By Beith, Malcolm; Conant , Eve; Hsu, Michael; Itoi, Kay; Koh, Barbara; Theil, Stefan
Museum of Chinese Ancient Sex Culture, Shanghai, China
Mouse Museum, Mishkino, Russia
National Museum of Funeral History, Houston, Texas
Pencil Museum, Keswick, England
Rainwater Museum Tokyo, Japan
Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, New Delhi, India
Asparagus Museum, Schlunkendorf, Germany
Who says a museum has to be about art? With worldwide museum attendance higher in the past decade than ever, curators are realizing they don't need a Picasso to bring in the crowds. Mummies, or shoes--or even bananas--will work just as well. Disappointed in the "Mona Lisa"? Sample the Jell-O Museum in Le Roy, New York, or leap to the Frog Museum outside Basel, Switzerland. Worcester, Massachusetts, is home to a plumbing museum and Munich displays potatoes. Art snobs who denounce it all as "rubbish" would do well to visit the Trash exhibit in Warren County, New Jersey--anyway, they often say the same about modern art. Wacky museums appeal because they "present the world around us in ways that are unexpected," says museum designer Karl Katz, the former chair of special projects at New York's Metropolitan Museum. The "stuff" on display is secondary. "There'd be a bagel museum if I had my way," he says. Judging from the competition, he won't have to wait long. A sampling of our favorites:
SPAM Museum Austin, Minnesota
A canned-meat aficionado's dream, this rural museum's highlights include SPAM's marketing history, pictures of Slammin' Spammy (WWII's patriotic bomb-hurling pig), the live "SPAM Exam" game show, SPAM haikus and video vignettes of people's love affairs with SPAM. But seriously: who would want to visit a museum about tinned meat? Well, it does have global appeal--5.9 billion cans of SPAM have been sold worldwide. And then there's the history. On display is former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower's thank-you letter to Hormel Foods for feeding U.S. troops with hard-to-spoil SPAM in WWII; former Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev later echoed the sentiment. And former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once called the canned meat a "delicacy." Hey, SPAM even has cultural value. To this day, it is often given as a thanksgiving gift in South Korea.
Museum of Chinese Ancient Sex Culture Shanghai, China
Visitors can learn the history of Chinese copulation through a series of displays: chairs from the Ming dynasty (ergonomically designed for optimal intercourse), dainty teacups (from the outside, at least: inside, naked men and women cavort), a 200-year-old chastity belt and a 5,000-year-old black jade phallus, used for worship, which stands proud at 20 centimeters. (The 3,500- year-old stone version, a little more life-size, was used, um, for practice.) Founder Liu Dalin, a sociologist turned sexologist, insists the museum is not a peep show. He opened the museum in 1999 to promote sex as "normal, natural [and] healthy." Sure.
Mouse Museum Mishkino, Russia
Set in a tiny Russian hamlet, this museum has nothing to do with the typical PC's pointing device (that's in Tokyo). The five-room "mouseum" boasts 1,500 articles of mouse art (that is, paintings and clay models of--not by--mice), a history of mice and their roles in fairy tales and an in-depth exploration of the relationship between mice and Mishkino. According to legend a mouse saved the life of a local 13th-century prince by scurrying across his face as he dozed on the banks of the Volga. Although initially enraged, the prince soon realized that the vigilant mouse was warning him of an approaching snake, and built a small church in honor of his savior. Thus, Mishkino (literally, "Mouse Town") was born. In 1990 Vladimir Gritchykhin founded the museum. He likens mice-- including the ones who live and play in his office cabinet--to radical socialists, because "they have their own views and they don't listen to me." That's why he also has a cat.
National Museum of Funeral History Houston, Texas
In the summertime Houston is hotter than hell. That's about the only connection between the city and its National Museum of Funeral History. Founded in 1992, this humorless homage displays "Fantasy" coffins from Ghana, hearses (check out the 1860 German "Glaswagen" funeral coach with French plate-glass windows), a casket built for three (museum president Bob Boetticher Sr. …