Paintings and dinosaur skeletons not your thing? Museums don’t just stop at Rembrandt and T-rex. There is an entire archive of geek Holy Grails out there, from fandoms to the fantastical, scientific to science fiction. There is even a museum that will have you never looking at numbers the same way again.
Most of these amazing attractions were founded by the fans themselves, who decided putting their epic collections on display was a much better idea than letting invaluable comics and action figures and video games gather cobwebs in cardboard boxes. Step into a sci-fi museum and time-travel into the future at warp speed. Flip through endless corridors of comics and graphic novels. Visit vintage gaming havens where you’re supposed to play with the exhibits. Or freak out at a horror museum where you can dress up as Dracula.
Whether you’re obsessed with movies or math, you can geek out at one of these 11 imaginariums of wonder, awe and the occasional tentacle.
The Toy & Action Figure Museum
Everything about this museum is an action figure collector’s delight, even the outside, with an enormous blue super-someone flexing his muscles over larger-than-life Homer Simpsons and Captain Americas. Paranormally talented toy designer and artist Kevin Stark (any relation to Tony?) brought this brightly colored plastic vision to life when Pauls Valley, Oklahoma decided it wanted to morph into a vacation destination. Did it ever. Inhabited by over 13,000 action figures from Aquaman to Yoda, not to mention original drawings and other coveted collectibles, this diorama of galactic proportions has drawn geeks from around the world to its incomparable swarm of superheroes. Deep breath: it has a Bat Cave.
Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum
Pinball yourself back in time with this whiz-bang collection of coin-operated machines. Founder Marvin Yagoda was a pharmacist so obsessed with these vintage oddities that he literally turned his passion into a museum. Many of the automatons that he amassed over half a century are extremely rare, if not extremely strange. Think mystical gypsy fortune tellers, pinball machines, delightfully creepy animatronic dummies, mechanical claws, P.T. Barnum’s monolithic giant, and even one of the electric chairs from infamous New York prison Sing Sing. And—get this—most of these contraptions are still fully functional, so bring along a pocketful of change. Just don’t read Night of the Living Dummy before entering.
By the way, Dr. Brain over there also lurks at the East Village location of New York City’s Jekyll & Hyde Club.
The Walt Disney Family Museum
The dream you wished upon a star has come true! Be a guest at the Magic Kingdom for the rarest of rare Disney collectibles. The museum's ten fantastical galleries are portals into fragments of Disney’s life, including family photos and listening stations where you can hear the voices of Walt and his collaborators discuss their latest Imagineering adventures. This shrine to the man who created the Mouse is also a visual theme park of Walt’s very animated achievements, from his earliest sketches to vintage animation cells, sculptures, marionettes, and a scale model of Disneyland. There is even a Disney-designed camera that gave depth to his animated films, and a train prototype that would later take tourists through rides like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Museum of the Moving Image
You’ll never look at your local movie theater the same way again after you’ve experienced a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image. The epic digital media wall will mesmerize you from the moment you walk in. Besides the 400 movies this shrine to the art of film shows each year, it’s also a 3D timeline of the big screen, starring over 1,400 artifacts from the first black-and-white days of filmmaking to the cinematic future. Exhibits have included fandom favorites like Jim Henson’s Fantastic World (which drew so many Muppet aficionados that the museum has a permanent Henson exhibit in the works), the pixelated history of video games in Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off, and film-specific features like the making of Rise of the Guardians. Bring on the popcorn.
The House of Elsewhere
No matter how many sci-fi cons you’ve been to, you’ve seen nothing until you’ve ventured into the world’s ultimate genre museum. Dreamed into being by a collector whose memorabilia stash reached galactic proportions, this universe of everything science fiction, also known as Maison d’Ailleurs, is crawling with over 70,000 documents, covering everything from extraterrestrials to extraordinary technological fantasies, with artifacts that are like programming a time machine to take you as far back as the 1700s. You can dive 20,000 miles under the sea to its Jules Verne wing, or open your mind to limited exhibits of retro-futurism. This will blow your mind: what is now a fantastical fictional realm was once a Regency-era prison.
