It’s easy to add the the Louvre, the Getty and other world-famous museums to any travel itinerary. But smaller, lesser-known collections are often just as deserving of a visit, and the subjects they tackle, from tsunamis to the art and history of salt, often leave you feeling as refreshed and enlightened as any bigger-ticket destination.
Read on to discover 12 off-the-beaten-path museums in the U.S. and beyond — all of which deserve a look as much for their unhurried vibes as for their unique and impressive collections.
1. Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles
This Culver City storefront has little to do with dinosaurs; it’s more of a wildly diverse homage to natural curiosities. Opera arias and chirping crickets follow you as you move through the maze of softly lit rooms, which are filled with one oddity after another: a horn once thought to be attached to the back of a woman’s head, a duck’s breath captured in a test tube, a stink ant from the Cameroon, microscopic sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Napoleon. Be sure to visit the Tula Tea Room on the third floor, where Georgian black tea is served most days from an antique samovar. If you get stuck on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, this is a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours.
Where: Los Angeles, California
On the Web: MJT.org
2. Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT
Florence Griswold was a ship captain’s daughter who turned her family’s riverside mansion into a retreat for artists at the turn of the 20th century. It eventually became the headquarters of the Lyme Art Colony and the center of American Impressionism. Surrounded by gardens near a winding river, the late Georgian mansion provides not only a first-rate art experience, but also a chance to see the actual trees and marshy coastline featured in the paintings on display by Childe Hassam, William Chadwick and Henry Ward Ranger. The collection has expanded over the years to include a modern gallery featuring rotating exhibits. Visit in the spring before the summer beach crowds arrive.
Where: Old Lyme, Connecticut
On the Web: FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org
3. Tobacco and Salt Museum, Tokyo
Tobacco and salt may not seem like the perfect match, but both products have been important in Japanese culture and trade for centuries. This Tokyo museum seeks to explain that through a wide array of artifacts and dioramas. One section is devoted to the bitter leaf and its impact on Japanese lives and culture. On display are all types of pipes, cigarette packets from around the world and a look at tobacco use during the Edo period of Japan (1603 – 1858). Another exhibit pays homage to Japanese modes of salt production and salt harvest technologies around the world. Among the exhibits is a gray crystalline salt cylinder whose circumference could match that of a small whale.
Where: Tokyo, Japan
On the Web: JTI.co.jp/Culture/museum_e/index.html
4. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York
This museum honors America’s immigrants in one of the humble brick buildings that so many called home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Guided tours take you to the recreated apartments of immigrant families from Poland, Ireland and Germany, and tell their stories in painstaking detail (the Irish couple who lost a daughter to malnutrition, the Polish-Jewish family of five who ran a dressmaking shop out of their three-room flat). The “Shop Life” tour is wheelchair-accessible and examines the many stores that operated in the basement between 1863 and 1988, including a restored German saloon from the 1870s. With its honest personal stories, the Tenement Museum offers a rare glimpse into New York history far from the glitz of Broadway and Park Avenue.
Where: New York, New York
On the Web: Tenement.org
5. Mill City Museum, Minneapolis
Built into the ruins of what was once the world’s busiest flour mill, this museum traces the intertwined histories of flour, the Mississippi River and the city of Minneapolis in a surprisingly fascinating way. Highlights include a massive box of Bisquick, a baking lab that dispenses pancake and cookie samples, and the Flour Tower, an eight-story elevator ride and multimedia show that includes bird’s-eye views of the original limestone ruins.
Where: Minneapolis, Minnesota
On the Web: MillCityMuseum.org
6. Postal Museum, Prague
This isn’t the world’s only postal museum (the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C. comes to mind), but it is the only one in the Baroque-style residence of a former miller. Surrounded by stunning murals created by Czech painter Joseph Navratil in 1847, the exhibits cover stamp design, all forms of mail transportation, postal signs and uniforms dating to the 16th century, and an amazing selection of postal acoustical instruments, such as tassled horns and wooden rattles used to announce a carrier’s arrival to town in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Where: Prague, Czech Republic
On the Web: PostovniMuzeum.cz/en
7. The Oriental Institute, Chicago
The University of Chicago’s archaeology and history museum often gets overshadowed by the Field, the Art Institute and other high-profile attractions in the Windy City. But its lack of crowds and world-class collection of artifacts documenting the history, languages and cultures of the ancient Middle East draw raves from both serious Egyptologists and tourists who have found their way to its ivy-covered location in Hyde Park. Highlights include the tallest statue of King Tut in existence, copies of the Book of the Dead and a jaw-dropping 40-ton statue of a human-headed winged bull that once stood in the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II.
