Oh, sure. You could go to the Getty and look at its world-class collection of photographs, or hang out in the incredibly popular "Urban Light" installation at LACMA, but can either of those possibly compete with a severed head or a spiritual diorama? If you're looking to visit an off-the-beaten path Los Angeles museum that's a little more quirky, we're here to help. Though LA has lost a couple of its favorite funky museums—farewell Banana Museum and Lingerie Museum!—there are still plenty of fascinating, offbeat institutions and free museums that deserve a visit.
Off-the-beaten path Los Angeles museums
Formerly the Museum of Television & Radio but now renamed after its co-founder, former CBS president William S. Paley, this Beverly Hills institution boasts a permanent collection of more than 140,000 TV and radio programs. This is the place to go if you love TV. Call up quality recordings of historical broadcasts like FDR’s fireside chats or the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. It's a feature that may seem dated, but the Paley Center’s screens and earphones have your laptop beat.
Catharsis comes in many forms: a charged workout, a moment of zen in the woods or a dramatic social media soliloquy. Add a visit to this Hollywood museum of used hairbrushes and stained T-shirts to that list. The Museum of Broken Relationships, the self-described home for the ruins of love, started as a traveling exhibit back in 2006 before opening a permanent brick and mortar gallery in Croatia in 2010. Rather than dwell on the despair of a relationship's collapse, the museum preserves love's legacy through donated relics.
Intense and macabre, this Hollywood museum doesn’t flinch at life’s inevitable end. Its grisly Charles Manson and Black Dahlia crime photos are almost tame compared to the guillotined severed head of Blue Beard (the Parisian murderer) and the actual death videos. It’s not all doom and gloom—serial-killer John Wayne Gacy’s clown portraits are a colorful distraction, right? If you feel yourself getting woozy, you’re in good company—visitors pass out so regularly that the owners have taken to calling it a “falling down ovation.”
Miracle Mile was the first commercial development in LA designed expressly for the benefit of drivers, and so a former department store makes an apt home for this museum of car culture. A 2015 redesign has since turned the automotive history museum into more of a high-tech gallery, with about 150 cars on display. There's a glimpse into the rise of car culture in Southern California, but that mostly takes a backseat to a focus on the progress, dominance and dazzling good looks of the automobile.
Both a gallery and a center of study, CLUI researches and chronicles all forms of land use, from uranium cell disposal sites to views from highways. From their website: “We believe that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription, that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing.” It’s a mandate that’s at once all-encompassing and somewhat obscure—the best way to understand it may be to go on one of the center’s popular bus tours where knowledgeable guides might explain, say, the cultural impact of the world’s largest Frito Lay factory.
Dedicated to the history of books, printing and book art, this non-profit museum takes its collection of antique printing machinery and crafts exhibits and demonstrations to make it interesting and relevant to today's audiences.
Set in a historic theater in the West Adams neighborhood (worth a look around for its streets of well-preserved Victorian houses), the Panorama aims to pay tribute to the tradition of 18th- and 19th-century 360-degree panorama paintings, which were once a form of popular entertainment. The Ancillary Salon hosts changing exhibits. Outside, a deceptively lush garden features a scary Carnivorous Plant and Sinister Foliage exhibit.
High up in the San Gabriel Mountains, the Mount Wilson Observatory affords terrific views of the surrounding region. The century-old facility was once frequented by Edwin Hubble; brush up on its history or take a guided tour while you're there. If you're traveling with a group, you can book an after-dark session on the observatory's 60-inch telescope. The grounds are free, but you'll need to buy a Forest Service Adventure Pass in order to visit the site as it's located within the Angeles National Forest.
Technically, this is a store, but unless you’re in the market for a bottle of Time Travel Sickness Pills or a can of Mammoth Chunks, chances are you’ll be doing more gawking than buying. If you do pick up a Robot Toupee (only $4.99!), your cash will be going to a good cause. The Time Travel Mart supports 826LA, a nonprofit founded by author Dave Eggers, which provides one-on-one tutoring to local students. It’s part of a national network of tutoring centers and stores, including a satellite location in Mar Vista.
Dedicated to "the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering," the Institute for Figuring's accessible approach to complex scientific and mathematical theories has won its director Margaret Werthelm a spot in the TED pantheon as well as a cast of fascinating collaborators (from the Andy Warhol Museum to the National Smithsonian). There's a changing main exhibition—examining everything from snowflakes to the Higgs Boson—and three interactive Project Rooms that invite visitors to literally play with ideas. You don’t need to understand physics to be charmed!