Not all of the world's museums are splashy, high-profile institutions. Some fascinating collections are tucked away in more obscure spots, whether it's the suburbs of Maryland or the sanitation department of New York City. Here are eight obscure or semi-private attractions that make it worth going out of your way.
1. THE CIA MUSEUM IN LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintains a museum inside its Langley, Virginia headquarters, but outsiders aren’t allowed in. It’s only open to CIA employees, their families, official visitors, and the occasional persistent reporter. Founded in 1972, on the agency's 25th birthday, the museum contains thousands of declassified items, touching on the history of the CIA as well as that of its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, and foreign intelligence agencies.
Among the hundreds of items on display inside the Langley museum, there's a brick from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; a hollow rat corpse once used as a “drop” to pass agency secrets; and deadly weapons galore. However, you don’t need to become a secret agent (or marry a spy) to see some of the formerly top-secret relics: Pictures and videos of museum items are available on the CIA’s website, and the organization occasionally partners with libraries, museums, and other institutions to create exhibitions.
2. THE TREASURE IN THE TRASH MUSEUM IN NEW YORK CITY
The adage “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” rings true at New York City’s Treasure in the Trash museum. Located on the second floor of a nondescript East Harlem warehouse, the museum features countless tossed-out items, curated by former sanitation worker Nelson Molina.
Now retired and in his 60s, Molina first began collecting curbside souvenirs decades ago while on the job. The New York City Department of Sanitation bans employees from bringing their finds home, so Molina used them to adorn an employee locker room inside the Sanitation Department’s East 99th Street truck depot.
His co-workers (and trash collectors from other city boroughs) followed suit, bringing in unwanted objects like Furbys, typewriters, family photos, artworks, and furniture. Over the years, the collection grew to include other unusual items, like a copy of Lena Horne's autobiography signed by the singer herself; a vintage movie projector, and a Star of David-shaped steel plaque from the World Trade Center.
Molina is retired, but he still takes time to maintain his museum, which now fills an entire warehouse floor. The curator pre-approves all museum submissions and artfully arranges them into groups by type, theme, or color. But unless you’re a sanitation worker, you’ll generally have to contact the Department of Sanitation for a pre-arranged tour. (This may change in the near future: The East 99th street warehouse is slated for demolition and the Sanitation Department hopes to relocate the museum to a publicly accessible location.)
3. THE DAVID HASSELHOFF MUSEUM IN BERLIN, GERMANY
David Hasselhoff’s star (and tan) may have faded since the Baywatch era, but the actor still has fans in Germany: He’s the subject of a hidden museum in Berlin, tucked inside the basement of the Circus Hostel in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood and curated by bartender Ally Chaplin.
The tiny, two-year-old museum is mostly ironic (Germans aren’t as obsessed with the ‘Hoff as we think they are), but it does contain informative displays about Hasselhoff’s influence in Berlin; TV shows Knight Rider and Baywatch; and the hostel’s ongoing campaign to change their street’s name from Weinbergsweg to David-Hasselhoff-Strasse (German for “David Hasselhoff Street”). And since no ‘Hoff-inspired shrine would be complete without rippling muscles and chest hair, there’s also lots of cheesy fan art.
4. THE WILLIAM P. DIDUSCH CENTER FOR UROLOGIC HISTORY IN LINTHICUM, MARYLAND
At the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History, non-doctors can learn more than they ever expected (or needed) to know about the human urinary tract system. The museum is located inside the American Urological Association’s Linthicum, Maryland headquarters, and is open to members of the public by appointment only. It's named after William P. Didusch, a medical illustrator renowned for his drawings of the urinary tract and the various instruments used to treat it.
The museum is filled with historic medical illustrations, medical specimens, old-fashioned medical tools (some more horrifying than others), and other bladder-related items. Among them is a pineapple-sized kidney stone and a selection of dandies’ canes, the latter featuring hidden cavities for stashing catheters and lubricant. Visitors can also check out an assortment of revolving exhibits, including the upcoming “The History of the Kidney."
5. TOMBA EMMANUELLE IN OSLO, NORWAY
Gustav Vigeland is renowned in Norway for creating Vigeland Park, the world's largest sculpture park by a single artist. As for his younger brother, Emanuel Vigeland, he's remembered for designing one of Oslo’s most bizarre under-the-radar attractions: an otherworldly mausoleum/museum hidden inside a nondescript brick building.
