While most travel guides recommend that you visit the major attractions of a state, how many suggest visiting off-the-wall or unique museums?
The Midwest is home to impressive art and history museums, such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It’s also home to odd and interesting museums, such as the National Mustard Museum, the Glore Psychiatric Museum, and the Super Museum. These 11 odd museums are must-see spots in the Midwest.
1. National Mustard Museum, Middleton, WI
With more than 5,600 types of mustard showcased on its Great Wall of Mustard, the National Mustard Museum might not exist if it hadn’t been for Barry Levinson’s trip to Washington, D.C., to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Then an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin, Levinson noticed a miniature bottle of mustard on a tray at the hotel where he was staying. He looked at it and grabbed it, tucking it inside his suit coat. He successfully argued his case. That bottle, followed by others, eventually led to Levinson opening the National Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb. Once it outgrew the space, it was moved to its current location in Middleton, near Madison.
Today, you can find thousands of mustard jars, pots, tins, and more from all over the world, including each of the 50 states. Named to the Register of Hysterical Places, the National Mustard Museum is a must-see when it comes to odd museums.
2. Petrified Wood Gallery, Ogallala, NE
Twins Howard and Harvey Kenfield collected Native American arrowheads as children and later founded a museum featuring art made from petrified wood. At their Petrified Wood Gallery in Ogallala, they share their sculptures resembling barns, cabins, and Western items. People from around the world stop in to see their art created from ancient wood. The gallery also features wood carvings by other artists, as well as special exhibits. While they may now be known for their petrified wood art, the Kenfield twins also have a spot in the gallery for their childhood arrowheads.
3. Matchstick Marvels Museum, Gladbrook, IA
Forty years ago, a young college graduate was looking for a hobby. Today, Pat Acton’s hobby is responsible for one of the most popular odd museums in the U.S.
Attracting thousands of visitors annually to the rural Iowa town of Gladbrook, the Matchstick Marvels Museum showcases dozens of models made from matchsticks. Yes, matchsticks -- with each stick about 2 inches long. One of Acton’s first models -- a farm scene featuring a barn -- is on display, plus a replica of the U.S. Capitol made from more than 475,000 matchsticks. Acton used about a million matchsticks to create even larger models, such as a steampunk locomotive and the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. About 25 of Acton’s models are on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums around the world.
4. Klown Doll Museum, Plainview, NE
With more than 7,000 clown dolls, figurines, paintings, and more on display, the world’s largest clown museum calls Plainview, Nebraska, home. The Klown Doll Museum dates to the 1950s, when locals formed the Plainview Klown Band and performed around the state, drumming up tourism for the northeastern Nebraska town. People started dropping off clown dolls at the chamber of commerce. These were displayed in a window until the collection grew too large, and the town’s leaders decided to open a museum. Nearly half of the items came from three people who donated collections including 1,000 to 1,500 items.
Inside the museum, you’ll find themed rooms, such as a room of Christmas clowns, as well as a room dedicated to celebrity clowns, including Emmett Kelly, Bozo, and Ronald McDonald. You won’t find any duplicates on display.
5. OZ Museum, Wamego, KS
Wamego, Kansas, is known as the unofficial home of Dorothy Gale. You may recall that in the movie The Wizard of Oz, the name of Dorothy’s hometown is never mentioned. So when a local man offered to donate his huge collection of Oz-related memorabilia, Wamego was quick to claim its place in the Oz story.
The downtown OZ Museum is a walk through the story, beginning with Dorothy’s house landing on the Wicked Witch of the West. Along the way, you’ll see movie props, replicas, clothes, and dozens of books by L. Frank Baum, who wrote several books in the Oz series, as well as others, including novels for young adults. Life-size statues of the movie characters greet you. It would be easy to spend an hour at this museum.
6. The House On The Rock, Spring Green, WI
A bizarre collection of widgets, whatchamacallits, and carousels awaits at The House on the Rock in Spring Green. The house, built on a rocky bluff overlooking a valley, is chock-full of unique pieces, and themed rooms focus on musical instruments, circuses (including a life-size parade exhibit), and dolls. There’s even a nautical room featuring a whale longer than the Empire State Building. The owner once lived in the house, and his rooms are full of 1970s decor.
While there, be sure to take a walk through the Infinity Room, which stretches from the main building over a forest. It features a glass floor where you see how far above the trees you’re standing!
7. Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, MO
Offering a look into the history of mental illness and the methods used to treat it over the centuries, the Glore Psychiatric Museum is considered one of the most unique museums in the U.S. Did you know that there was a time when people with mental illness were thought to be witches and were burned at the stake? The museum also includes exhibits focusing on patient cases, such as one person who consumed more than 1,400 pieces of metal. The displays are well done and respectful to the subjects. The museum is located outside a correctional center where the original mental hospital was located.
8. SPAM Museum, Austin, MN
While it got its start in 1937, SPAM became a military staple during World War II, when the pork product filled soldiers’ and sailors’ lunch pails. Hormel Foods took advantage of this and marketed the canned meat nationwide, only to see it become an international hit.
The SPAM Museum in Austin showcases the history of the pork treat with interactive exhibits, memorabilia, and international displays. The museum also includes an exhibit highlighting the company’s relationship with George Hormel’s office and his former market. You can purchase your own SPAM in the gift shop -- there are 15 flavors, including teriyaki and chorizo.
9. Traer Salt And Pepper Shaker Gallery, Traer, IA
With more than 16,000 salt and pepper shakers on display, the Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery is home to one of the world’s largest shaker collections. In the room with Christmas-themed salt and pepper shakers, you’ll find everything from Santa Claus, elves, and snowmen to puppies and kittens in holiday garb. The Traer Gallery also features galleries focusing on Americana (farms, homes, and states), presidents, military conflicts, German beer culture, and fruits and vegetables.
10. The National Museum Of Toys And Miniatures, Kansas City, MO
The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is a must-see when in Kansas City. You’ll be amazed at the accuracy of the small-scale exhibits. There are miniature models of historic rooms -- such as King Louis XV’s study at the Palace of Versailles -- paintings, and instruments, including a harpsichord. On the toy floor, you’ll rediscover plenty of items from your childhood among the toys and games from the 1950s through the present day. You’ll find an original Easy-Bake Oven, G.I. Joe, Barbie, and more.
11. Super Museum, Metropolis, IL
It seems like almost every generation has had its own Superman, from George Reeves to Henry Cavill. Whichever Superman is your favorite, you’re likely to find his memorabilia at the Super Museum in Metropolis. There are more than 70,000 items on display -- from lunch boxes to movie costumes -- and you’ll have a blast checking out the history of one of the world’s most popular heroes. You’ll find television and movie props among the collection, including a pair of glasses worn by George Reeves as Clark Kent, plus a costume worn by Helen Slater in the 1984 Supergirl movie.
Outside the museum, you’ll find a 15-foot-tall statue of Superman in Superman Square. A few blocks away, you can visit the statue of Lois Lane as portrayed by Noel Neill.