Editor’s note 5/18/2019: The museums mentioned are all still in operation since the original article was written in 2014 and all links are active. However, you many find that a museum may have been updated or (as in the case of the Spy Museum) opened in a new location. Of course, temporary exhibitions and museum collections may be different when you visit.
Diverse exhibits in museums of the USA, Canada, and Mexico
While I enjoy visiting large institutions like the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to peruse their enormous collections, I have a special fondness for the smaller, and in some cases unusual or under-the-radar museums that I come across. Over the past few years, it’s been great to see an increasing number of these museums in places I’ve traveled. Although this is certainly not a comprehensive list, it highlights a diversity of intriguing museums in North America that have grabbed my attention and that I recommend for a visit if you get a chance. You can find more information about them in links I’ve included to previous posts and museum websites. In no particular order ….
Bata Shoe Museum – Toronto, Ontario
It’s all about shoes at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum where footwear of ancient Egyptians to modern celebrities is displayed on four spacious levels. Shoe fanatics might go wild with the variety of the exhibits — high heels, sandals, boots, moccasins, and many more types of footwear in the permanent collection and in special exhibits. The museum has about 12,500 artifacts with several hundred on display at any given time. When I visited, there was a special exhibition (no longer there) of Parisien designer Roger Vivier’s work from the 1950s and early 1960s when he was with Christian Dior and later on his own. Through June 2016, there is a special exhibition called Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century — doesn’t that sound interesting?
International Spy Museum – Washington D.C.
The International Spy Museum is among my many favorite Washington D.C. attractions. When I was growing up I fantasized about being a spy and still enjoy films and books with international intrigue. There are extensive exhibits, interactive displays and in-depth historical information about espionage (the world’s “second oldest profession”) and the role that intelligence plays in current events. A lipstick pistol, tear gas pen, disguise kit, and wristwatch microphone are just a few of the many spy artifacts that seem like they’re straight from the movies. You really can go undercover in a one hour experience, “Operation Spy”, by taking on the identity of an intelligence officer on a mission that is based on actual cases. Currently, there is a special exhibition at the museum — Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains.
Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art – Elmhurst, Illinois
The Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art is an under-the-radar gem (really). It’s about 15 miles west of Chicago in the suburb of Elmhurst, easily reached by Metra train from the city.
What is lapidary? It is the art of cutting and polishing stone. The museum’s founder, Joseph F. Lizzadro, Sr., started a hobby in lapidary back in the 1930s and through acquisitions grew a world-class collection. His museum opened in 1962 for this stated purpose: “To share with others our enjoyment of the eternal beauty in gemstones and our appreciation of the art with which man has complemented the works of nature.” The diverse rock and mineral exhibits rough gems, jade carvings, polished stones, stone mosaics, and dioramas of animals carved from gem materials.
Las Labrades – Sinaloa, Mexico
This open-air museum is on an isolated beach near the fishing village of Barras de Piaxtla (about an hour from Mazatlan). Its treasures are ancient petroglyphs (300 carvings of shapes and faces) that were discovered on rocks on the beach. The mystery of the petroglyphs has not been completely solved, but there is some agreement that they were carved between 1000 and 1500 years ago, based on estimated dates of a nearby archeological find. However, but there are other finds in the area that appear to be from several millennia earlier, and there is still uncertainty about who created them and their purpose. Were they religious, art something else? At the site, there is a small building with a twig thatched roof that serves as a museum with replicas of the petroglyphs, artwork depicting ancient civilization, and educational information.
Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic – Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
Discover the rich history of the fishing industry and life in fishing communities on Canada’s Atlantic coast at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. Located in a former fish processing plant on the picturesque waterfront, there are three floors filled with historical artifacts, interactive displays, an aquarium, ship models, and other marine exhibits. There is also a Lunenburg Fishermen’s Memorial Room dedicated to local fishermen who have been lost at sea.
On the adjacent wharf, visitors can also hop aboard three boats, including the Cape Sable shown above, talk to retired fishermen, and even learn how to shuck a scallop.
