9 eccentric (and totally fascinating) Bay Area museums (2022)

The Bay Area is home to all the expected museums, their galleries brimming with art of every variety, be it modern, ancient or somewhere in between. But in a galaxy far, far away – that would be Petaluma – rests Darth Vader’s codpiece, along with half a million other treasures in the largest “Star Wars” collectibles museum in the universe. In a Berkeley archive of “curious scents,” there’s extremely expensive animal poop used in high-end perfumes, while the Beethoven Center in San Jose boasts a lock of the composer’s hair.

If you’re seeking an unusual learning experience, there are tons of opportunities in the Bay Area thanks to our wealth of eccentric and obscure museums. Here are 9 of the best.

Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose

The most hands-on Beethoven museum in the world isn’t the one in Bonn, the great German composer’s birthplace, or in Vienna, where he wrote many of his celebrated works.

No, it’s located in San Jose, on the (da-da-da-dum) Fifth Floor of the Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Library, jointly operated by San Jose State University and the city. Here, the museum showcases the extensive Ludwig van Beethoven collection amassed by the late Arizona developer Ira F. Brilliant, who was determined that his precious first editions and memorabilia — the largest such grouping outside Europe — be available for music students and Beethoven fans to study.

What sets this one apart from other scholar-centric museums is the accessibility of this collection of scores, letters, concert posters, portraits, recordings, engravings, medallions and even a bronze replica of his life mask. “In addition to our regular exhibits, we usually have a Beethoven manuscript or some other rare item on display,” curator Patricia Stroh says. “Right now we are featuring a letter written to his publisher Steiner in 1822.”

The keyboard instruments are a big draw, Stroh says. Anyone — even youngsters — can walk in and take their turn at a modern-day harpsichord or clavichord. And if you’d like to hear the real deal, stop by for a front-row seat on the days when Richard Sogg, a volunteer docent, plays the historic instruments, including an 1825 Jakesch fortepiano.

Don’t miss: A prized lock of Beethoven’s hair. The strands, from 1827, are protected in their original frame under convex glass.

Details: Admission is free. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and by appointment on other days (closed weeks of July 18, Aug. 8 and holiday weeks). Groups of up to 20 welcome; make reservations by emailing beethovencenter@sjsu.edu. For Sogg recital dates, check the website, www.sjsu.edu/beethoven/index.php. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Library, Fifth Floor, 150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose.

Rancho Obi-Wan

The world’s largest collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia is down a country road in Petaluma in what used to be chicken barns. Think of the most esoteric figure from the franchise – say, the wise Plo Koon from planet Dorin, known for protecting clones – and it will be represented here.

“I do have the Jedi Master Plo Koon mask made by a fan in Ireland and gifted to me,” says Steve Sansweet, founder of Rancho Obi-Wan, a collection of 300,000 to half a million “Star Wars” artifacts (after a few hundred thousand, perhaps you stop counting).

Sansweet, the erstwhile head of fan relations for Lucasfilm, has always had the collector’s gene. “There were baseball cards and comics as a kid, and Japanese rockets and robots and space toys,” he says. “Then ‘Star Wars’ came out and completely hooked me.”

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Today people from Japan and Dubai flock to Sonoma to share in his passion. There’s a Darth Vader helmet likely used in “The Empire Strikes Back,” an animatronic Cantina Band that plays music and dances, and vintage action figures people point to and exclaim, “I had that as a kid!” At the conclusion of the tour, there are arcade and pinball games set on free play.

The exhibits aren’t arranged in chronological or movie order but in a way that provides narrative enjoyment. “The fun in doing the tour is, it’s two to three hours led by a docent, and it tells the story of the collectibles – how they came to be and how they came to be in my possession sometimes, such as movie props and art and prototypes,” says Sansweet.

“We frequently get spouses who accompany a ‘Star Wars’ collector and at the end of the tour, they say, ‘I had no idea it’d be this much fun!’ And that does my heart good.”

Don’t miss: An original screen-tested Darth Vader codpiece. Enough said.

Details:659 Chapman Lane, Petaluma; tours ($75) are offered at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and should be booked at ranchoobiwan.org

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Fremont

You may not know the name of the trailblazing silent-film studio Essanay, but you surely are familiar with its top box-office draw.

Charlie Chaplin signed with the Chicago-based studio at the age of 25, then traded the Midwestern weather for the Mediterranean climate and rolling hills of Niles, Essanay’s western outpost. He made several “two-reelers,” including “The Tramp,” in 1915 in Fremont before heading to Hollywood for bigger bucks.

But Fremont has never forgotten the charming vagabond, nor Essanay co-owner G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, who was the first cowboy film star.

The city’s Niles Essanay Museum, which is tucked inside a circa 1913 nickelodeon, the Edison Theater, pays tribute to both actors and the silent-film era with its collection of hand-crank movie cameras and projectors, vintage posters and other memorabilia. Historian and co-founder David Kiehn has amassed a collection of roughly 5,000 films. An expansion in 2017 added 1,500 square feet of space, with enough room for additional permanent exhibits.

