Museums are those elusive destinations that city residents never quite muster up the energy for, as there's the implicit knowledge that you can always visit them another day. Or maybe you think you've seen them all already; even if you're a big fan of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, you'll quickly realize that there are only so many times that you can learn about the life of Athanasius Kircher.
L.A.'s count of odd museums is dwindling: The past few years have witnessed the sometimes mysterious disappearances of a few zany old-timers. Altadena's International Banana Museum was the most recent casualty, closing in 2010. But fear not: There are still plenty of passionate curators and strange establishments to visit.
Here's our pick of the top 10 oddball but delightful offerings out there, some from our best of L.A. issue.
10. Best Bright Lights: Museum of Neon Art
With bus tours and booze, as well as a soon-to-open exhibition space in Glendale, the Museum of Neon Art is a great way to explore the parts of L.A.'s cityscape that are too often ignored. While the museum itself is currently closed during its relocation to Glendale, the bus tours through L.A.'s neon jungle run every Saturday, from June through September, with docents who know the (sometimes surprising) ins and outs of Hollywood sign history. (Also check out our post on the 10 best neon signs in L.A.) (213) 489-9918, neonmona.org. –Sophie Duvernoy
9. Best Place to Get Retro: Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum
Unleash your inner trainiac and hop onboard one of the miniature steam engines that chug over bridges, through tunnels and in between ghost towns at Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum in Griffith Park. You don't even have to be a kid to do it — no one will give you strange looks, we promise. Founded in 1956 by train enthusiasts who wanted to educate visitors about railroad history, Los Angeles Live Steamers contains more than 23,000 feet of track, various historical (full-size) train cars, and the Disney Barn, which once resided in Walt Disney's Holmby Hills backyard. 5202 Zoo Drive, Griffith Park. (323) 662-8030, lals.org. –Laura Clark
8. Best Shootout Conservation: LAPD Historical Society
Sometimes, the best kind of museum is a bit shabby around the edges, and the exhibit is only a small part of the charm. That's the case for the LAPD Historical Society, located in the original Highland Park Police station built in 1925. Most of the museum has the usual fare: old guns, vintage uniforms and cars, strange handcuffs, etc. But if you sniff around a bit more, you'll find some relics of notorious Hollywood history, like Charles Manson's booking photos, paraphernalia from Patty Hearst's kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and car casualties from the North Hollywood shootout. The website condenses this into: “Some of the cars have real bullet holes from shootouts with bad guys.” But hey — why not go see it yourself, and decide on the museum's merits and blind spots (we're guessing there won't be any exhibits on the Watts Riots anytime soon). 6045 York Blvd., Highland Park. (323) 344-9445, laphs.org. –Sophie Duvernoy
7. Best Collectivist Nostalgia: Wende Museum
Who would expect Culver City to host a scholarly archive and museum of Cold War material? The Wende Museum is named for “turning point” in German, which refers to the collapse of the GDR and Germany's subsequent reunification. It claims that its surprisingly large distance from the nexus of socialism in Europe helps keep it a neutral institution, while museums in Europe are often busy rewriting the not-so-distant past. Begun as a private collection in 1990, the museum is a treasure trove of rare finds, such as an archive of East German head of state Erich Honecker's personal papers, items from East Berlin's monolithic Palast der Republik, and dissident art books and zines published during socialism. It's great for the finding your inner communist dork, as well as for those who want to learn about an utterly different life that, for better or for worse, has now mostly vanished. 5741 Buckingham Pkwy., Suite E, Culver City. (310) 216-1600, wendemuseum.org. –Sophie Duvernoy
6. Best History in Wax Form: Oran Z African Black Facts and Wax Museum
