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America’s Best Little-Known Museums

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  • Eldred World War II MuseumEldred World War II Museum

What differentiates a museum from a collection from a display from an obsession? For the purposes of this roundup it made no difference, nor did the size of the museum or its budget.

Criteria for making this list came down to two questions.  Is the museum flying under the radar of most travelers? And would you tell your vacationing mother, best friend, or boss to go out of their way to visit this place, knowing that your reputation as a recommender is on the line?

Through those two filters I poured the nominations I received from frequent travelers as well as museum goers reached through the social media service HARO. Across 39 U.S. states sprang more than 150 nominations, nearly half of which came from seven states: Florida (19), New York (15), California and North Carolina (9 each), Arizona (8), and Oregon and Missouri (7 each). The number of nominations per state didn’t necessarily translate to greater - or any - representation on this list. Florida and New York ended up with just one pick apiece, while Missouri, which could be re-nicknamed the “Show Me Some Respect for My Museums State” has two. Here now, in no particular order, are the winners.

World Erotic Art Museum, Miami, FL

It may feel weird to send your mother here, but then again, the World Erotic Art Museum, the biggest collection of erotic art in the United States, was started by grandma Naomi Wilzig, who began amassing the art years ago when her son asked her to find some conversation pieces for his apartment, according to the museum. Thousands of paintings, sculptures, and other works from the Roman Empire to modern times fill the 12,000-square-foot space. “I took two pregnant girls there during a girls getaway [and] they loved it,” says Casey Wohl, author of the Girls Getaway Guide. “Just when you thought you had seen it all....you really do see it all [here]. Plus, you will NEVER look at the ‘Golden Girls’ the same [way again]." Erotic paintings of the program's actresses are included in the collection."

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, CA.

In many ways an “anti-museum” where fact blends with fiction, The Museum of Jurassic Technology “has nothing to do with dinosaurs and everything to do with curiosity, shifting realities, and wonderment,” says style and travel writer Jennifer Paull.  Passing through the “nondescript storefront on an anonymous stretch of Venice Boulevard is “like stepping back [into] an enigmatic Victorian gentleman's private curiosity collection,” adds virtualtourist.com general manager Giampiero Ambrosi. Whether you come across “Ricky Jay's decaying dice or micro-miniatures in the eye of a needle,” says Paull, take it all with a grain of a salt. For help making sense of it all, she says, check out Lawrence Weschler's book “Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder,’” which traces the history of this peculiar collection.

Honorable mention: The relatively new Mullin Automotive Museum, about an hour west of Los Angeles in Oxnard, will delight fans of Art Deco and fancy French cars.

The Eldred World War II Museum, Eldred, PA

The “town of Eldred stretches maybe one mile down a rundown highway, with no fast food restaurants and one gas station,” notes Insider Perks president Brian Searl, but inside the Eldred World War II Museum three levels of World War II memorabilia await, including “huge model displays that you can drive toy tanks over [and] replicas of life-size submarines” as well as “life-size bunkers you can walk inside, thousands of artifacts from guns to patches and flags to uniforms.” Searl adds that the museum “could quite literally have been picked up from Washington, D.C. alongside any of the other Smithsonian's [buildings] and been dropped here overnight.”

Sloan Museum, Flint, MI

Michigan-based leadership coach Terry Wisner says among the “cool things to do in and around the Greater Flint area,” is visiting the Sloan Museum, an automotive history museum that “shows how industry, quite literally, changed our world. From the horse and buggy, to the 50's diner, to the financial deals which funded General Motors, to the modern manufacturing process and the labor movement that birthed the UAW, this place has it all,” Wisner says. Classic and concept Buicks and Chevys are among the big draws, but the Sloan’s 125,000 artifacts range from “prehistoric stone implements to antique textiles and prototype automobiles,” according to the museum.

Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, OR

On the northern Oregon coast, the Columbia River Maritime Museum “dates back to the 1960s, but in 2002 it was completely rebuilt around an actual U.S. Coast Guard rescue ship,” notes travel writer Andrew Collins. The museum’s “filled with additional boats and displays that tell the story of the Columbia River's critical relationship with the people who settled the Northwest,” he adds, “and also how incredibly dangerous it is to cross the Columbia Bar -  the section of frothy sea where the river meets the Pacific.”

City Museum, St. Louis, MO

A “wacky, exciting, 4,000-square-foot place made out of recycled, salvaged and reshaped treasures,”

the City Museum packs appeal for all ages, says frequent traveler and JohnnyJet.com founder John E. DiScala. Among the attractions are “giant slinkies - wire-welded tunnels in the sky that can be climbed through - and slides. The biggest is a 10-story spiral that formerly was a chute used to move inventory through a shoe company.” Be sure to check out MonstroCity, where you can “crawl through sky tunnels, castles, cranes and planes. That's right -  there are two Saber 40 gutted aircrafts,” DiScala says. “Getting up there is an experience in itself, because walking up five stories on see-through walkways that don't feel sturdy - though they are - is scary. That's what makes it so much fun.”

Honorable mention: Kansas City’s National World War I Museum has the “largest collection of WWI memorabilia outside of England,” says writer Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, “but the coolest thing about it is the narrative history of what led to the war. It gives not just the American perspective, but the global perspective,” she says, adding that “the thing that struck me most about the museum is the glass floor with the poppies in the field below. I believe there is one to represent each casualty of the war.”

The Museum at FIT, New York City

As famous as the Fashion Institute of Technology is, the Museum at FIT is not as well known and might warrant consideration on your Manhattan must-see list if “looking at amazing clothes, shoes, handbags, hats and jewelry” are your thing, suggests the museum. Says virtualtourist member “Paris92,” the exhibits are beautifully curated and often explore less-traditional aspects of fashion. They also do a year-end exhibit of student work that is always breathtaking.”

Tinkertown Museum, Sandia Park, NM

More than 50,000 glass bottles comingled with cement form the exterior walls of Tinkertown Museum, about 25 miles northeast of Albuquerque and my personal nominee for this list. The 22 meandering rooms are jammed with folk art and other pieces either carved or collected by the museum’s late founder, Ross Ward. You’ll find such curiosities as a display of wedding cake couples or an intricate, miniature reproduction of a 1940’s circus. As you wander through rooms you may suddenly find yourself outside, where a ramp leads to an antique sailboat that survived a 10-year voyage. Ward spent more than 40 years building and adding on to Tinkertown, about which he once said, “I did all this while you were watching TV.”