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Charlie Chaplin Days made a reappearance in June, and the museum will host the Broncho Billy & Friends Silent Film Festival on July 30-31. “If things are looking good COVID-wise,” program director Rena Azevedo Kiehn said, “we hope to start our regular Saturday night silent films the weekend after Labor Day. We also hope to have our Second Sunday Laurel & Hardy and Little Rascals talkie afternoon shows starting in September as well.”

Don’t miss: The original projection booth from the early 1900s that is still used these days.

Details: Museum and store hours are noon to 4 p.m. weekends at 37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont. https://nilesfilmmuseum.org/

The Museum of International Propaganda

Having grown up in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Tom Areton is acquainted with repressive regimes. “There was only one political party – the Communist party – and when we had elections, there was only one candidate,” he recalls. “We joked the only ‘election’ you had is you could vote on Friday or Saturday.”

It’s fitting, then, that Tom and Lilka Areton now curate an intriguing collection of historical posters and anti-Semitic German tabloids and propaganda films (many of them comedies, for some strange reason).

The museum is divided into chapters, including “Leader Idolization.” “You will see pictures of Stalin holding a little child, or Che Guevara looking otherworldly like a rainbow, or Hitler with children bringing him violets,” Areton says.

There’s content from North Korea, as it’s one of the 80-plus countries where the Aretons have traveled to collect museum material. Minders were with them at all times, and to get in, they had to bow and place flowers at the feet of a 60-foot-tall statue of Kim Il-sung.

The museum covers American politics, but as a rule, all the exhibits focus on the 1900 to 2000 span, avoiding the world’s contentious modern era. “We didn’t want it to become a political battleground and have people heave bricks through our front window and things of that sort,” he says.

That’s OK, because propaganda is timeless. “The purpose of this museum is not to turn you into a socialist or capitalist or Democrat or Republican,” Areton says. “The purpose is to teach you that propaganda is all around you and how to become sensitive to it.”

Don’t miss: In the 1950s, Eastern Europe’s crops were attacked by an insect called the Colorado potato beetle. Propagandists noticed the bug had stripes on its back like the American flag and spun the invasion into a narrative of imperialists air-dropping pests to strangle the young Socialist economy. Areton had to go out into potato fields as a school kid to collect these bugs by hand. “It was all a lie, by the way.”

Details:Open from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday at 1000 Fifth Ave. in San Rafael. Free admission;museumofpropaganda.org

The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale

Thousands of the Bay Area’s most beautiful, most intricate, most fragile treasures can be found in a most unexpected spot — behind the doors of a small, nondescript storefront.

The Lace Museum, in a Sunnyvale strip mall, is one of the few museums in the country devoted to the preservation of lace and the art of lace-making. It was co-founded in 1981 by local artisans Cherie Helm and Gracie Larsen.

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The nonprofit center has in its care more than 10,000 pieces, some dating back to the 1600s, from handkerchiefs and gloves to table runners and bread-basket liners to wedding gowns and sculptures.“If you can imagine it with lace, we probably have one,” managing director Kim Davis says with a laugh.

In the pre-pandemic days, museum staffers would pull from the vast collection and curate a few exhibitions a year. One, with the charming title of “Frills, Frippery and Finery,” featured lace collars, fans and other accessories. Another was “Up to Your Neck in Lace: Collars, Jabots and More,” with examples worn by both men and women. “Night and Day” showcased 90 years of lacy sleepwear and lingerie, with examples from 1860 to 1950.

The shift in 2020 to online activities has been popular, so the museum is continuing to host virtual workshops, informational Museum Mondays on Facebook, a virtual store and Etsy sales.

But in-person options are ramping back up. Lace-making classes for various skill levels resumed in June, and a current display depicts examples of the ancient lace technique known as sprang.

Don’t miss: Belgian war lace from World War I, known as “subversive lace” because symbols from Allied countries were woven into the designs. “It’s extraordinary,” Davis says.

Details: Admission is free, but donations are always welcome. Open from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday and noon to 3 p.m. weekends at 552 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale. https://thelacemuseum.org/

Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye

One of the few surgeries documented in ancient civilizations was for cataracts. It was called “couching” – somebody would thrust a needle or thorn into your eye to displace the clouded lens. “They did it without anesthesia or antibiotics – they were just going for it,” says Jenny Benjamin, director at the Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye.

Benjamin, who used to work at an ears-nose-and-throat academy (she jokes she’s working her way up the body), is responsible for curating 38,000 artifacts at the Bay Area’s only medical museum, which indeed has a display of couching needles. The museum presents the history of eyes and ophthalmology ranging from an ancient Egyptian amulet depicting the god Horus – who had his eyeball clawed out (you should’ve seen the other guy, he lost a testicle) – to 3D footage of retinal microsurgery.

“You can see how a surgeon sees a field of surgery – it’s super fun,” she says.

Historical exhibits cover cupping and bloodletting, once believed to benefit vision, and woodcuttings of weird full-face masks that supposedly corrected strabismus (misalignment of the eyes). There are displays about modern retinal implants and gene therapy, plus information about why people don’t need to worry about their eyeballs popping out of their head like they do in the movies.

