Was Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband's rifles? According to a popular story, Winchester consulted a soothsayer who told her that those killed by guns (an always growing number) would be appeased if they were provided with shelter — thus the 38 consecutive years of construction which she kept up until her death at age 82.
There's nothing like a visit to a respected cultural institution to foster the sense that you've spent at least some of your vacation in an enriching way. But let's be frank — rather than taking in yet another "life of prehistoric man" tableau or exhibit on commemorative coin minting, wouldn't you occasionally like to visit a museum that's a little less ... conventional?
If you're intrigued at the thought of checking out medieval torture devices, macabre medical curiosities or a display of chamber pots through the ages, read on! We here at IndependentTraveler.com believe there's no shame in bypassing the orthodox for the odd — so we've compiled seven of the world's weirdest museums, offering exhibits that are frightening, humorous, skin curdling or simply bizarre. Spend some time examining our esoteric exhibition, and don't forget to share your own favorites on our message boards!
Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments: Prague, Czech Republic
Ah, the Middle Ages, when a slip of the tongue could spiral hilariously into the accused being slowly disemboweled in the public square. Prague's Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments is dedicated to depicting the means by which confessions were extracted from alleged heretics.
The visitor can cast his gaze over more than 60 morbid torture devices in a tour that takes about 45 minutes. There's even a useful tutorial on how to operate each machine (English language descriptions included). Our favorite? The Head Crusher: The chin of the accused is placed on a wooden support, a helmet is attached snugly to his head, a crank is turned and ... well, we'll let you imagine the rest. Admission: about $12.
The Museum of Bad Art: Boston, Mass.
Some would argue that defining what constitutes high art is an impossible endeavor — but Scott Wilson, the founder and "esteemed curator emeritus" of Boston's Museum of Bad Art, seems quite comfortable determining when something really and truly stinks. Wilson was inspired to create the museum after a sudden trash heap discovery of "Lucy in the Field with Flowers," an inconceivably awful work of impossible angles, colors that confuse, and indecipherable ancillary elements. From that incredible find, an idea gradually took shape, culminating in a permanent exhibit of the most offensive attempts at art.
At last count there were over 400 frown-provoking pieces in the collection, though the limited space allows only around 40 or so to be on exhibit at one time. Just a short jaunt from Boston (both the T and the local buses stop nearby), the museum is housed in the basement of Dedham Community Theatre (a working movie house) next to a men's room. Admission is free.
Three sex museums: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Paris, France; Husavik, Iceland
No European city is really complete without a museum dedicated to amorous predilection. We've selected three of particular note — a menage a trois, if you will — dedicated to the ars erotica.
The Louvre? Been there, done that. On your next trip to Paris, why not visit the Musee de l'Erotisme? Housed in a seven-story building in Quartier Pigalle — an area known for its sex shops, Moulin Rouge and back-alley tarts — the museum displays an impressive collection of erotic bric-a-brac from around the world. Offerings include South American and Asian fertility objects, displays on the history of Parisian prostitution, and rotating exhibits of modern erotic art. Admission: about $12, or $8 with advance online reservations.
Amsterdam's sex museum, or Venustempel, the world's oldest of its kind, is visited by roughly half a million titillated tourists a year, who peruse its large stash of erotica. Pieces include paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, recordings, contraptions and even private interactive viewing booths. Admission: about $5.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum, located in the small fishing village of Husavik, is a bit more specific in its focus. Housing roughly 250 phallic specimens, the museum is said to contain examples from every mammal in Iceland, many of them mounted on the walls, others in glass jars. Admission: about $7.50.
Why not enjoy all three?
Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, Calif.
Heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester kept up construction on her 160-room, 40-bedroom mansion for 38 consecutive years, an obsession that lasted until the widow's death at age 82. Was Sarah Winchester haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband's rifles? How could she placate the apparitions? According to a popular story, Winchester consulted a soothsayer who told her that those killed by guns (an always growing number) would be appeased if they were provided with shelter — thus the constant construction.
