When you think of museums, you might think of the majesty of the British Museum in London or the grand halls of the Met in New York.
But if you only focus on the famous names, you might miss out on the smaller, more unusual places.
I’ve collected together 12 of the strangest museums around the world that are all worth a visit. You’ll encounter mummies, witchcraft, shrunken heads, and souls on the way through Purgatory.
Choose carefully, and visit with an open mind. Who knows what new ideas or fascinations will emerge for you?
1. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England
The Pitt Rivers Museum is a place close to my heart as the public front of the ARKANE Institute in my thrillers. The collection is also perhaps one of the weirdest museums in the UK. General Pitt Rivers founded the museum in 1884, and there are now over half a million objects.
Most museums display their objects based on cultures or geography. Not the Pitt Rivers. Here, curators group objects according to type. It makes the similarities between people and cultures, often across vast time periods or extensive physical distance, all the more obvious. So it’s important to anthropology and an interesting viewing experience for visitors.
There are some particularly gruesome shrunken heads, as well as giant wooden birds of paradise, their spiraling feathers like huge tongues, and the agonized face of a Christian martyr statue, neck twisted towards his God, desperate for release, next to a case of ceremonial knives for stripping the flesh from sacrificial animals.
It’s super weird. What better home for ARKANE?!
2. La Specola, Florence, Italy
This quiet, unassuming gallery lies within the Museum of Natural History in Florence. The rest of the museum houses taxidermy and other exhibits relating to its subject. But La Specola is the part you need to see. It’s home to the largest collection of anatomical wax figures, including over 1400 models.
Most of them date to the 18th century and students still pop in to study their realistic forms. The famous Anatomical Venus is a must-see. It’s a full-size version of the tiny memento mori that is the key to solving a murder in my London crime thriller, Desecration.
As La Specola is on the south side of the River Arno, it’s also a lot more peaceful than other attractions like the Uffizi or Duomo. So if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Florence, and see something unusual, then this is a brilliant destination.
If you enjoy anatomical models, check out The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death and the Ecstatic by Joanna Ebenstein.
3. Museum of Vampires and Legendary Creatures, Paris, France
It’s no surprise you’d find this museum just 2.4km from the awe-inspiring Pere Lachaise cemetery. Jacques Sirgent, a scholar of the macabre, founded the museum as a place to collect his research into vampirism and esoterism.
This strange museum shares the strange, cryptic history of Paris. It also contains vampire killing kits, antique books, toys and collectables relating to Hammer Films and Dracula, and other pop culture items. Adding to the air of mystery, you need to reserve your place on their guided tours.
Some of the weirdest museums often double as libraries, and the Museum of Vampires is no different. You can buy an annual membership for €60, which entitles you to unlimited access to the books and magazines held by the museum.
4. International Cryptozoology Museum, Portland, Maine, USA
Stephen King country is the ideal location for this strange museum. Covering Big Foot, the Jersey Devil, and other folkloric creatures, the museum holds a range of memorabilia, souvenirs, toys, and research materials on all things cryptozoology.
The museum has moved location several times, with its premises growing to accommodate its ever-expanding collection.
Their website describes it as the world’s only cryptozoology museum, and it’s also noted as a formal collection. It’s open every day except Tuesdays, so if you want to see the Feejee Mermaid, or learn more about the coelacanth, then it’s worth a visit.
5. Funeral Museum, Vienna, Austria
This macabre attraction is one of the weirdest museums in Vienna. Funerals were historically a major event in this European capital, and tourists still line up to visit the Imperial crypt. The Funeral Museum capitalizes on the trend towards all things funerary, displaying hearses, mourning attire, and items designed to help those who found themselves buried alive.
One of the stand-out exhibits is a re-usable coffin, designed by Emperor Josef II in 1784. The bottom of the coffin is a trap door, allowing the corpse to drop into the grave without burying the coffin itself.
6. Museo de Las Momias (Mummy Museum), Guanajuato, Mexico
In the mid-19th century, the people of the small mining town of Guanajuato interred hundreds of bodies in the Santa Paula Pantheon’s crypts. Authorities later exhumed the bodies when their families couldn’t pay the town’s mandatory burial tax.