Museum of Illustration
Imagine drawing yourself into a TV animation or a giant graphic novel. That’s exactly what being surrounded by this museum’s 2,500-plus pieces of comic and cartoon art is like. Founded by the New York Society of Illustrators, it covers characters far beyond just the Marvel and DC Universes. Art from its colorful archives is constantly rotated for the museum's ever-changing exhibits. Current displays that comic enthusiasts must see include The Lost Work of Will Eisner, Heroes of the Comics featuring the legendary work of Drew Freidman, and an eight-legged exhibit of original Spider-Man artwork. Events range from lectures that are much cooler than anything you had to fight to stay awake through in college, to sketch nights where you can draw iconic characters like James Bond from real-life models.
The Hollywood Horror Museum
If museums make you think of creepy corridors and dark corners, you should be haunting the Hollywood Horror museum. Through exhibit after exhibit of monster movie props, sinister scenes from films and TV in the genre, and terrifyingly true-to-life figures including a Bela Lugosi Dracula you can almost hear hissing "I vant to suck your blood," these catacombs of everything horror explore shadows of the human mind to answer the undying questions of what frightens us, and why. Horror and weird fiction-philes will also find an underworld of immortal stories by Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. Crawl down to the Dungeon for the freakiest nightmare fuel, and cosplay to any themed exhibit (it’s encouraged) if you dare.
Pacific Pinball Museum
Pinball wizards will go ping-ping-clang over this mashup museum-arcade with over ninety pinball machines from the ‘30s through today—which you’re allowed to play on. This might be the one time you’re actually allowed to touch something in a museum. Think everything from a psychedelic Beatles machine to The Twilight Zone to Technicolor ‘50s themes that look like one of that era's beach bum movies washed up in some bizarre alien sci-fi world. The museum is covered in murals as an ode to the evolution of pinball, and what arcade-game fantasy land would be complete without vintage jukeboxes? You can even book a pinball party here and “adopt” a rescued game to help restore to its former glory.
National Museum of Mathematics
This museum makes math so much more awesome than what I considered my high school nemesis. If you think it’s like walking into a giant calculus textbook, think again—everything that illustrates the mind-expanding power of math, from hyperboloids to the physical embodiment of string theory, is much cooler than whatever you could get a graphing calculator to do. You won’t believe the interactive exhibits cover the same things featured in your homework. The Mathenaeum (such a thing exists) allows you to test your skills at applying operations to morph 2D shapes into 3D sculptures, while Pattern Pants merge math and fashion to design a symmetrical pattern on something you could theoretically wear. Even if you’re not a mathlete, it will make you just a little more left-brained.
Anime Art Museum
Japanimation has unofficially taken over our fandoms, and it’s now taken over our travel itinerary because no anime otaku without a plane ticket to Tokyo can go without jumping into the virtual world of the Anime Art Museum. Founded by a Sailor Moon devotee, it is now a colorful cartoon bubble of characters from Naruto to Totoro to Usagi Tsukino and her famous twintails. Robot lovers can reboot their idea of A.I. at the Gundam (giant robot genre) exhibit, while gamers can program themselves into the Next Gen experience that feels like an immersion video game. You can even see many exhibits through a virtual reality headset. There are also Ani-MEETs, drawing classes, a theater, an extensive library, and, of course, a ramen café. Neko ears optional.
The National Videogame Museum
Whether you’re a noob or have leveled up multiple times, it’s never game over at this digital world of video games from vintage to new to next. Reboot your knowledge and see how gaming has evolved since the days of joysticks and TV screens, and learn obscure things about the history that will score points with fellow gamers at your next convention. Wander through displays of gamer-a-bilia that time-warp you back to your Atari days, or skip a few phases and find out what virtual adventures await you in the future. Gamers at every level will love the arcade and the consoles in what looks like a much more epic version of your living room—because what would a video game museum be if you weren’t allowed to play video games?