Top 10 Fun and Unusual Museums

Quirky, quaint museums add character to their cities

By Mitch Kline on August 26, 2014 at 3:43 pm EST

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeffery S. Otto

Museums like the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer a little something for everyone. But what if your interests are more specific and even weird? Say you’re into Ava Gardner, wrestling or roller skating. And we mean really into it. That’s where the smaller niche museums come in. These fun museums pay homage to a single subject, honor a special interest and celebrate the strange. They may draw smaller crowds, but their founders and visitors definitely don’t lack for enthusiasm. Livability.com went digging for these weird museum gems in dynamic cities across the United States. Our list of the top 10 niche museums includes places that celebrate bikes, dolls, stars and more. Enjoy and remember: don't knock it ‘til you've tried it.

10. Louisville Slugger Museum - Louisville, KY

The crack of the bat is one of the greatest sounds in sports, and bat maker Louisville Slugger is one of best known names in baseball. The Louisville Slugger Museum is the world's largest museum devoted to baseball bats and also has the world's largest bat. The museum, which opened in 1996, features a wide range of exhibits, from trees growing in the forest (destined to become baseball bats) to the greatest hitters the game has ever known.Visitors can face down a 90-mph fastball, check out more than 6,000 autographs from major leaguers, watch bats being made, climb through a giant ball and glove made of 450 million-year-old prehistoric limestone, and more. The Louisville Slugger Museum draws about 180,000 visitors each year.Check out more attractions in Louisville, KY.

9. National Wrestling Hall of Fame - Stillwater, OK

Maybe you appreciate contests of strength and skill. Maybe you're a fan of men in tight clothing. Either way you'll enjoy the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum, America's shrine to the sport of wrestling (real wrestling, not the fake stuff).It opened in 1976, with the idea that the oldest sport in the world should have a permanent home that celebrates its culture and displays meaningful memorabilia. A main attraction here is an exhibit that explains wrestling’s history, which has been traced back to the 12th century BC. Visitors can also see uniforms worn by some of the sport’s greatest athletes and photographs of some of wrestling’s greatest moments.Find more museums in Stillwater, OK.

8. Tupelo Automobile Museum - Tupelo, MS

 

Stroll through the Tupelo Automobile Museum and you'll literally walk a timeline that spans more than 120 years.This 120,000-square-foot showroom features more than 100 antique, classic and collectible cars, all chronologically displayed to illustrate the progress of automobile design and engineering. The collection is valued at more than $6 million and includes vehicles once owned by celebrities including Elvis Presley.Visitors can also peek in on ongoing vehicle restorations to see how volunteers and museum staff make old cars look brand new. This car collection, like many others, began as a private endeavor. The museum opened in 2002 and less than a year later was designated the “official State of Mississippi automobile museum.”Find more on Tupelo, MS's history.

7. Museum of Mountain Bikie Art and Technology - Statesville, NC

Museum of Mountain Bike Art and TechnologyDon't think of bicycles as works of art? The Museum of Mountain Bike Art and Technology just might change your mind. Inside this 5,000-square-foot showroom are exhibits that display the ever-evolving mountain bike, which came into existence in 1869. The free museum features more than 250 bikes, many from the “mountain bike boom” that began in the 1970s and hasn't slowed down yet. Owner Jeff Archer says some of the bikes are so beautiful he'd hang them on the wall of his house. Many are designed to be fashionable as well as utilitarian. If a walk through the museum spurs a desire to ride, there are plenty of mountain bike trails nearby.

6. American Helicopter Museum - West Chester, PA

American Helicopter MuseumIf you're into whirlybirds, this is the place for you. Welcome to the largest collection of helicopters in the nation. You'll find more than 35 civilian and military helicopters, autogiros and convertaplanes that showcase the history of rotary wing aircraft. The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, which opened to the public in 1996, also has a expanding library of documents, films, memoirs and artifacts about rotary wing aircraft. The museum plays host to Rotorfest in the summer, which is the largest all-helicopter air show in the world. If climbing into the cockpit is on your list, several helicopters are open for inspection. You also can walk through a V-22 tilt wing Osprey, which you can image is a pretty big bird.

