When you hear the word “museum,” chances are the image that pops into your mind is a display of art or sculpture. But you don't often think of museums in terms of hammers, Jell-O and barbed wire.
Yet hammers, Jell-O and barbed wire are in fact the topics of one-of-a-kind museums. It seems there is a museum for everyone.
Here are some that are (maybe) worth going out of your way to see.
During the pandemic, it is important to check all museums to ensure they are open and what heath requirements might be in place currently.
Haddam Shad Museum
212 Saybrook Road, Haddam, Connecticut
haddamshadmuseum.com; free; only open Sundays during shad season, (mid-April to early June,) or by appointment.
Truly off the beaten path, the tiny Haddam Shad Museum exists to share the storied past of the maritime history of the shad, the official state fish of Connecticut.
Located in what was once Maynard’s Shad Shack restaurant, legend is that the fish fed George Washington’s soldiers at Valley Forge and became known as the “founding fish.”
What is on display? Shad lures, shad nets, shad pictures, shad recipes, shad fishing maps, shad morphology charts, shad books, shad posters and more shad. Pretty much everything but a shad swimming in an aquarium.
Why shad? The fish has been harvested in Haddam since its founding in 1662. Each spring, shad journey from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in New England’s rivers and the “shad run” remains celebrated with annual festivals in the towns of Windsor, Essex and Saybrook.
The Neon Museum
770 Las Vegas Boulevard, North Las Vegas; NeonMuseum.org; $20
The motto “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” also applies to the older iconic neon signs that once set the desert sky aglow and lured visitors to landmark casinos and other attractions in town.
As older signs have been replaced, most have been rescued and donated to the Neon Museum. The collection contains more than 200 unrestored signs, which at sunset are illuminated with ground lighting.
Tour guides relate the history of the signs, and thus the history of Las Vegas.
108 Main Street, Haines, Alaska; hammermuseum.org; $5; open May-September
Founder Dave Pahl says he got into the “hammer habit” 40 years ago working in a shipyard where a variety of hammers was necessary in his work. “When I had collected 50, I made a mistake and knew I had to open a museum dedicated to telling history of the hammer,” he says joking. Today the collection numbers 10,000 hammers with 2,500 displayed in the four-room museum.
If you can only envision the image of the hammer in your tool box, think rock hammers that crafted Egyptian pyramids, hammers to make horseshoes or to fasten straw to broom handles, or hammers to shape cobblestones, repair musical instruments or chip blocks of salt — or even the hammers needed to perform autopsies. They are all here.
Ironically, a hammer believed to be 800 years old and belonging to the indigenous Alaskan people was discovered under the building’s basement floor.
The museum is a favorite stop for passengers on an Alaskan cruise, many of whom purchase a T-shirt reading “I nailed it” while they listen to the music of MC Hammer in the background.
The Jell-O Gallery Museum
23 East Main Street, Le Roy, New York; jellogallery.org; $5
There is always time for the Jell-O Museum if you happen to be close to Le Roy, most likely on a trip to nearby Niagara Falls. Hundreds of Jell-O collectibles and advertising memorabilia are on display.
A tour guide gives a brief introduction on the history of Jell-O in Le Roy before visitors roam through the exhibits. An interesting tidbit is that the rights to produce the jiggly concoction were sold in 1900 for $25.
Fun Jell-O facts are placed throughout the museum. Included is the fact that tests have verified a bowl of lime Jell-O connected to an EEG machine has brain waves identical to those of adult men and women. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
National Museum of Funeral History
415 Barren Springs Drive, Houston; nmfh.org; $10
What can you exhibit about a funeral to fill a 35,000 square foot building? How about the funeral programs for famous people, or a three-person casket?
Actually, those are mundane compared to large Smithsonian-caliber exhibits such as the ceremonies surrounding papal funerals, which was collaborated with the Vatican, or an exhibit devoted to the funerals of American presidents, or a collection of elaborate hearses.
The museum website proclaims it is home to "the country's largest collection of funeral service artifacts and features renowned exhibits on one of man's oldest cultural customs.”