Tenement Museum – New York City
The Tenement Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side provides an extraordinary look into the lives of the immigrants that lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. The apartments have been restored with furniture, kitchenware, and other items and antiques that are the same or similar to those that the families would have used at the time to give a real sense of the lifestyles of the immigrants and the conditions they faced. Each room has a story and the museum’s guides convey them based on extensive and continuing research.
It’s estimated that about 7,000 people lived at 97 Orchard Street before the final tenants were evicted in 1935. The building was left vacant until 1988 when it was discovered by Tenement Museum founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson.
Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and Museum – Oak Park, Illinois
I think I’ve read all of Ernest Hemingway’s published works since my first introduction to The Sun Also Rises as a teenager. Like many who are interested in the man and his life, I’ve strongly associated him with places like Havana, Key West, Paris, Spain and other places he lived or wrote about. I also think of Ketchum, Idaho where he took his own life on July 2, 1961. But we can go back to where it all began for Hemingway in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb just west of Chicago. Located on Oak Park Avenue is the Ernest Hemingway Museum which has a large collection of photos, letters and other artifacts from Ernest’s life, including his childhood diary. Just a block away is the home where Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, and lived until he was six years old.
There are guided tours that take you through the entire home, including living areas, kitchen, bedrooms and the nursery where Ernest slept. I like to imagine Ernest looking out of the living room windows and dreaming about adventures in far away places.
Charles M. Schulz Museum – Santa Rosa, California
Charles Schulz was the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strips and lived in Santa Rosa, California for 40 years. The Charles M. Schulz Museum opened in 2002 near Schulz’s art studio and his Redwood Empire Ice Arena (also known as “Snoopy’s Home Ice”) that opened in 1969. The museum’s collection has thousands of Schulz’s original “Peanuts” cartoon drawings dating back to 1950 up to his final ones created shortly before his death in 2000.
There is an education center that has cartooning classes and a lot of activities for kids. We watched as an instructor drew Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus and Spike for us on the board. Visitors can also see Schulz’s desk and drawing board as well as many of his personal memorabilia, books, awards, and photographs.
Peshtigo Fire Museum – Peshtigo, Wisconsin
You’re probably aware of the Great Chicago Fire and the legend that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was to blame, but many don’t know about another fire that took place just 250 miles north of Chicago in Peshtigo, Wisconsin on exactly the same day, October 8, 1871. Although the Chicago fire was devastating, the Peshtigo fire (referred to by locals and historians as “The Forgotten Fire”) actually caused wider property destruction and greater loss of life, killing about 1,200 people. Although there aren’t many artifacts in the Peshtigo Fire Museum from the fire itself since nearly everything was destroyed, there are several exhibits illustrating what life was like during the time of the fire and into the early 20th century with authentic items donated by local residents, including clothing, furniture, glassware, dolls and books.
Spam Museum – Austin, Minnesota
Whether or not you are a SPAM® fan, I think you’d enjoy a visit to the SPAM® Museum that celebrates Hormel Food Corporation’s canned spiced pork. The museum has been humorously referred to as The Guggenham, Porkopolis and MOMA (Museum Of Meat-Themed Awesomeness).
There are 16,500 square feet of SPAM® history, trivia, and vintage advertising and exhibits that showcase the significance of SPAM® during World War II, the SPAM® Game Show quiz, a Monty Python tribute, the popularity of the product in Hawaii (if you’ve been to Hawaii, you’ll know why) and more. There is plenty of SPAM® to sample at the museum, too. I refrained, but in retrospect, I wish that I had given it a try.
Hana Cultural Center – Maui, Hawaii
The Hana Cultural Center in the town of Hana on Maui is comprised of a small museum and a one-room courthouse (built in 1871) that is still used as a court, but also houses historic artifacts. The cultural center, also called Hale Wai Wai (Hawaiian for House of Treasures), was established in 1971 to preserve and demonstrate traditional Hana life and the culture of east Maui. Its exhibits are simple, but rich in the history of the town and the symbolism of Hana culture. The importance of community is an important aspect of Hana culture. It is inherent in daily life and evidenced in the museum by the poster-sized photos of Hana residents, past and present.