Emanuel Vigeland didn’t originally set out to build his own tomb: Like his sibling he was an artist, so in 1926 he constructed a brick building to display his sculpture and paintings. But he also thought the 8600-square-foot space would make a great final resting spot, so he sealed the windows with bricks and covered the walls and ceiling with a fresco portraying “man’s sexual instinct, conveyed through multitudes of naked bodies, women and men in impetuous intimacy,” as described on the museum’s website. (Vigeland reportedly resented his older brother’s success; the over-the-top mausoleum, which he dubbed Tomba Emmanuelle, may have arisen from feelings of inadequacy.)
When Emanuel Vigeland died in 1948, his ashes were stored in an urn that sits above the mausoleum’s main entrance. To enter, visitors need to walk through a low passage and duck down through an inner door; it’s speculated that the artist designed it this way so they’d have to “bow” to his remains. The mausoleum opened to the public as a museum in 1959; today, it's only open for several hours each Sunday, and only a few people are allowed in at a time.
6. THE STAR TOYS MUSEUM IN BALTIMORE, MARYLAND
Thomas Atkinson didn’t originally set out to start a private home museum of Star Wars toys and memorabilia, “but there’s just so much cool stuff,” he told Maryland’s Capital News Service in 2012. Now in his 50s, Atkinson began collecting Star Wars-themed items after first seeing the original film as a 13-year-old. But what started out as a couple T-shirts and posters ballooned into thousands of comics, action figures, trading cards, plates, linens, posters, and more.
These objects went on permanent display in 1994, when Atkinson moved to his present-day house in Linthicum Heights, Maryland and filled an entire room with his Star Wars stuff. To “more effectively protect, preserve, and promote this outstanding collection,” Atkinson founded his Star Toys Museum in 1998.
Members of the public can view The Star Toys Museum by scheduling an appointment. And while they’re at it, visitors can also follow the scent of wood chips and check out Atkinson’s giant hamster home, which he bills as “the world’s largest hamster habitat." According to Atkinson, it "occupies three rooms across two stories and passes through solid walls" [PDF].
7. THE MMUSEUMM IN NEW YORK CITY
In the case of New York City’s Mmuseumm, a freight elevator doesn’t carry visitors up to the museum—it is the museum. Located in Tribeca’s Cortlandt Alley, the tiny space contains a curated assortment of artworks, found items, vintage curiosities, and cultural memorabilia all displayed and labeled like objects of great value or historic significance. “We’re thinking about narratives and ideas that connect us as humans and then [we] illustrate those with objects,” Mmuseumm co-founder Alex Kalman told The Cut.
Now in its fifth year of operations, The Mmuseumm is currently open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m (although it was closed for the installation of a new exhibit at press time). If you miss visiting hours, you can peer through the elevator’s windows and access the museum’s audio guide by calling a number on your phone. To view even more curious items from the Mmuseumm’s collections, check out its second "wing" (yet another tiny exhibition space), located on the same block.
8. THE BENDERY MILITARY MUSEUM IN TRANSNISTRIA
Tucked between Moldova and Ukraine is a tiny former Soviet republic called Transnistria. It’s not recognized by the United Nations, nor is it typically included on world maps. The territory was once part of Moldova, but when that country broke away from the Soviet Union in 1990, citizens of Transnistria—which was home to many Russian-speakers—still felt attached to the Soviets and declared independence. They planned to establish a socialist republic, and remain part of the Soviet Union.
Moldova and the breakaway republic went to war. The conflict lasted until 1992, when it ended in a ceasefire. (By then, of course, the Soviet Union had dissolved.) Moldova gave Transnistria limited autonomy, and today, it has its own government, army, national anthem, and currency. However, Moldova still won’t fully acknowledge Transnistria as its own country, and neither has Russia.
Visitors to the city of Bendery in Transnistria can visit a tiny museum, hidden inside three adjoining cars from a decomissioned Soviet steam train. The museum's displays trace the city’s military history, and are filled with rare Soviet military memorabilia: uniforms, medals, a handle-driven computing device, weapons, and Lenin and Stalin pictures galore. The Military Museum at Bendery is free, and is located right next to Bendery’s main train station. Keep in mind, however, that none of the museum’s curators speak English, nor are translations available for the museum’s plaques.