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8 Hidden Museums Around the Globe

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Wikipedia // Public Domain

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

Erika Berlin

 
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

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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.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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