20 Unusual Museums

The world’s best off-beat museums embracing digital discovery

Museums began as the private collections of wealthy types, shown off in wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities. The finest of these grew into famous cultural and national establishments, whilst others remained on the periphery, revealing their quirky artefacts to the inquisitive visitor.

Some of these outsider museums still exist today and have inspired a whole genre of collections devoted to the weird, macabre or absurd. Many demonstrate a technical outlook as old as their exhibits, but there are some that embrace digital as an extension of their physical objects. In this vein, we invite you to discover the most noteworthy of these for yourself.

Be warned, some are not for the faint of heart!

1. Cancún Underwater Museum

Cancún, Mexico

A stunning series of galleries containing 500 submerged sculptures in the shallow waters of the Cancún National Marine Park. Not only are they eerily beautiful, they also serve as material for coral to collect and grow upon. Essentially it’s art as conservation, captured superbly in their online gallery.


2. The Mütter Museum

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

An informative medical museum packed full of anatomical oddities, eye-watering equipment and bizarre specimens. Most notably from Europe, Joseph Hyrtl’s 139 Caucasian skulls of varying shape, which he gathered to disprove a racial belief that cranial features were evidence of intelligence.


3. Ramen Museum

Yokohama, Japan

You read that correctly! For over a decade locals and visitors to Yokohama have enjoyed their favorite staple in a recreation of 1958 Tokyo, the year instant noodles were invented. The amusement park also houses branches of famous ramen restaurants with expert recipes available online.


4. Wellcome Collection

London, UK

This medical museum, founded in 2007, originates from Henry Wellcome’s long-standing Trust, which is one of the world’s largest providers of scientific research funds. The collection and library is a “free destination for the incurably curious” with wonders that include this mummified Peruvian man.


5. The Museum of Bad Art

Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

A hotchpotch of artwork spawned by the “deranged and deluded” (as one critic put it). MOBA has spent 20 years celebrating bad art in all its forms, qualifying them as more of a museum than a gallery. Their online collection is neatly categorised for ease of repulsion.


6. Messner Mountain Museum

South Tyrol & Veneto, Italy

A central museum with five branches across north-east Italy comprises Reinhold Messner’s homage to the mountains, from the science of glaciers to rock climbing and local mythology. Not only are the locations breath-taking, but the website is also well worth a visit. Leave your crampons behind.


7. Sulabh International Museum of Toilets

New Delhi, India

This social service NGO has been “meticulously” detailing five millennia of sanitation since 1992. Explore their three worlds: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, from the rudimentary to the high-tech. Their site, although dated, has a large virtual tour and video archive regarding the “smallest room”.


8. Bran Castle

Bran, Romania

Dubbed Dracula’s Castle (although there’s no evidence of a connection), this idyllic fortress displays art and furniture collected by Romania’s much-loved Queen Marie, with a museum park below it exhibiting peasant structures. The website is slick, holds a vast array of content and is a pleasure to use.


9. Icelandic Phallological Museum

Reykjavik, Iceland

From an island country known for its peculiarities, this museum takes some beating. Surround yourself with over 200 penises from a wide variety of animals within this genuine and sincere collection dedicated to the science of phallology. Get an eye-full in the online galleries. Exit via the gift shop.


10. International Spy Museum

Washington, District of Columbia, USA

Sitting immodestly in the US capital, several blocks east of the White House, this collection of global espionage artifacts sheds light on a shadowy world. The permanent, temporary and online exhibits show off government ingenuity and cunning employed in a never-ending race to supremacy.


11. Funeral Carriage Museum

Barcelona, Spain

As beautiful as they are macabre, this collection of horse-drawn and horseless carriages charts the growth of Catalonia’s population from the late 1700s. New cemeteries were hastily opened outside the city walls, requiring new rituals regarding the transportation of the wealthy deceased.


12. Bata Shoe Museum

Toronto, Canada

There are plenty of shoe museums about, including Imelda Marcos’s now down-at-heel collection. But none of which have stepped into the online world as confidently as Bata. North America’s sole footwear history museum delivers a bold, immersive site, enhanced by large, colourful imagery.


13. Kunstkamera

St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

Russia’s oldest museum houses artifacts of people and cultures that range from the bizarre to the morbid. If you enjoy pickled heads or deformities in large jars, get yourself over there. Although the website isn’t very graceful, it’s chock-full of interesting collections, saving you the cost of flights.


14. Museum Africa

Chicago, Illinois, USA & Africa-wide

What’s so weird about Africa? Nothing, but the museum itself is unusual because it began digitally, with a mission to manifest physically. As they put it, “Museum Africa is more than a place; it is an idea”. Their hope is to make the study of ancient African civilisations more accessible. Watch this space.


15. Museum of Military History

Vienna, Austria

Known to the locals as the heftily-titled Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, this imposing building contains Austria’s military journey through empire, republic and dictatorship. It also houses the motorcar in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated - a moment that changed the world.


16. Centrale Montemartini

Rome, Italy

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a temporary hideaway for loot ‘liberated’ by an invading army, but the juxtapose of historic sculptures standing within a 1900s power plant has been carefully choreographed by the Capitoline Museums. The works can also be found on Google Art Project.


17. Gold Museum

Bogotá, Colombia

All that glitters in this case is, in fact, gold. A collection of over 55,000 pieces fill the Banco de la Republica’s building, many of which are fashioned from the precious metal, sacred to Colombia’s indigenous cultures. The website also provides a thorough insight into gold across pre-Hispanic societies.


18. Porter Sculpture Park

Montrose, South Dakota, USA

Time magazine considers Wayne Porter’s sheep-farm-turned-recycled-metal-structure park worthy of their “Things you don’t see every day” list. Whether they’re stretching their legs after a long drive on Route 90 or taking it all in online, the visitors are apparently kookier than the collection itself!


19. Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Zigong, People’s Republic of China

This dinosaur park has more going for it than most. Not only is it located in a temperate area that is perfect for the preservation of fossils, it even has its own dig site that visitors can observe. The website, when it runs properly, is as compacted with information as a seam of Triassic coal. Well worth a dig.


20. District Six Museum

Cape Town, South Africa

This heritage centre stands as a monument to the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town — a once vibrant and mixed area that saw its community forcibly removed and properties bulldozed in the name of racial segregation. The website is a trove of recollections and imagery that captures those dark days.


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