During these exhumations, town officials discovered that the climate of the region had naturally mummified the bodies. The first body was exhumed in 1865, making the mummified French doctor the oldest of the collection. Visitors originally saw the mummies in situ in the catacombs, something of a clandestine experience as viewing the corpses was not permitted.
Around 100 bodies, including those of infants and children, were later moved to the Museo de Las Momias, or Mummy Museum. The poignant museum is a touching testament to the body after death.
7. Torture Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Amsterdam is now a liberal city of life and culture, but their Torture Museum displays over 40 torture devices once used during interrogations. Witches, political prisoners, and criminals all fell foul of these decapitation swords and the infamous inquisition chair.
The museum’s curators recognize that almost 100 countries still practice modern torture. They run educational events for students and support the UN Convention Against Torture.
8. Museum of Death, New Orleans, USA
With a name like that, the Museum of Death has a lot to live up to. Definitely one of the weirdest museums in the capital of the strange, the Museum of Death is not a subtle place. I visited in March 2017 while on a book research trip for Valley of Dry Bones.
The Museum of Death originates from a San Diego art gallery after its founders decided that people had become too distanced from death.
On display, you’ll find body bags, coffins, old mortician equipment, photographs from crime scenes and morgues, images of the Manson Family, and much more. The self-guided tour lasts 45 minutes, although visitors are welcome to stay for as long as they can stand it.
9. Žmuidzinavičius Museum, Kaunas, Lithuania
Founded in 1966, the Žmuidzinavičius, or Devil’s Museum, collects and displays carvings of devils from around the globe. When it opened, it contained just 260 sculptures. Visitors left their own devils, and by 2009, the collection held 3000 objects.
The exhibits range from wood to stone and ceramic although some of the items are also masks. They also contain pebbles whose markings resemble the devil.
Some of the simple statues express both folk myths and political ideologies. A famous sculpture shows Hitler and Stalin dancing as devils across human bones. Maybe you have a devil stone you can leave behind if you visit …
10. Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh is a fascinating city, divided between the gleaming Georgian New Town and the twisting cobbled closes of the Old Town. Between the South Bridge Vaults and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, it’s a mecca for anyone who likes a taste of the macabre or the unusual.
Yet one of the most unusual museums in the United Kingdom lies below a government building on the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close is a monument to the old narrow streets that lie on either side of this historic strip between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. There are rumors that those infected with the plague were walled up here alive.
Take a guided tour below ground and see the tiny rooms and stifling chambers that inhabitants once called home. There’s even a legend of a little girl ghost named Annie, and tourists often leave stuffed toys and dolls for her to play with.
If you’re lucky, she might tug your coat to say hello.
11. Museum of Holy Souls in Purgatory, Rome, Italy
In the Catholic faith, souls pass through Purgatory on their way to heaven. You pay for your sins in Purgatory and the soul makes its way through faster if more of the living say prayers to speed them along. In earlier centuries, people handed out ‘soul cakes’ to the poor at Halloween, in exchange for the poor saying prayers for their relatives.
But this truly strange museum displays objects apparently marked by burning hands belonging to the souls of Purgatory. According to legend, a fire in the original church inspired a French missionary to build the museum. He discovered the scorched image of a face which he assumed was a trapped soul.
You can find the museum at the back of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio church.
12. Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, UK
Cornwall might be more famous nowadays as Poldark country, but this fascinating museum houses the world’s largest collection of items relating to witchcraft and magic. The museum previously existed in Stratford-upon-Avon, and on the Isle of Man, where Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, acted as the witch in residence. The museum moved to Boscastle in 1960.
A prehistoric maze is carved into the rock face three miles from its location, linking the museum with the magic of ancient times.
The museum holds over 3000 objects and 7000 books and stages temporary exhibitions along with public events. While some of the displays may seem unusual, remember that Wicca is a legitimate spiritual path, so be respectful.
You can also see some of the objects on display in Of Shadows: One Hundred Objects From The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic from Strange Attractor Press.
Any, or all, of these museums offer unique learning opportunities. They also capture the sides of human life that extend beyond the classical ideas preserved by traditional ideas. They’re also a lot of fun if you enjoy the unusual side of travel.
I often visit museums on my travels for book research. Stone of Fire, the first in the ARKANE thriller series, features the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford as well as Rome, Venice, and Varanasi, India, if you fancy reading more.