the public like a true museum must do. Two examples are the World’s Smallest Museum in Arizona and the SPAM Museum in Minnesota.

The World’s Smallest Museum showcases “artifacts of ordinary life” in their 134 square feet of space, but is essentially a tourist attraction along state highway 60 that sells jewelry, apache tears, rocks, and hot sauce. They do not have a mission statement or board of directors listed on their website, which is why I don’t believe they have not-for-profit status and are not a true museum. It is important to look at the structures of museums to judge which are credible and which are not.

The Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota functions in a similar way as the World’s Smallest Museum, although it not small by any means. This 16,500 square foot building is a renovated K-Mart and was opened by the Hormel Foods Corporation which creates the SPAM pork product. In a way, it does function to educate the public about SPAM, as you can view “vintage advertising, answer SPAM trivia, try your hand at canning SPAM products, stock up on collectible SPAM memorabilia, and learn about all the SPAM products”, but it seems to be more of a tourist attraction for entertainment purposes and a marketing ploy to sell SPAM. It is not a not-for-profit organization as I could not find a mission statement or a board of directors in my research, leading me to believe it is not a separate entity from the Hormel Foods Corporation. Like the World’s Smallest Museum, the SPAM Museum’s function seems to be promoting the products that the entity sells. At least both of the so-called museums offer free admission.

Whether museums are obscure or well-known, dedicated to a specific subject or broad scope, all true museums that have not-for-profit status are operating to preserve, exhibit, and educate. While some smaller museums might not get the recognition they deserve, they still have their function and place in the museum world. At first glance some of these museums might seem to be created for entertainment purposes only, but when looking at them deeper we find a common thread to serve the public and a desire to be taken as seriously as the larger institutions. The museums of curiosities are unpredictable, and don’t always subscribe to the typical museum norm. To discover these museums, whether by accident while traveling, or through word of mouth, is to discover the truly unique and break outside the typical museum experience, thereby changing our perceptions and breaking the stereotypes about what constitutes a museum or what subjects can be considered museum worthy.


Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. <;

Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority,

Freud Dreams Museum. <>

Hobo Museum. <;

Museum of Sex. <;

National Great Blacks in Wax. <>

Spam Museum. <;

Vent Haven Museum. <;

Wax Museum. <>

Woodstock Museum.

World’s Smallest Museum. <;

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