Here at Kiwi.com, we’re interested in all aspects of travel. We realise some people don’t just travel for a holiday, but for a more specific purpose. Here we’re looking at…
Why do humans collect things? To maintain a sense of order and control over a part of their world. To connect with a particularly strong childhood emotion that they like to relive. To find empathy with a certain event or period of history to which they feel a strong bond.
Some people find that a collection of items related to someone famous gives them a sense of knowing them, and some people find beauty in the mundane. Or perhaps they’re just a little bit odd.
Whatever the reason, psychologists estimate that around one-third of people have what would be defined as a collection of one kind or another. Today, we’re going to take a trip through some of the most curious, influential, or just downright odd museums that you can find on your travels. Ready to investigate? Good, me too!
Le Musée des Vampires, Paris
Ironically, for places that are meant (generally) to be a record of truth, we’re going to start with something that doesn’t exist, despite what thinly-veiled treatises on abstinence flogged as YA literature would have you believe.
However, having seen Jaques Sirgent’s collection of literature and relics from tribes, religion and dogma the world over, you begin to realise that this is much more than a museum; this is a lifetime’s scholarly pursuit.
You have to book if you’d like to visit, because Jacques himself will talk you through his collection, explaining the links between the myths that have grown up around an idea that has existed across disparate cultures for thousands of years.
By the end, you’ll have had a storied explanation of the role that the idea of vampires has played throughout human history, right up to the 21st century and yet another generation who finds this myth both terrifying and oddly romantic.
The Lawnmower Museum, Southport, England
Their website describes it as: “The culmination of the lifelong dream of ex-lawnmower racing champion Brian Radam”, and if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
You’d think it would be a slightly eccentric, uniquely British collection, full of the sort of things that blokes of a certain age like to tap thoughtfully with their pipe while having a conversation about carburettor adjustment. And you’d be right.
From the story of how the lawnmower was invented by the hirsutely-named Edmund Beard Budding in 1830 (who had to test it at night in case people thought he was a bit odd pushing what was originally a piece of textile cutting machinery around a field), through to solar-powered robot mowers of today.
You’ll also see footage of lawnmower racing (worth watching regardless – trust me on this), a section entitled Lawnmowers of the Rich and Famous (Princess Diana! Brian May!) and a variety of machines by companies not normally associated with such mundane pursuits (such as Rolls-Royce, for example; surely the Rolls-Royce of lawnmower production?).
In short, it’s a charming, lovingly maintained example of when a man’s hobby gets just a bit out of hand… And it’s all the better for it.
Avanos Hair Museum, Turkey
In a cave underneath a pottery studio in Cappadocia is a collection of over 16,000 locks of female hair. Just let the creepiness of that sink in for a moment. Who in their right mind would be possessed to do such a thing? And is it a sign of something more sinister?
Well, the answers to those questions are Chez Galip, the potter who owns the studio; and no, not really. In 1979, one of Galip’s friends moved away and as a parting gift she gave him a lock of her hair and a note to accompany it on which she’d written her address. When people visiting his studio asked him about it, he would tell them the story and slowly but surely, women began to donate locks of their own hair with their addresses on.
Nowadays, twice a year, the original donor comes to visit and chooses 10 locks of hair at random, whose previous owners then receive an all-expenses-paid week back in Turkey, including pottery courses. Galip says it’s just his way of paying back the people who have made his studio into one of the most curious but most talked-about attractions in the region.
The International Spy Museum, Washington DC
A fabulously interactive museum involving over 5,000 pieces from the beginning of spying (or “the second-oldest profession” as they call it, their tongue very firmly lodged in their cheek).
Create your own secret identity and learn how vital it is to maintain it; test your skills of observation and disguise at the Spy School; head through the two World Wars and into the mistrust and intrigue of the Cold War.
Finish up with a look at some of the techniques and technology used in 21st-century espionage. Couple this with two added live-action attractions: Operation Spy – a one-hour, Escape Room style adventure where you cross the border into a hostile country, complete with a full cast of actors; and Spy in the City – in which you’re given a GPS locator and told to solve puzzles at various locations around central DC.
The museum also runs a year-round programme of lectures and workshops for both kids and adults concerning everything from talks from former spies and hostages, to experts on cybercrime and cyber security.
Museum of Carrots, Raeren, Belgium
Phew. After the excitement of all that espionage, we’d better look at something a little more bucolic. Plus, in the UK at least, carrots were used as wartime propaganda, so there’s a connection. They’re good for your eyesight, so you can spot planes more easily. Or that was the line.
Anyway, you won’t find anything as controversial/nonsensical as that here in this sleepy Belgian village. Berlotte is its name, and in the side of an old tower, there are four glass panels, behind which are a number of carrot-based exhibits, mainly weird cartoons and pieces of carrot-heavy plastic jewellery.
For a more technological thrill, look through the smallest window and turn the handle. A selection of carrots will move slowly past you on a wheel. That’s it.