The sprawling Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is reminiscent of an Escher drawing, with stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to blank walls, and endless oddly shaped additions — all built out of Winchester's determination to expand the building in any manner, at any cost. The result is a glimpse into the mind of an obsessive woman, with the drive and bankroll to fulfill her compulsion.
Ironically, though the house is no longer growing, it does seem that said bankroll still is —admission for the mansion tour is $23.95 (with discounts for seniors and kids).
The Mutter Museum: Philadelphia, Pa.
Staring open-mouthed at a stranger's physical oddities is usually considered rather rude, but at the Mutter Museum, unabashed staring is encouraged — nay, demanded. How could you avert your gaze from an obese corpse that somehow turned into soap?
The Philadelphia museum exhibits some 20,000 objects showcasing human health anomalies of spine-tingling variety. With unblinking eyes, you can peruse the display of 2,000 objects removed from people's throats or put your face up against the glass to see President Grover Cleveland's cancerous jaw growth. And don't miss the skeleton of a woman long accustomed to wearing a corset; the suffocating apparatus slowly altered the bone structure of her ribcage, all in the name of culturally defined beauty. (You'll never complain about underwire again!) But these odd offerings are no mere gimcrack. Collectively they seem to communicate a message of medical progress. Admission: $12, with discounts for students and seniors. Children under 6 are free.
Glore Psychiatric Museum: St. Joseph, Mo.
About an hour's drive from Kansas City, the Glore Psychiatric Museum documents the history of "State Lunatic Asylum No. 2" (only just closed in the mid 1990's). The holdings are contained in a separate, modern building, as the original asylum is now serving as a prison.
Some of the devices used to treat the insane are reminiscent of a torture museum — like a tranquilizer chair and blood-letting blades. And in a clear attempt to one-up the Mutter Museum, Glore showcases 1,446 objects of digestive intrigue — paper clips, nails, safety pins, buttons — removed from one patient's stomach and intestines in 1929 (she died on the operating table). The second floor of the building displays art created by the inmates. Admission: $3.50, with discounts for children. The price includes admission to two other local museums.
Sulabh International Museum of Toilets: New Delhi, India
"Unlike body functions like dance, drama and songs, defecation is considered very lowly." So begins a 1995 paper written by Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, the founder of this New Delhi museum as well as the Sulabh International Social Service Organization. And with 600 to 900 million people in India (as of 1995) practicing "open defecation, the subject of [the] toilet is as important if not more than other social challenges like literacy, poverty, education and employment."
Ostensibly part of a sanitation crusade, the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets follows the toilet's historical pipeline from 3,000 B.C. to the present. What began as a hole in the ground — and remains a hole in the ground in some parts of the world — has come a long way in terms of design, comfort and plumbing. The museum offers fun facts (Louis XIV purportedly used to relieve himself while holding court), examinations of toilet customs from around the world, and arts and literature (from poems to painstakingly crafted chamber pots).
Despite the museum's clear element of humor, we should note that the founder has done quite a bit of social good, providing affordable toilets for thousands in India. Admission is free, though ironically there is a charge for the public lavatory (about 2.5 cents).
Looking for a few more odd museums to supplement your upcoming travel? Check out these other options:
The Paris Sewer Museum is located under the Left Bank. Visitors get a guided tour of a portion of the impressive system that outlines the history of the rat-infested place (the inspiration for Les Miserables). It's parallel to the Seine, so after you emerge from from the city's underbelly you can bask in the beauty of its famous river. Admission: about $6, with discounts for seniors, students and children.
Houston's National Museum of Funeral History respectfully sets out to "preserve the rich heritage of the funeral industry." A casket factory exhibit, information on the art of embalming, and various hearses round out the dignified display. There's also a funeral school on the premises. Admission: $6, with discounts for seniors, veterans and students.
If you've got a phobia of dolls or dummies, you may want to steer clear of the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, with its impressive (if slightly creepy) collection of ventriloquist dummies. The museum hosts a yearly convention at which several hundred ventriloquists, amateur and professional, come together to celebrate their unique craft. Admission: $5. Tours must be scheduled ahead of time.
Note: All admission prices are subject to change at any time and may vary with currency fluctuations.