9 of the world’s weirdest museums

16/05/2017 09:03

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

Icelandic Phallological Museum

Reykjavík, Iceland

Icelandic Phallological Museum Rekyjavil Iceland by Wikimedia Commons© Wikimedia Commons

With nearly 200 phallic specimens on display, visitors can contemplate the male organs of a seal, walrus, polar bear, a few whale species and a lot of very small rodents, as well as a number of more fanciful depictions in art and sculpture. What seeks to be edgy, scientific or humorous actually comes across as a little creepy and eccentric, especially the lampshades made out of sheep scrotums and bullwhips made from a bull’s penis.

Bakelite Museum

Williton, UK

In a corner of a Somerset village, crammed into every possible space in a 17th-century mill, is this higgledy-piggledy collection of plastic objects. Once you start collecting plastic where do you stop? You don’t, you just run out of room. It’s utterly delightful because it’s so different: rows and rows of hairdryers, typewriters, Barbie dolls, telephones, irons, kettles, sewing machines, games, clocks, fridges, radios – lots of radios – and televisions. Because, for us oldies, that’s what Bakelite is all about.

If we didn’t own a Bakelite radio ourselves, our parents or grandparents certainly did. And, let’s face it, compared with most museums the objects here are not intrinsically beautiful or old; that’s the whole appeal. It was while I was contemplating the advantages and disadvantages of the plastic coffin that I heard an excited ‘Wow!’ from a youngster at some discovery. Kids who are bored out of their minds at conventional museums love this place, as do their grandparents. ‘Thank you for letting Grandad and me relive our memories’ I heard as they left, but it sounded as though the pleasure had been mutual.

Bakelite Museum North Devon UK by Hilary Bradt© Hilary Bradt

Bakelite goes back a surprisingly long way – to 1907, when a Belgium-born chemist, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, working in New York, discovered the potential of phenol-formaldehyde. Light-weight, a poor conductor of heat and easily moulded, it changed the world. The museum’s founder, Patrick Cook, bought his first Bakelite radio in 1969 and just keeps adding to the collection.

The museum is still run by Patrick and his wife who served me a delicious toasted tea cake in the little tea room. Long may they continue.

Museum of Broken Relationships

Zagreb, Croatia

Museum of Broken Relationships Zagreb Croatia by Robert Nyman Wikimedia Commons© Robert Nyman, Wikimedia Commons

When the Museum of Broken Relationships opened in Zagreb in 2010, it instantly became the most talked about museum in the capital, attracting more international attention than perhaps any other. Physical fragments of people’s past, failed relationships are displayed alongside the story of that relationship’s demise, written by one of the former couple. At turns fascinating, hilarious and deeply touching, this is unlike any other museum you are ever likely to visit. Highly recommended.

Pitt Rivers Museum

Oxford, UK

To get to Pitt Rivers, you go through the first Natural History Museum (which itself features some spectacularly good carvings). It is one of those collections of obsessive eccentrics, and the building’s pretty odd too, with each pillar of a different stone, that kind of detail. The general angle is anthropology, but where else will you find: shrunken heads; a magnificent Tahitian mourner’s costume collected during Captain Cook’s Second Voyage; Hawaiian feather cloaks in brilliant shades of red and yellow; ivories from the Kingdom of Benin; wonderful ancient masks worn by Japanese Noh actors; mummified people; a witch in a bottle; sculpture from all over the world in wood, pottery, metal and stone; whole boats, ranging from full-sized sailing craft to model canoes somehow stuffed on the walls and ceilings; and American Indian skin shirts decorated with porcupine quills?

Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford UK by Einsamer Schütze Wikimedia Commons© Einsamer Schütze, Wikimedia Commons

The place is crammed and many of the items are still labelled in the handwriting of the original curator. Pull open a drawer (under the display cases) and there may be magic objects including: amulets and charms; an intriguing collection of locks and keys; tools and weapons; voodoo dolls; weird musical instruments, mummified toads; or severed fingers. I was lost in reverie at all these unlikely magical wonders and suddenly realised where I seemed to be – in the shop in Knockturn Alley in Harry Potter where the hero buys his magic wands, etc. Note the opening hours at the time of writing are limited (noon–4.30pm) and they run some really good free events aimed at children, usually on the first Saturday of each month.