The beautiful staff of orange feathers pictured above was carried by a herald walking before the king’s procession to alert those in the area that royalty was approaching because if anyone’s shadow fell upon the king, it meant a death sentence.
Hiller Aviation Museum – San Carlos, California
You don’t have to be a pilot or aviation buff to enjoy Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos (about 20 miles south of San Francisco) where you’ll learn much about aviation history going back to 1869 and see displays of vintage airplanes and models. There are also exhibits focusing on the future of aviation. Through large windows in one area of the gallery, you can watch the restoration and maintenance of the exhibits. In the Flight Sim Zone, you can take control of a flight simulator to get some realistic piloting experience.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum – San Jose, California
I never expected to find an Egyptian museum in San Jose, but there is one and it’s quite exceptional. At Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum there are many fascinating exhibits of artifacts and educational displays about burial practices, religion, and daily life of the ancient Egyptians. One of the best parts for me was going inside a replica of an ancient Egyptian tomb.
Museum of Sex – New York City
Don’t worry — I won’t go into any detail here.
In the name of scientific research, Mr. TWS and I checked out the Museum of Sex at 233 5th Avenue in New York. The museum’s mission statement reads that their purpose is to “preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality”. They cover just about everything you might want to know about sex, including how it’s been portrayed in films since the early 20th century. Various subjects are depicted in explicit videos projected on table tops and walls, photographs, artwork, books, and informative signs.
Quite an eclectic list of museums in North America, wouldn’t you agree? Have you been to any others that you’d like to add to the list?
Wow! There is something for everybody here! Love the variety! In our home state of Minnesota (besides spam) in Two Harbors, we liked the 3M museum, in the building where the founders had their office. We also liked the exhibits at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, although technically not a museum, very kitschy. In Las Vegas, the Atomic Museim is fun, particularly their interactive exhibit on UFOs and Area 51. The Submarine Museum at Pearl Harbor is nice, too. Fun topic!
That is quite a eclectic collection of museums. I’d love to visit both the tenement museum and the spy museum. The Operation Spy experience sound like a lot of fun.
We love finding odd museums, so thanks for the list. Been to the Spam museum, it’s great. The Oz museum in Wamego Kansas is another good one.
Soooo, wouldn’t they allow cameras in the museum on Sex? The traveling display of King Tut artifacts were my most memorable experience, especially seeing his mask. I’m a train buff and the train museum in Sacramento, California has us returning often. Being from Wisconsin, we’ve been to the Peshtigo Fire museum. I had to satisfy my curiosity as to why it would have happened that day. I understand the dry winds were causing smaller fires and they combined to almost destroy the town and everyone in it. Great collection of museums that I now want to see too.
What an amazing list! Even though I live in NY, I haven’t gotten to the Tenement Museum. I have to make a point of getting there!
This is a great list of museums – I have a fondness for the Bata Shoe Museum as well but I’ve not been to any of the others. I would love to visit the Charles Schulz Museum!
Hi Catherine: you’ve got a good cross section here. We really do have so an assortment of eclectic museums in North Am. I haven’t done extensive research YET, but I know there are defintely some chocolate museums that may be of interest as well …
Great idea for a post! I think the weirdest museum I’ve been to were the anatomical museum in Bangkok and the sex museum in China. Lots of dead bodies and sexual positions haha Of all these, I’d want to visit the Spam museum. Filipinos love Spam.
I’ve never heard of a shoe museum, but I think that would be interesting to me. The others all look great too, I am very shy ( a surprise to most), so although the museum of sex sounds interesting, I’m not sure I could take my eyes off the ground 😉 Very informative post.
Those shoes made me laugh. We didn’t visit the Tenement Museum when in NYC although I wish we had. I am hopeful that we will return and we will definitely go then.