Where: Chicago, Illinois
On the Web: oi.UChicago.edu/museum-exhibits
8. Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia
You wouldn’t think a place devoted to “the chemical and molecular sciences and industries” could manage to be so appealing. But through sleek exhibits juxtaposing artworks and rare books with scientific instruments and common grocery-store items, this small, free museum brings chemistry home for pretty much anyone, not just the science-minded folks who work upstairs at the nonprofit Chemical Heritage Foundation. You’ll learn about bleeding bowls; the history of margarine; chemistry’s role in Gore-Tex, nylon and other fashion trends; and the humble origins of Dow Chemical Company. The periodic tables are front and center, of course, in a captivating MTV-like video column. The museum at CHF is in the heart of Philadelphia‘s historic district, perfect for rainy day respite or when you need a break from the Independence Mall crowds.
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
On the Web: ChemHeritage.org
9. Museum of Counterfeiting, Paris
How can you tell the difference between a real Bic pen and a knock-off? The real ones have holes at the top of their caps. You’ll learn this and much more at the eye-opening Musee de la Contrefacon (Museum of Counterfeiting), which the French trade group Union des Fabricants opened in 1951 to educate the public on the global scope and cost of counterfeit products. Located in the 16th arrondissement, it features side-by-side comparisons of real and fake Barbie dolls, condoms, Tabasco sauce bottles, Swiss Army knives, Dior bags and more. It also covers the early years of counterfeiting (when imitation wines were sold in inferior Greek vases) and explains how the Internet has shifted the industry from luxury goods to everyday items like cleaning products and powdered milk. This is a fascinating look at a topic that will hit home with any global traveler familiar with street peddlers and open markets.
Where: Paris, France
On the Web: www.unifab.com/en/history-museum.html
10. Fan Museum, London
This Georgian townhouse in the heart of London‘s Greenwich district is home to more than 5,000 antique fans, some dating back to the 11th century. The exhibits show how fans reflected the cultural surroundings of their time — once used ceremonially to scare off evil spirits and later used as platforms for fashionable 19th-century painters. Noteworthy items include a rare elaborate depiction of the court of Louis XIV and the Grand Dauphin’s 20th birthday and a design for a fan leaf by the artist Paul Gauguin. The museum itself is small, but you can extend your visit by booking afternoon tea in the elegant orangery, which includes homemade scones and cakes, jam and a pot of tea.
Where: London, England
On the Web: TheFanMuseum.org.uk
11. Arabia Steamboat Museum, Kansas City
In 1856, the Arabia — a sidewheel steamboat loaded with provisions bound for pioneer settlements in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska — hit a log and sank along the Missouri River. It wasn’t until 1988 that a group uncovered the boat (buried under a cornfield) along with all its loot, preserved and in remarkable condition. Their find has been called “the King Tut’s Tomb of the Missouri River,” and much of it is on display in this museum in Kansas City’s historic City Market. Beaver hair coats, French perfume, English Wedgwood china, whale oil lamps and brass lockhole cutters are all on jaw-dropping intact display in a recreated steamboat featuring the original boilers and engine, along with the walnut tree section that actually sank the ship. Staffers are still cleaning many of the items, which you can view in the scientific lab on the premises.
Where: Kansas City, Missouri
On the Web: 1856.com
Pacific Tsunami Museum, Hilo, Hawaii
The people of Hilo know all about tsunamis. The last big one hit Hawaii‘s Big Island in 1946, killing more than 100 people and erasing entire blocks of waterfront buildings. This earnest museum serves as both a reminder of a tsunami’s power and an education center on what to do when the next one comes. There’s a parking meter salvaged from the wreckage of a 1960 tsunami that is bent in half from the force of water and debris; a pre-1946 scale model of Hilo; and a wave machine that lets you simulate your own tsunami on Hilo. No one leaves without knowing exactly what to do if a tsunami strikes; you’ll also gain a newfound appreciation for the wide swath of green emptiness between the downtown storefronts and the ocean.
Where: Hilo, Hawaii
On the Web: Tsunami.org
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–written by Laura Randall
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