The Weirdest and Most Wonderful Museums in the West
The most specific, dedicated museums in the region showcasing everything from historic wooden boats and hammers to vintage washing machines and…bananas
There’s no doubt that the West is brimming with culture, including some of the country’s (and world’s) best museums. The spots that follow might not be considered “best,” but they’re certainly the quirkiest, most whimsical odes to a vast array of topics, from bananas and spuds to vintage arcade games and historic neon signs. Here, our favorite weird and wonderful museums across the West.
Buffalo Bill Museum, Golden, CO
Flickr / Darren and Brad
Learn about the life and legend of William F. Cody (a.k.a. Buffalo Bill), then pay your respects at his final resting place. There are other tributes to ol’ Bill around the country, but Golden has his grave—as well as a pretty thorough exhibit detailing not only the particulars of Cody’s life, but of his Wild West Shows, the indigenous people he employed, Annie Oakley’s rise to fame, and more. See original tickets, costumes, and other artifacts, as well as a plethora of well-preserved photographs and some (admittedly hokey) interactive moments meant for kids (ride Bill’s horse!).
Look for: A framed lock of Cody’s golden-white hair; he was called Pahaska by the Sioux, which means “long hair.”
Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, Burlingame, CA
Flickr / Ingrid Taylar
This whimsical roadside attraction is in fact three museums in one. See every Pez dispenser ever manufactured (including the world’s largest, and dispensers signed by celebrities) at the Museum of Pez Memorabilia; then check out the Classic Toy Museum, which houses childhood favorites such as original Mr. Potato Heads, Easy-Bake Ovens, and the earliest LEGOs, Barbie Dolls and comic books. Save the best for last—the Museum of Banned Toys—which displays an Atomic Energy Lab from the ’50s, the original, deadly Lawn Darts and more. The compound offers other charming vintage exhibits as well, if you’re interested in ray guns and a history of TV remotes.
Look for: The VIP, after-hours night tour (6:30pm-9pm) including a candy tasting, collectible take-home dispenser, and guided tour (plus 15% off in the gift shop, if you need another dispenser).
The Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, WA
Getty Images / aimintan
The Center for Wooden Boats is a beautiful museum and learning center housed in a gorgeous wooden building right on the water (of course). In addition to exhibits that honor Northwest maritime heritage and historic small crafts, the Center also boasts a living fleet of historic boats. Prioritizing hands-on learning, the Center offers boat rentals, classes and workshops, field trips, lectures, and more.
Look for: The CastOFF! Sunday Public Sail, free and open to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want a spot in a boat (sprit boats, steamboats, electric boats, schooners, ketches, yawls, and yachts are on offer) arrive early and get in line; sign-up begins at 10am.
Hammer Museum, Haines, AK
Getty Images / Ruben Ramos
Never have we seen such a cheeky museum dedicated to something as blunt and boring as…the hammer. But, the hammer isn’t boring at all, in fact! Not when it’s presented like this, inside an adorable cabin in the picturesque town of Haines. Not to be confused with the progressive Hammer Museum in Los Angeles—which has nothing to do with actual hammers—this Hammer Museum houses 2,000 tools, from 2 inches to 20 feet, and tells the fascinating, and often funny, story both of the instrument and the human ingenuity behind it. Did you know there’s a specific ancient hammer meant for crafting the perfect cube of sugar to win a woman’s hand? We thought not.
Look for: The visitor ledger, where the wit continues with comments like “Best hammer museum so far!” and “It made our hearts pound!”
Idaho Potato Museum, Blackfoot, ID
Flickr / amanderson2
The Idaho Potato Museum takes the humble tater to new heights (literally, there’s a giant baked potato sculpture out front) with exhibits on the agricultural and commercial history of the starchy veg, as well as fun interactive stations such as Mr. Potato Head races and Potato Lab science room, plus some curious potato artifacts such as the world’s largest potato chip (a Pringle from 1991).
Look for: The Potato Station Café next door, where you can taste Idaho’s pride baked, fried, in bread and cupcake form, and even dipped in chocolate.
International Banana Museum, Mecca, CA
Flickr / sporst
Another ode to food; the International Banana Museum has become a cult favorite for folks looking to ogle at (and pose with) all things long and yellow. More than 25,000 banana-related items are on display in this packed, bright little museum, featuring items collected since 1972. Visitors can gorge on homemade banana ice cream and milkshakes before donning banana costumes to pose for photo ops in front of the museums’ giant banana statue.
Look for: There’s too much here to call out just one thing, but we love the banana turntable, the world’s only petrified banana (ew, but also ooooh), and the bright yellow VW Bug sitting out front.
International UFO Museum & Research Center, Roswell, NM
Flickr / leiris20
This non-profit organization is dedicated to educating visitors about the 1947 “Roswell Incident” and other unexplained phenomena related to UFO research. Exhibits abound on crop circles, UFO sightings, Area 51, and ancient astronauts and abductions. The museum hosts lectures and events throughout the year culminating in the annual UFO Festival, which is basically a big party of panels for believers.
Look for: The research library, which has its own hours and houses reference materials on all things extra-terrestrial, in case you have a conspiracy theory you’d like to look into.
Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum, Greeley, CO
Courtesy of Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum
Retired Colorado State University electrical engineering professor Lee Maxwell began collecting washing machines in 1985, lovingly disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling each one. There are more than 1,500 in his collection (plus an alleged barnful of others he has yet to fix up), some dating back to the early 19th century, in addition to scale models he builds based on machine patents of washers he can’t find in the wild. Rows upon rows of these washers sit in two warehouse buildings, open to the public by appointment only—which means if you go, you’ll get a personal tour from Maxwell himself.
Look for: The washer with the wooden treadmill attached, meant for a goat to run on to provide spinning power, next to the one with a seesaw attachment so playing children could power it.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, Tucson, AZ
Flickr / Nelo Hotsuma
Miniatures are having a moment on social media right now, but this museum has been preserving and exhibiting tiny things for a decade, and its founder has been a collector since 1979. See everything from wee ghost towns to shrunken Edwardian manors, as well as surprisingly hip contemporary exhibitions such as Mario Patino’s “Ravaged Places,” vignettes of drab, dirty kitchens, sketchy pool halls, and other depictions of the ravages of time on the South Tucson neighborhood where he grew up.
Look for: The oldest miniature house in the United States, built in 1775, and the Christmas Village built into the floor.
Musee Mecanique, San Francisco, CA
Flickr / Geof Wilson
This classic San Francisco attraction houses one of the largest private collections of antique arcade machines and coin-operated mechanical musical instruments in the country. The Zelinsky family has been collecting penny arcade games since 1933, and generously has them on display in a small building on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf, free of charge. Even better? Most of the games are in working condition, so you can actually play them (though they don’t cost a penny these days–you’ll fork over 25 cents or more to crank up each one).
Look for: The 1912 steam-powered motorcycle (one of just a few in the world) that Ted Zelinsky won in a drunken trade and is now worth upwards of $250,000 dollars. Not a game—and you can’t ride it for a quarter—but an impressive antique nonetheless.
Museum of Clean, Pocatello, ID
Flickr / Bruce La Fetra
A few years ago, Don Aslett—janitorial impresario, vacuum collector, author of Clutter’s Last Stand—opened this museum dedicated to the concept of “clean.” Visitors can try out a pre-electric vacuum, marvel at toilets from around the world, and play Oliver Twist in the gritty, 18th-century chimney mock-up. There’s even an interactive area, Kids’ Clean World, where little ones can sweep, vacuum, and wash windows.
Look for: The Old Time Store display, featuring signs, furnishings, hardware, chemicals, tools, machines, and other antiques to learn what things used to cost and which products are still on shelves today.
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles, CA
Flickr / beccacantpark
This dark, claustrophobic museum contains a delightfully strange mix of exhibits: oil paintings of Russian space dogs (RIP Leica); an interactive history of cat’s cradle; tiny still-life images created from the individual scales of butterfly wings, presented under 12 microscopes; eerie depictions of the oddest of old wives’ tales; and “Rotten Luck,” a showcase of vintage dice in varying states of decay. It’s one of those places you can visit over and over again and always discover something new—and in this case, peculiar.
Look for: The top floor, with its welcome amount of light and space, where volunteers serve hot tea and cookies and encourage visitors to explore the lush rooftop aviary.
The Neon Museum, Las Vegas, NV
Flickr / mcdexx
If the history of Las Vegas is written in neon, the Neon Museum is its Old Testament. The museum features 200 donated and rescued pieces of electric heraldry—including signage from the Flamingo and Stardust casinos—in its outdoor Neon Boneyard. Guides lead strolls amongst towering signs that help tell the remarkable story of commercial daring that gave rise to old Vegas, some of which can still flicker to life.
Look for: The Visitor Center (you can’t really miss it), which is the lobby of the old La Concha motel. It was designed in 1961 by Paul Williams, one of the first prominent black architects in the country, and remains one of the best-preserved examples of the Googie school of architecture.
Pacific Bonsai Museum, Federal Way, WA
Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum
This is not a botanical garden. This is one of only two museums in the country (and only a handful in the world) dedicated to preserving and sharing the art of bonsai. The collection of 150 rotate in and out of display in the al fresco gallery, nestled between two towering conifers, in exhibits focusing on design principles (proportion! contrast! balance!), bonsai culture during WWII, and unorthodox bonsai renegades (they exist).
Look for: The extensive trail system on the property, which passes the nearby Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden.
Pacific Pinball Museum, Alameda, CA
Flickr / Duluoz Cats
Essentially a living history of the classic arcade game, the Pacific Pinball Museum has five rooms—one for each decade—filled with 90+ machines (rotating from a collection of nearly 1,500). It’s free to look, but if you want to play, $20 will get you unlimited access, including in-and-out all-day entry, if you just can’t get enough in one visit. Also included in your entry fee? The use of multiple jukeboxes, no coins needed. The pinball machines range from wood-railed models from the 1940s to modern-day marvels featuring Metallica, Transformers, and the new Ghostbusters cast; as well as the 1992 “Addams Family” game, the highest-selling flipper pinball game of all time. The upper-left flipper on the game employed artificial intelligence to learn to accurately shoot the ball during special game play!
Look for: The Wednesday League Night, every week at 6:30pm, where all skill levels are welcome (even first-timers), and regulars show off their advanced skills and signature style.