Vent Haven Museum, Fort Haven, Kentucky
Sufferers of automatonophobia (thanks, internet), look away now. This is the world’s only museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism and consequently, houses over 900 dummies from 20 countries. On top of this, there are photos and displays related to ventriloquism, as well as a section on the history of the museum.
It’s actually the legacy of one man, a certain William Shakespeare Bergen (no, really) who was a businessman and amateur ventriloquist. He used the money he made from business to collect figures and practice throwing his voice, and eventually became President of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists.
He was a rampant letter-writer, often penning up to 50 letters a week to fellow ventriloquists the world over, and it was through this network that he built his collection to what it is today. After Bergen’s death in 1973, his collection became a charitable concern, and his spirit began to inhabit his favourite dummy. Nah, not really.
Of the many, many art galleries in Amsterdam, this is the only one that specialises purely in cats. That might sound a bit trite, but there are some serious big hitters here; the collection includes pieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec among others, and the works range from sketches to paintings, posters to lithographs and even sculptures.
Oh, and cats. Cats live in the museum as well, which makes sense when you visit. It’s like walking into a grand, 19th century town house with all of the gilt-edged furniture and fussy chandeliers that go with it, just with hundreds of pieces of cat-based art all over the place. Although maybe that’s like your Nan’s house.
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox-Pitt Rivers has a name even as extensive as the amount of colonial plunder he came back from his travels with. After leaving the military, he became widely respected as an anthropologist and archaeologist, and the condition upon which he left his collection to the University of Oxford was that they employ a full-time lecturer in anthropology. They did so, and even today, the staff at the museum are also obliged to lecture part-time at the Uni.
Let’s not beat around the bush, mind you. This was a time – the mid-late 19th century – when Britain was marching around the world, shooting people and nicking their countries. All very unsavoury, I’m sure you’ll agree, but in a way, Pitt-Rivers was a saving grace.
He knew all too well the value of collecting, cataloguing and studying artefacts from different cultures – if not actually going as far as just letting their people keep them. And the collection is unlike any you’ll ever see.
In terms of floor space, it’s relatively small, but it’s a magnificent tangle of pretty much everything; tribal masks, models of sailing ships, musical instruments, magic and sorcery equipment, insects, manuscripts and so, so much more.
I was walking around it and peering into some glass case or other, marvelling at the sheer density of the finds, when one of the museum staff sidled up to me, gave me a knowing smile, and opened up all the drawers in the cabinet beneath the case. They’re all full too! And you can just explore them at your leisure! Genuinely fascinating.
Pencil Museum, Derwent, UK
This almost sounds like one of those interminable school trips that Springfield Elementary takes its kids on (“Ugh, Seymour, not the Pencil Museum again!”) and, in a way, you’d be right. After all, how much fun can you have with a pencil? (Don’t answer that.)
However, this museum does what it does very well. Set in the heart-stopping beauty of the Lake District, the town of Keswick on the north edge of Derwent Water was the first place in the world to mass-produce pencils, and it underpinned the town’s economy right up to the 1930s.
Entering the museum through a replica of a graphite mine, visitors tour the site, learning about the local area as well as the technology that has evolved over the centuries. There are a lot of pleasingly heavy-duty machines and, naturally, it’s home to the world’s biggest colouring pencil.
The main thrust of the museum is actually doing things, however. The museum is on the site of a factory that, to this day, produces Derwent Colouring Pencils. This means that there are drawing classes for kids and adults alike, ranging from the odd afternoon’s doodling through to a teenagers’ four-week course taking place during weekends.
Couple this with the fact that the countryside around is as rugged and gorgeous as you’re likely to find anywhere, what starts as a bit of a joke is actually a grand day out.
Museum of the Mummies, Guanajuato, Mexico
Right, let’s finish with something startlingly macabre. In 1833, Guanajuato suffered a cholera outbreak, with victims quickly being buried anywhere they could be. In 1870, struggling for money, the powers-that-be slapped a retroactive burial tax on the families of the victims, and those who couldn’t pay had their relatives dug up and stored nearby.
A few ghoulish locals fancied a poke around, but weren’t allowed … Until some grasping hands realised they could make even more money by charging people to see them. So far, so morbid. But it gets so much worse.
Due to the speed of the cholera outbreak, some of the “victims” may not have been quite dead before they were thrown in a hole by panicky locals; for this reason, more than one of the mummies have been preserved with horrific, straining screams now forever frozen to their faces. Still not enough? The museum also contains the smallest mummy in the world, a fetus from a pregnant cholera victim. Truly, truly chilling.
The mummies are well-known in Mexico though, and it’s now less of a freak-show and more of a reverential place, especially during the Day of the Dead. Oh, and for its starring role in the 1970 film Santo vs. the Mummies of Guanajuato in which a famous Mexican wrestler of the era battles their reanimated corpses. But of course.