Great list of museums, so far I have only visited the Hana Cultural Centre but would love to visit a few other as well. The shoe and Spam museum sound very interesting as well
What a great and unique collection of museums, Cathy! I wish I had the time to visit the Bata one last year. I remember some of these posts. I’ve been wanting to visit the Charles Schultz museum and the Spam museum. The islander in me (despite not being a SPAM fan) just wants to see the madness. The Automotive Museum and the Grammy museums here in LA are quite fascinating.
Great post Catherine! It must have been a lot of work to put it together! My favorite would be the one in NYC – Tenement Museum because of my own interests but I am intrigued by your list! Thanks for sharing!
We love quirky museums. So these would be right up our street. Thanks for the tip. Once we return to North America, we’re definitely going to check some of these out.
Great list – I love smaller, quirky museums! The Tenement Museum in NY sounds really interesting. Not convinced about the Spam Museum myself, but I guess it could be intriguing!
Great list! I’ve actually been to the Spam Museum. Very impressive.
Interesting list!! Love the more unique attractions that most don’t know about! Thanks for sharing!
What a fascinating article!! I enjoyed every word! I have got to check some of them out.
The only one of these museums I’ve been to is the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Another one that should be on the list is the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia—a museum of medical history and medical oddities in the College of Physicians in Center City Philadelphia.
Oh my gosh the Charles Schulz and Hemingway visits first! Then absolutely on the Hiller Aviation Museum, Catherine! I’m hoping to make a trip or two over the hill from Reno this Fall and I need to put Santa Rosa on my list! Thank you 🙂
Yes, a very eclectic round-up of museums! Love the idea of that shoe museum :-). We visited a very unusual and quirky museum in Guanajuato, Mexico – the Mummy Museum – which displays over 100 human mummies. Here’s our post on that museum: http://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/guanajuato-mummy-museum/
Okay, first of all… The Charles M. Schulz Museum is by far my most favorite museum – ever – as we are borderline obsessed with Charlie Brown and the entire Peanuts gang. It’s hilarious to me that you wrote about the Rosicrucian Museum because as a 6th grade teacher I guided a lot of field trips to the Rosicrucian. Even though it is truly a fascinating museum, I’d be okay if I never visited the Rosicrucian again. 🙂 We enjoy museums as well and when they’re on the smaller side it’s so much easier to see everything, and you’re not completely exhausted with aching feet at the end of your visit.
I’d love Las Labrades, which I’d never heard of before. Two great museums I know about- the Classical Gas Museum in Embudo NM is perfect for people who love old gas station memorabilia including old gas tanks. On a more serious note- the Kirkland Museum of Decorative Arts in Denver is a real gem.
Great list of interesting museums. I have been to the Bata museum here in TO.
What a great list of interesting museums. I have not been to Washington but I have to say the Spy Museum tops my list. A Spam museum might get a pass but the Tenement Museum also looks very interesting.
Should be interesting what sort of traffic you’ll get on this post with your title – might eventually make a post in itself!
Many of these museums are new to me. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’d never heard of the lapidary museum – and I live in Chicago! More so, I’ve never visited the Hemingway museum. You’ve just shamed me into putting it at the top of my list now 😉
It’s certainly an eclectic collection – I really like the sound of the Spy Museum and the Tenement Museum. We have a few weird ones in the UK too, like the Dog Collar Museum, the Lawnmower Museum, and the Museum of Mental Health in an old asylum (strangely I haven’t gotten around to visiting any of these yet!)
I’m not much of a museum person, but I have been to the Tenement Museum and it is so interesting to see how immigrants lived. It makes you wonder why they stayed! There are quite interesting museums on this list and it seems they really do have a museum for just about everything.
What a cool list, Cathy! I’ve been to the spy museum and Hemingway’s home – and enjoyed both a lot. I’d love to check out the aviation museum, given how much I love flying. 🙂
a plethora of great stuff here Cathy. I’ll return to this page often, there’s so much I know it’s going to take more than one read to get it all. Thanks! 😀
That’s a lot of museums! And the great thing is that there is something for everyone!
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Nice list of a diverse set of museums needless to say. Learned a few that never knew prior. Thanks for sharing.
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