4 Cortlandt Alley, New York; mmuseumm.com; $5 suggested donation
Perhaps it is not the rotating exhibits of overlooked, dismissed or ignored items that make this museum interesting, so much as it is the location and tiny size. The first exhibit opened behind the doors of a former industrial elevator shaft on the street level, in an alley. The second “wing” is also in the alley, three doors away.
The small exhibit spaces display rotating collections that give a visitor reason to pause and reflect on what the subtle message might be behind each display. Past exhibitions focused on storytelling through found objects, often with a social justice theme. Exhibitions have included personal possessions found in the Pacific Ocean, homemade weapons of defense made by prisoners and personal items immigrants left in the Arizona desert.
Adding to the uniqueness of this “institution” is that the exhibits are accessible 24 hours a day via peepholes in the front doors.
Porter Sculpture Park
25700 451st Avenue, Montrose, South Dakota; portersculpturepark.com; $10; open May-October
A curvy gravel road through a cow pasture leads to this 18-acre outdoor museum of 50 whimsical sculptures of original folk art. Wayne Porter created his first sculpture at age 10 in his father’s blacksmith shop. Never having received an art education, each piece is a product of his vivid, creative imagination.
Porter is usually there to explain his creations, which include a row of buzzards on poles. "They are 'reincarcerated' politicians ready to pick the bones of their next constituents,” he explains.
A dinosaur in the middle of a patch of flowers is titled "Smell the Roses While You Can," Porter says. “The head is an antique pedal car that I found at my grandparents' farm. My dad told me to cut up our old family car, so I did. I rearranged it, and that car, along with a few other things, is what makes up this sculpture.”
Waffle House Museum
2719 East College Avenue, Decatur, Georgia; wafflehouse.com; free
Located in the site of the very first Waffle House restaurant, which opened in 1955, the by-appointment-only museum traces its history and pays homage to all things to do with Waffle House. If a tour makes you hunger for a stack of waffles, a working Waffle House restaurant is just down the road.
Mascot Hall of Fame
1851 Front Street, Whiting, Indiana; mascothalloffame.com; $10
While this museum is meant for children, the North American college and professional sports mascots on display are selected with a seriousness that might surprise an unsuspecting visitor. After all, this is a Hall of Fame.
Each year mascots are elected for admission to the Hall by the voting membership and an executive committee made up of performers, sports executives and other individuals intimate with the mascot community. The mascots go through a nomination process that ends with the executive committee selecting six finalists in each category to be placed on the ballot for consideration. The public also contributes by voting online.
While no mascot from the St. Louis area has been inducted into the Hall, the KC Wolf of the Kansas City Chiefs and Sluggerrr of the Kansas City Royals are members.
Devil’s Rope Museum
100 Kingsley Street, McLean, Texas; barbwiremuseum.com; free (donation encouraged); open March to November
You are probably wondering how can a museum be dedicated to a strand of barbed wire, right? After all, isn’t there just one variety? Wrong. There are more than 2,000 types and variations of barbed wire that have been found by collectors hooked on the hobby, and they are creatively displayed in this museum. In addition to the wires, historical documents, photos, wire tools, advertisements, catalogs and patent models are tastefully displayed.
A separate section is devoted to barbed wire used in wartime.
Artwork created from barbed wire is also displayed, and for sale.
The Museum of Death
227 Dauphine Street, New Orleans; museumofdeath.net/nola (A sister museum in Hollywood, California, is currently relocating); $15
The stated goal of these sister museums is to educate people about death and take away the fear of dying. However, some of the exhibits may do just the opposite. Letters from Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed and dismembered 17 men, and the Dr. Kevorkian suicide machine are tame compared to an explicit video of a narrated autopsy and other gruesome exhibits and graphic photos and films.
No one has been frightened to death while observing the exhibits (through squinted eyes most likely), but people have been known to faint in front of some exhibits. They get to take home a free T-shirt with the sentence “I passed out at the Museum of Death” on the front, and “I lived to talk about it” on the back.