5. Great American Dollhouse Museum - Danville, KY

When it comes to doll collections, there's a thin line between creepy and cute.
The Great American Dollhouse Museum stays on the right side of the line with a miniature village of neighborhoods, streetscapes, rural areas and forests instead of traditional displays and cases.
Visitors wind their way through an assortment of alleys and roads, peering into the backs of houses to see what the dolls inside are doing. The whole scene represents a 1900-style America, but smaller. A separate carpeted playroom with a hands-on dollhouse village allows little ones to rearrange and play as long as they like, and a classroom provides space for school groups, birthday parties and other gatherings. The village changes with time, so each visit reveals something new.
There are hundreds of “residents” here, many antique and handmade, all historically dressed and posed as if they are interacting with the other inhabitants. There’s also a playroom where you can touch the dolls and even have a little tea party, if that's your thing.
Learn about more attractions in the Danville, KY area.

4. The Trash Museum - Hartford, CT

Ever wondered what happens to the trash you toss out? The CRRA (Conneticut Resources Recovery Authority) Trash Museum in Hartford, CT aims to answer that question while teaching a lesson about sustainability. Tours begin with the Temple of Trash, a room within a room that aims to convey the sense of being inside a landfill. The decor here is wall-to-wall trash. The museum also features artwork made from things people threw away, including a dinasour. Visitors get a birdseye view of the a single-stream recycling facility in operation. Children have the opportunity to turn trash (that's been cleaned) into art projects.

3. Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame - Fort Worth, TX

Mosey on in to an expansive salute to the American cowboy. The Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame pays tribute to rodeo stars and heroes of the west. It features exhibits that show what life was like for a cowboy and honors some of the great cowboys of the past. The building that houses this collection of true grit is itself a relic of the past.Built in 1888 to shelter thousands of horses and mules, the original wooden structure burned to the ground but was reconstructed in 1912. The Cowboy Hall of Fame doesn’t forget little cowpokes, either. A fun, hands-on exhibit features four stations to learn how a cowboy would pack his horse, brand a longhorn, cook from a chuckwagon and dig for arrowheads.*Photo courtesy of Mary HarrschRead about more fun attractions in Fort Worth, TX.

2. Ava Gardner Museum - Smithfield, NC

Call it a crush, fascination or a healthy obsession. Whatever it was, one man’s lifetime of collecting things connected to Ava Gardner paved the way for the Ava Gardner Museum now on display for the world to see.Gardner, born in nearby Grabtown, N.C., appeared in more than 60 films and was a true starlet of the Silver Screen. The museum devoted to her was founded by Thomas M. Banks, a publicist who spent 50 years collecting things she'd worn, touched or appeared on screen with.The museum, which moved to Smithfield in 2000, is now a 6,400-square-foot homage to one of Hollywood's leading ladies. The Ava Gardner Museum is visited by about 12,000 people each year and includes such items as an engraved gold watch Gardner gave to Frank Sinatra when they were married, costumes, dresses and portraits of Gardner painted by Bert Pfeiffer.Read about more cultural museums in Smithfield, NC.

1. National Museum of Roller Skating - Lincoln, NE

National Museum of Roller SkatingSteady yourself and get ready to enter what is touted as the world's only museum devoted to roller skating. The National Museum of Roller Skating is a 2,000-square-foot exploration of wheels you strap on your feet. Among the more unusual pieces in this collection is a pair of skates that were powered by a gas motor worn like a backpack. Exhibits include inline skating, roller hockey, speed skating, roller derby and artistic skating. They've also made some space for ice skating. Roll through here and you'll come out with an understanding of where skates got their start and where they've gone. Best of all, the museum is free.

*Photo courtesy of Joseph Robertson

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