National Museum Addis Ababa Ethiopia Tricia HayneNational Museum of Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Okay, so technically this isn't 'weird and wonderful', but there are some cool things here. This is one of the best museums of its type in Africa, not only for the quality and diversity of the exhibits, but also for the knowledgeable guides who work there. Archaeological exhibits include a realistic replica of the 3.5-million-year-old skull of Lucy (or Dinquinesh – ‘thou art wonderful’ – to Ethiopians), a hominid woman of the species Australopithecus afarensis. The discovery of this skull in 1974 forced a complete rethink of human genealogy, proving that our ancestors were walking 2.5 million years earlier than had previously been supposed. The national museum also contains some wonderful artefacts dating to the south Arabian period of the so-called pre-Axumite civilisation of Tigrai. These include a number of large stone statues of seated female figures, thought to have been fertility symbols of a pre-Judaic religion. It is interesting that the figures have plaited hair identical to the style worn by modern Ethiopians (it has been suggested that the mythological Medusa of ancient Greece was simply a dreadlocked Ethiopian woman). One almost perfectly preserved statue, thought to be about 2,600 years old and unearthed at a site near Yeha, is seated in a 2m-high stone cask adorned with engravings of ibex. Many of the other statues are headless – probably decapitated by early Christians, who converted many pagan temples to churches. Other items include a sphinx from Yeha, once again emphasising Axumite links with the classical world, a huge range of artefacts from Axum itself, and a cast of one of the Gragn stones from Tiya.

London Fan Museum

London, UK

Folding, not footie ones, thankfully, and the London Fan Museum contains the world’s biggest collection of more than 3,000 of them. A special exhibition of rather pretty Art Nouveau jobs opened in 1999, perhaps permitting the pun ‘Fan de siècle’. Plus advertising fans. Teashop with napkins folded in guess what shape. It’s just an eccentric thing to do, frankly.

Museo de la Silla de Asuncion Paraguay South America by Marco MuscaraMuseo de la Silla de Asunción (MUSA) (Museum of Chairs)

Asunción, Paraguay

Go to this new and little-known Museum of Chairs if you possibly can: it is a circular tower with five floors of some 400 innovative and amusingly designed chairs. The collection has been put together by Argentine architect Jorge Nicolas Jury, who has lived in Paraguay for 37 years, and it is housed in a striking modern building of his own design. There is everything from the apyka of the Guarani indigenous to the barber’s chair sat in by astronaut Neil Armstrong; from a child-size Chippendale-inspired gem to a 4m-high copy of a ladder-back chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (19th-century Scottish pioneer of industrial design); from a 120-year-old German school desk with the pupil’s name carved into the top to the Zig Zag chair of Gerrit Rietveld; from a polished wooden hand large enough to sit in to an antique chair with a wonderful carved back, on sale for US$1,300. The Paraguayan artists Carlos Colombino, Ricardo Migliorisi and the two sons of Hermann Guggiari – Sebastian and Javier – are represented here, with useful biographical details. An international library of books on design is planned for the future.

Roy Geddes Steel Pan Museum  

Georgetown, Guyana

Having been playing for more than 50 years, Roy Geddes could be called a pioneer of steel pan music. Roy is a player, teacher and creator of steel pans and he’s opened a museum to share his passion. In the gardens around his house visitors learn about the history of steel pan (dating back only to the 1940s) through photographs, recorded and written music, implements used to craft steel drums into the instruments and demonstrations of how to play steel pan, all from a living legend in the field.

Dried Fish Museum

Lofoten, Norway

Dried Fish Museum Lofoten Norway Lapland by Ernst Furuhatt, www.nordnorge.com© Ernst Furuhatt, www.nordnorge.com

The bizarre Tørrfiskmuseum (Stockfish Museum) is a real oddity. Proudly boasting to be the only stockfish museum in the world, the museum fishes out every last detail of the production of stockfish (dried fish), highlighting such oddball facts as 16 million kilograms of cod is hung out to dry every year in Lofoten and that during the drying process the fish loses 80% of its weight. Various forms of the fish are then sent for export to Portugal, Italy and Nigeria. Having perused the various gutting benches, rasps, forks and other exhibits, be sure to catch the film shown upstairs (which was shown on German television and extensively features the museum’s dynamic curator) that is arguably the most illuminating element of the exhibition.


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Eccentric London the Bradt Guide  Eccentric Oxford the Bradt Guide Croatia the Bradt Guide  Ethiopia the Bradt Guide Guyana the Bradt Guide

Iceland the Bradt Guide by Andrew Evans Lapland the Bradt Guide by James Proctor Slow Travel North Devon and Exmoor the Bradt Guide Paraguay the Bradt Guide

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