Roundup: Offbeat Museums

If you live in the Northeast, you’ve probably visited the important museums along the Eastern Seaboard by now. Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia are among the oldest cities in the U.S. and they have the venerable museums of art and science to prove it.

But sometimes, ordinary exhibits just won’t shake those rainy-day blues. Time to check out one of those other museums, the eccentric ones that exist on the fringes of many cities. For an intimate look at some of the more bizarre aspects of human nature:

Museum of Sex, New York City. Erotica museums have been popular in Europe since the late sixties. This country got its first, on Fifth Avenue, in 2002. The Museum of Sex claims an educational mission and displays are presented with plenty of academic research. Indeed, you can find out anything you ever wanted to know, in explicit detail, about subcultures from homosexuality to sadomasochism and prostitution. On display now: “Sex Lives of Robots” and “Action: Sex and the Moving Image.” Information: www.museumofsex.com

International Spy Museum, Washington, DC. Opened in 2002, the Spy Museum explores the history of espionage since World War II. If you really want to “come in from the cold,” take the two-hour interactive Spy City Tour of downtown DC, exploring two dozen sites of espionage triumphs and disasters from the last 65 years of U.S. history. Information: www.spymuseum.org

Drug Enforcement Agency Museum, Arlington, VA. At about the same time, another museum opened across the Potomac River, shedding light on a different aspect of American history: substance abuse. The DEA Museum offers a surprisingly entertaining if cautionary look at recreational drugs, from the quaint Victorian packaging of “cocaine toothache drops” to an exuberant display of bongs, pipes of and vials from the seventies and eighties. Information: www.deamuseum.org

Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities, Philadelphia. This one has been around for a century and a half but not many know about it outside city limits. Founded in the mid-1800s when surgeons could collect body parts like trophies then put them on public display—the more famous the patient, the bigger the draw—it’s a trove of ghoulishness. Among the 20,000 objects displayed in this regal gallery of the Philadelphia College of Physicians is a tumor removed from Grover Cleveland’s jaw when he was president, brains of murderers and epileptics, a giant colon and a plaster cast of conjoined twins. Information: www.collphyphil.org/mutter.asp

National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore. Similar in theme but created in 1996 for a modern audience, this museum features George Washington’s (not so) wooden dentures, Queen Victoria’s gilded mother-of-pearl personal dental instruments, and a jukebox shaped like a giant gaping mouth that plays dental product commercials from television’s early days. Information: www.dentalmuseum.org