America's strangest museums

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Southern California real estate agent Ken Bannister went bananas—literally—more than 40 years ago. What began as his marketing strategy of handing out banana stickers at conventions ripened into a full-blown persona as the “Banana Man.” He’s amassed nearly 20,000 artifacts now on display at the Banana Museum.

It’s just one of the odd collections found across America. Whether devoted to barbed wire or Bigfoot, most of these strange museums spring from the passionate hobbies of individuals like Bannister. And their labors of love are a reminder that what can be considered worthy to collect is as varied as the country itself.

Unlike major institutions displaying Picasso paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi, or Jeff Koons’s latest balloon animal, these strange museums are rarely crowded. You certainly won’t confuse New York’s MoMA with MOMA—the self-described “museum of meat awesomeness” devoted to SPAM in Austin, MN.

Read on for more delightfully weird museums to explore. Your next road trip just might include stops at a museum celebrating bad art or one that displays wreaths made from human hair.

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, Burlingame, CA

Gary Doss has spent more than 20 years collecting these candy dispensers and now displays every PEZ ever made—over 900 (Image above). Rare PEZ include the donkey-head model made for President Kennedy, the “Make Face” akin to Mr. Potato Head with interchangeable parts, and a Mary Poppins. The gift shop sells all things PEZ, both new and vintage models, and the same building houses the Banned Toy and Classic Toy Museum. burlingamepezmuseum.com

Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum, McLean, TX

Barbed wire has been used to keep people out since the mid-1880s. But at Devil’s Rope, visitors are welcomed in to learn about one of the most useful inventions for the pioneering American landowner. Housed in a former bra factory just off historic Route 66, the museum’s exhibits include patent information (there are more than 450 on the books), collections from private wire collectors, and warfare wire. barbwiremuseum.com

National Museum of Funeral History, Houston

Funeral director Robert Waltrip realized a lifelong dream in 1992 when he opened this institution dedicated to the care of the deceased. Must-sees include the Vatican-approved pope funeral trappings, the largest collection of Ghanaian fantasy caskets outside of Africa (in crab, cow, and car shapes), funeral memorabilia from celebrities including Michael Jackson, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe, and 19th-century mourning clothes. It’s also the place to brush up on the history of embalming. nmfh.org

The Hobo Museum, Britt, IA

Housed in the former Chief Theater, the Hobo Museum celebrates the vagabond lifestyle, which happens to have a stringent code of ethics. It’s full of drifter memorabilia from the likes of Frisco Jack, Connecticut Slim, and Hard Rock Kid. Hobo crafts, art, photographs, and documentaries depicting the unorthodox way of life are also on display. It’s brought to you by the Hobo Foundation, which hosts an annual convention in town. hobo.com

Leila’s Hair Museum, Independence, MO

Don’t expect to find Mesopotamian curling irons or Cher’s wigs. What you will see is real hair—and lots of it—fashioned into art. Leila Cohoon, a retired hairdresser, has lovingly collected 600 hair wreaths and more than 2,000 pieces of human hair jewelry dating back to the 18th century. One pair of wreaths features strands from two sisters whose heads were shaved upon entering a convent. Notable personalities including Michael Jackson, Queen Victoria, and four presidents have also made contributions.

Bigfoot Discovery Museum, Felton, CA

Yeti. Sasquatch. Bigfoot. It doesn’t matter what you call the hairy creature. What does matter to museum founder Mike Riggs, who has collected hominid data for more than 60 years, is that you keep an open mind. His findings include video footage, audiotapes, and a local map with pushpins marking over 150 sightings. Riggs firmly believes Bigfoot is alive, well, and a resident of the Santa Cruz area. And after a stop here, you just might, too. bigfootdiscoveryproject.com

SPAM Museum, Austin, MN

Hamming it up comes naturally to this museum, described on its website as M.O.M.A.: Museum of Meat-Themed Awesomeness. Did you know that more than 100 million pounds of Spam were shipped oversees to our troops in World War II? Or that a girl band called the Hormel Girls toured the country to promote the glorious gelatinous pork? These are just a few of the morsels you’ll learn about while in Austin, a.k.a. Spamtown (Hormel is headquartered here). Johnny’s SPAMarama Restaurant is conveniently across the street. spam.com

Apothecary Museum, Alexandria, VA

With items like dragon’s breath and unicorn root, this 18th-century pharmacy might be mistaken for a Harry Potter movie set. Beyond the remarkable anthology of herbal botanicals, handblown-glass jars, and medical equipment, the archival journals at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop give a glimpse into both the bizarre and commonsensical aspects of colonial-era medicine. The shop shuttered in 1933 after being operated by a Quaker family for generations. alexandriava.gov

Museum of Bad Art, Dedham Square, MA

So bad, it’s good: artistic creations that would never see the light of day anywhere else are proudly displayed here. Yet this museum has its standards in curating “distinguished” dreadful art. Whether it’s by a talent who had an off day or a beginning painter with crude strokes, each piece has to have a special quality to meet the standard of “too bad to be ignored.”

International Banana Museum, Mecca, CA

“The Banana Museum puts a smile on peoples’ faces every time,” says founder Ken Bannister. Since the early ’70s, he’s gone bananas for the tropical fruit, amassing more than 18,000 items of bananabilia, from a banana-shaped putter to a seven-foot-tall banana popular for photo ops. He sold the world’s largest collection of a single fruit to a new owner in 2010—the equally enthusiastic Fred Garbutt—who serves banana smoothies and dresses in banana-themed clothing at the newly installed nonalcoholic bar within the museum. facebook.com/InternationalBananaMuseum

See All of America’s Strangest Museums

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