While Africa is represented at the Oran Z African Black Facts and Wax Museum, Oran Z — world-class hairstylist, inventor of the world's first and fastest hair weave and head of Black Media Productions (offering “a wide spectrum of services related to the entertainment industry”) — cuts the jive in this gem across the parking lot of Jerry's Flying Fox. Hundreds of thousands of items pertaining to African-American history are displayed in the anonymous building, drawn from Oran Z's private collection, including authentic slave shackles, dolls, books and signed sports memorabilia, but it is the wax figures that anchor the museum. For more info check out our blog post on Oran Z. 3742 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Free private tours for groups of up to 12 people. (323) 299-8829, oransblackmuseum.com. –Skylaire Alfvegren
5. Best Trading Post for Kids: Kidspace Museum in Pasadena
Did you know you can barter some of those curious seedpods and snakeskins you found on your last hike? Kidspace Museum's Nature Exchange allows you to trade your wild discoveries for other natural treasures, such as polished minerals, shells and fossils. You are allowed to bring in three items at a time, and points are given based on both the item's rarity and your child's ability to explain it. The more research you've done together — they even have field guides there to help you look up all your finds — the better. By the way, ask me the history of ginkgo trees. 480 N. Arroyo Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 449-9144, kidspacemuseum.org. –Elizabeth Bernheim
4. Best Obscure Path to Enlightenment: Bhagavad-gita Museum
It's one thing to read that “the perishable body and the eternal soul are not the same,” and quite another to eyeball the lessons via Bhagavad-gita Museum, the “world's first multimedia exhibition” dedicated to illustrating, in three dimensions, the world's oldest book. The figures' realism comes courtesy of a group of Disney sculptors who traveled to India in 1973 at the behest of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the figurehead of Vedic (read: Hare Krishna) consciousness. Through 11 dioramas, Krishna flutters about in disguise, at the reins of the senses, on the back of a garuda — stunningly rendered and ornamented with lightning flashes, dramatic sound effects and a booming-voiced narrator. 3764 Watseka Ave., Culver City. (310) 845-9333. bhagavadgitamuseum.com –Skylaire Alfvegren
3. Best Un-Museum: Museum of Public Fiction
The Museum of Public Fiction, a brick-and-mortar building, is also a publication, a project of proprietress Lauren Mackler, who wanted to take her graphic design training and push into something much more expansive: editorial, curatorial, musical and gustatorial. Public Fiction expands the idea of a gallery beyond things hanging on walls and buckets of iced beer during openings, though it has those, too. Mackler's Highland Park space has hosted secret restaurants, occult rituals, lectures, astral projections and experimental music alongside contemporary art exhibitions. 749 Ave. 50, Highland Park. publicfiction.org. –Andrew Berardini
2. Best Way to Learn About Oklahoma: American Land Museum at the Center for Land Use Interpretation
The Center for Land Use Interpretation, just down the road from the Museum for Jurassic Technology, is similarly postmodern about its offerings. It does have one important difference: It features exhibits on real-world spaces and places. In theory, the American Land Museum sprawls across the country; The L.A. outpost is the biggest of several scattered “Interpretive Units” that examine the creation of America's built environment (and haven't you ever wanted to learn about the 37 Initial Points of the Public Land Survey System?). If you're a geography or infrastructure geek, you'll find your happy place here. 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 839-5722, clui.org. –Sophie Duvernoy
1. Best Museum of the Imaginary: Walt Disney's Barn
A free Disney attraction sounds like a fairy tale, but on the third Sunday of every month, a little slice of Brigadoon appears in Griffith Park when Walt Disney's private workshop opens up from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Built in 1950 in what was then Walt's backyard, the barn is a re-creation of one from his childhood Missouri farm, where he once dressed pets in doll's clothes and put on a circus. It's where he built trains, where Imagineering was born and where the plans for his biggest train set were hatched. BYO imagination and sit under a tree beside the little wooden birthplace of Disneyland, grooving to the hiss and huff of steam engines as the wheels turn in your brain. 5202 Zoo Drive, Griffith Park. (805) 498-2336, carolwood.com –Devin Flanigan