Quirky Collections: Unexpected Museums

Tired of trudging past fine art? Weary of feigning interest in natural history? These offbeat museums, dedicated to items not normally associated with curation and scholarship, will rekindle your interest in spending the day indoors.

Highlights
108 Main St, Haines, AK 99827, USA
It’s nearly impossible to miss the Hammer Museum in Haines: It’s the building next to the giant hammer. The museum got its start when founder Dave Pahl brought home one too many hammers and his wife suggested that a new plan for his collection might be in order. So he moved them out to a small house of their own, hanging his beloveds between, suitably, nails. And he knows the pieces in the collection from tip to tip. Seriously: When it comes to hammers, you can ask him anything. Though the museum might have had a quirky start, Pahl is the go-to source for all things hammer for museum curators and professors around the country.
Piazza di Santa Trinita, 5R, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
What began in pre-war Italy as two small workshops in the Palazzo Spini Feroni on Via Tornabuoni has grown into a fashion empire and a brand synonymous with Hollywood glamour. A museum dedicated to the craftsmanship of Salvatore Ferragamo opened in this grand palazzo in 1995. The collection includes the wooden lasts, or forms, that Ferragamo used to shape shoes for stars like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren. Glass cases display some of the company’s colorful and iconic creations—many that seem more sculpture than shoe. There is also a small space that hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
514 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
Little-known fact: New Orleans was the first place in North America to license pharmacists (starting in 1769, when the city was still under Spanish rule). After Louisiana became a territory, the U.S. governor extended the requirement, also decreeing that pharmacists take a three-hour licensing exam in order to practice. And no wonder illness got such attention—the city was arguably the least healthy place to live on the continent; it was riddled with yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery. This dark but fascinating history is explored in this atmospheric 1822 town house, which was once the home and shop of Louis J. Dufilho, the first licensed pharmacist in the city—and hence in the country. Exhibits include apothecary jars, tools of the trade, and leeches. (Yes. Leeches.)
140 Heights Boulevard
One of the most beloved Houston celebrations is its annual Art Car Parade, which takes places in downtown Houston every spring and showcases cars decorated in every material imaginable. Even if you can’t make it to the parade, you can still find the flavor of the festivities at the Art Car Museum, which is free and open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The museum includes a variety of exhibits by local, national and international artists as well as actual art cars. It was founded in 1998 and has since become an excellent place for up-and-coming artists to be seen while also paying tribute to the postmodern age of car culture. Even the building facade, which is covered in scrap metal and chrome, is a work of art.
327 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON M5S 1W7, Canada
The Bata Shoe Museum is dedicated to the history of footwear through the ages. And what a spectacular history! After one visit, you’ll be able to distinguish Rajasthani mojaris from chopines, the platform shoes worn by 16th-century Spanish and Italian society ladies. Consider this training for trivia competitions. The museum’s impressive collection of more than 13,000 shoes and footwear-related objects is leveraged across four exhibits: fashion, practicality, shoemaking, and finally the footwear of Arctic dwellers. The museum also offers design workshops, family activities, movie nights, and more.
Herengracht 573, 1017 CD Amsterdam, Netherlands
This collection of 5,000-plus bags, purses, and accessories—the largest in the world—spans more than 500 years, from a practical 16th-century goatskin money pouch to a whimsical shoe-shaped purse by contemporary Dutch footwear designer Jan Jansen. Displayed beautifully throughout a grand 17th-century canal house and arranged by time period, the collection includes rare French silk bridal bags from the 1800s, delicate art deco beaded purses, chic 1970s Lucite clutches, and contemporary handbags by luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Gucci, and Prada. Items owned by the rich and famous are here as well: a Versace evening bag Madonna carried at the Evita premiere; the cat-shaped “Socks” clutch that Judith Leiber designed for Hillary Clinton; and Margaret Thatcher’s iconic gray Asprey handbag, which she referred to as her “weapon.” Don’t miss the café’s renowned afternoon tea, with sweet and savory bites served in the museum’s period rooms.
Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Surely the world’s only museum to showcase the phalluses of an entire nation’s mammalian wildlife, Iceland’s Phallological Museum is somewhat unique. Despite its obvious quirk factor, the museum is actually an interesting and—for the most part—fairly serious establishment. It offers guests the chance to inspect almost 300 penises (including parts of penises) that together represent pretty much all the land and sea mammals to be found throughout the country. A quarter belong to various types of whales, but there are also samples from polar bears and seals, as well as a letter from a local human pledging his own personal specimen posthumously. There are also elf penises, though you’ll need special psychic powers to see them.
4725 E Mayo Blvd, Phoenix, AZ 85050, USA
Don a headset, approach an exhibit, and wirelessly listen to African thumb piano or Mongolian throat singing at the vast Musical Instrument Museum. Besides browsing some 15,000 artifacts that represent different musical genres, visitors can catch a concert, take a drumming class, or recharge at the café, which serves global fare made from local products.
325 5th Avenue North
This sheet-metal fever dream by architect Frank Gehry is like a rock-and-roll Guggenheim, home to interactive exhibits that span music, sci-fi, fantasy, animation, video games, and other scrambled bits of modern life. A hands-on studio lets kids and grown-ups mess with real instruments and studio hardware. Originally intended to honor Jimi Hendrix, the building’s design echoes one of the legend’s smashed guitars (most obviously when viewed from atop the Space Needle). Critic Herbert Muschamp once accused it of “looking like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died,” but visitors often enjoy the jumble of color and distorted reflections—perfect for quirky selfies!
Djurgårdsvägen 68, 115 21 Stockholm, Sweden
Abba, the most successful Swedish group of all time, enjoyed a global return to fame with the success of the musical and the film Mamma Mia! In its home country, however, its popularity never dimmed. The museum allows visitors to guest star in an Abba video and marvel at the gloriously over-the-top stage costumes. For hard-core fans, you can also go to the nearby Abba: The Party, where diners are “transported” to a Greek island for a rambunctious evening of food and sing-along entertainment.
Ćirilometodska ul. 2, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia
You don’t need to have a broken heart to have a blast at Zagreb’s quirkiest museum. Located in a Baroque town house in the Upper Town, the Museum of Broken Relationships is full of mementos from other people’s romances gone sour. The idea for the museum started when a former couple tried to heal post-breakup by collecting relics of past loves. They put out a call for submissions and people from all over the world responded, sending everything from cards and jewelry to more bizarre keepsakes like handcuffs and stun guns. After traveling the globe, the crowd-sourced collection settled into its permanent home in Zagreb, though it does still function as a visiting exhibition from time to time. The museum even recently opened an outpost in Los Angeles.
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