Museums exploring art, nature and the cultures of the world are big and great and popular and all that – but what else is there?
When you’ve got plenty of time to spare or a large group to please, cultural institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art or Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry certainly fit the bill. But sometimes you just want to explore something different – a smaller museum with a more specific focus, where you can indulge a particular interest or simply get away from the crowds.
So who’s up for visiting a museum about sex, or bicycles, or the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time?
A pretty remarkable number of offbeat and under-the-radar museums can be found throughout North America, some quirky and some deadly serious. Here are some Billy’s picks of the unusual museums you can visit on the U.S. side of the border. (And visit Billy next week for our roundup of alternative museums in Canada …)
New York: Louis Armstrong House Museum
Tucked away in northeastern Queens (don’t worry, there’s a subway stop nearby), the Louis Armstrong House Museum is a stellar institution dedicated to a late jazz treasure. The house is both a national and New York City historic landmark, where the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time lived from 1943 until his death in 1971. He passed away in the two-storey home’s master bedroom, which visitors are allowed to see. The home is well preserved and despite its modest size has become the largest publicly held archived collection in the world devoted to a jazz musician. It holds photographs, sound recordings, letters, manuscripts, instruments and artifacts.
34-56 107th St., Corona (Queens), New York, 718-478-8274
Kate Glicksburg / NYC Go
And I think to myself: What a wonderful kitchen
New York: Museum of Sex
It should come as no surprise that this museum was established in a historic building in an area once called Tenderloin, which was notorious during the 19th century for its bordellos, dance halls and seedy saloons. The museum’s mission is to openly – and most times provocatively – explore aspects of human (and some non-human) sexual behaviour through its exhibits. As the organization makes clear, this is not a pornography museum, but some of the projects and exhibitions are so explicit that visitors must be at least 18 to enter. There’s even a café/cocktail lounge that explores the relationship between sex, sensuality and food and drink.
Museum of Sex, New York
233 Fifth Ave., New York, 212-689-6337
Vermont: New England Maple Museum
Did you know that a maple tree can produce as much as 15 U.S. gallons (just shy of 60 litres) of sap in the spring? Probably not, but we bet you know all about how delicious it is. Located in the Green Hills of Vermont – the leading syrup-producing U.S. state – the New England Maple Museum tells you how the tasty brown goo is made. There’s also a giant syrup jug for snapping that souvenir Instagram, but you’re most likely to stick around for a while in the gift shop, which is stuffed with maple syrup goodies.
4578 U.S. Route 7, Pittsford, Vt., 802-483-9414
Boston: Warren Anatomical Museum
Like many teaching doctors of his era, John Collins Warren (1778-1856) amassed a collection of medical tools: drawings, books, tools, and “specimens” – which would often mean “grody stuff, some of it preserved in jars.” Now housed and available for public viewing in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University, the highlight of the collection – which was actually added to it after Warren’s death – is the skull of Phineas Gage, who famously survived for years after an iron rod went through his skull. If museums of weird and macabre medical specimens fascinate you, there’s also the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York and the The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, to name a couple in the Northeastern United States.
At the Countway Library of Medicine, 10 Shattuck St., Boston
Boston: MIT Museum
Your IQ level will feel like it increased exponentially the moment you step inside this respected breeding ground for geniuses and intellectuals. At the MIT Museum – it’s on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, naturally – guests can peek into the archives that have been collected from top students and professors since 1971. Explore the world of artificial intelligence and other robots, fields in which MIT has been a leader in research since the 1950s. There are also exhibitions dedicated to innovation and technical advances in areas ranging from photography to sculpture and naval engineering.
265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass., 617-253-5927
Massachusetts: Salem Witch Museum
Speaking of macabre, this museum commemorates a time when witch hunts were literal hunts for suspected witches, and not just a thing we do when someone says something stupid on Twitter. The town of Salem – located about a 45-minute drive north of central Boston – happily shares with visitors the story of its collective panic in 1692, when at least 19 people were executed for suspected witchcraft. The exhibits include warning signs to look for in possible future outbreaks of mass hysteria.
19½ Washington Square North, Salem, Mass., 978-744-1692
Salem Witch Museum
Chicago: National Veterans Art Museum
There is no other museum like NVAM in the country, and perhaps the world. While other museums fill their halls with the artifacts of war, this Chicago museum’s simple but unique mission is to exhibit veterans’ art – that is, the human experience of war as they have captured, examined, and expressed it through their work. Formed by veterans of the Vietnam War in 1981, the NVAM’s collection now includes more than 800 pieces representing more than 170 artists, three floors of exhibit space, and a theatre space named in honor of comedian Bob Hope.
4041 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 312-326-0270
National Veterans’ Art Museum
Pittsburgh: Bicycle Heaven
You’d have to be completely obsessed to open what is now known as the world’s largest bicycle museum. Craig Morrow’s store-slash-museum houses up to 2,000 bikes at any given time. Rest assured that he and his staff are knowledgeable about them all. Bicycle Heaven isn’t just a place to go and gawk, visitors may also buy their dream two-wheeler as technicians can build them to most specifications. And if you’re looking for vintage spare parts, this is the place – they’re for sale, as are vintage bikes, antique horns and bells, and more.
1800 Preble & Columbus Avenue, Pittsburgh, 412-734-4034
Pittsburgh: Engine House 25, including Roberto Clemente Museum
The historic former firehouse has been completely renovated, catering to baseball fans and oenophiles. Engine House 25 is located two miles from downtown Pittsburgh and houses the Clemente Museum as well as winery and tasting room in the cellar. The best way to experience the venue is to start with a tour of the museum, which honors baseball legend Roberto Clemente, who played his entire Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1955 to 1972, before dying off-season in a helicopter crash while on his way to deliver aid to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua. He started his career when black and Spanish-speaking players were still scarce in the majors, and showed grace while enduring racial and cultural discrimination. Guests of the property may also visit the on-premises winery and end the tour with an experience in the tasting room. Take a case of vino home with Clemente’s face plastered over each bottle.
3339 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, 412-621-1268
Tip: Don’t forget to check the hours of operation – call or email if necessary – before visiting these museums, as many smaller institutions take at least one day off each week.