“We have a display on ocular plastic surgery with a beautiful video that shows the bone structure of the eye as it rotates in the skull,” she says. “That’s what we use to show people why you can’t pop your eye out.”

Don’t miss: The museum doesn’t have any “wet specimens” like corneas in jars but does have a giant artwork of prosthetic eyes. “We call it our ‘selfie wall’ – some people just walk in to take a photo of it,” says Benjamin.

Details:Open from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday at theAmerican Academy of Ophthalmology, 645 Beach St., San Francisco. Free admission; aao.org/museum-of-the-eye

Pacific Pinball Museum

It’s pinball paradise, and you don’t need a pocket full of quarters like you did when you were a kid.

This Alameda museum showcases a rotating, chronological collection of 100 colorful, clanging pinball machines — all of them playable. You pay one admission price, and then you’re good to go. (But pace yourself. Fans on Yelp have reported very sore wrist tendons after a long day here.)

Nostalgia abounds, from 1946’s “Humpty Dumpty” for the real old-timers, to the 1992 Bally “Addams Family” machine, which the museum operators say was the highest selling “flipper” pinball game of all time, to 2016’s “The Hobbit.” Sports and action standouts from the 1970s include “Evel Knievel” from 1977 and “Harlem Globetrotters” from 1979.

“With so many games on display, we regularly have people run across a game they haven’t thought about in years and are instantly transported back in time,” program manager Chris Rummell says.

Pinball’s earliest days are represented in the roped-off “display only” area, where you’ll find a 1931 “Whiffle Board,” the first commercial coin-operated pinball machine, and a 1936 “Bally Bumper” that had been confiscated by Oakland police. The oldest dates from 1898, and it’s a game with a regal name, the “Montague Redgrave Bagatelle,” a precursor to pachinko and pinball.

Rummell says the museum is always evolving. “We recently installed a new exhibit, Oddball, that showcases experiments in pinball design and games with unusual features.”

Don’t miss: The “Freedom” clear pin, one of only five in existence, was custom-built by the museum. Housed in clear acrylic, the inner workings are visible as visitors play the game.

Details: Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday at 1510 Webster St., Alameda. All-day unlimited play runs $12 for kids ages 5-12; $15 for students, seniors, military, teachers and first responders; $22 for adults; and $55 for a family pass. On Tuesdays there’s a two for $22 special. www.pacificpinball.org

Marin Museum of Bicycling

That crucible of calf-punishing cycling, Marin County, is also home to one of the best museums devoted to bikes.

“My friends and I had this desire to share the wonderful lost history of 19th-century bicycles and the contributions they gave to the world, with things like the ball bearing and the bush-roller chain and the differential,” says museum curator Joe Breeze. “So many things were invented for the bicycle, because it was the original freedom machine.”

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A collection from the late Palo Alto NASA engineer Ralph Igler shows the evolution of the bicycle, from “boneshakers” that transferred energy from the road right into your crotch to “high wheels,” tricycles and the safety bike, an ancestor of the two-wheeled contraption we’re accustomed to today.

“It’s called a safety bike because the ones that preceded it were anything but safe. I think that’s where the term ‘header’ comes from – you’re perched way up there high above the fulcrum point of the machine,” says Breeze.

There are famous bikes that crossed championship finish lines, historical rainbow jerseys and reportedly the world’s first aluminum bike made here in Fairfax in the 1970s. Needless to say, the museum has plentiful bike racks and offers free locks, too.

Don’t miss: The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame draws visitors from all over the world. It’s more than 100 linear feet of bike paraphernalia chronicling the birth of mountain biking in Marin County up to the modern age.

Details:Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday at 1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. in Fairfax. Admission is $10; mmbhof.org.

Aftel Archive of Curious Scents

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In one corner of this charmingly offbeat Berkeley museum crouches a replica of a beaver. Why is it there? “Beaver balls,” explains proprietor Mandy Aftel. “For the leather smell.”

Technically, a beaver’s value to perfumers comes from its “castor sacs” – a pair are preserved here, as well as animals whose fluids and excretions are used in scents: a civet, a musk deer, a sperm whale whose diet of indigestible squid beaks causes it to disgorge precious ambergris. There’s even the petrified poop and urine of a hyrax, a furry creature that looks like a marmot, used to give a “dirty” tang to perfumes.

Aftel is a longtime book collector who channeled her love of history and natural perfumes into a compact but fascinating collection. Visitors are given a cloth glove to turn the pages of ancient tomes about perfumery and an “aroma cone” that goes over the nose to hoover up scents. Don’t worry: The smelling takes place in the fresh air outdoors, where you can compare synthetic versus natural materials and waft in molecules of 100-year-old essences.

“People are just happy when they’re here and are able to smell things,” Aftel says. “It lifts their spirits during Covid.”

Don’t miss: The experience is surprisingly visual. There’s an impressive “perfume organ” arranged into the “notes” of a fragrance – top, middle and bass. A case of curiosities holds a circa-1790 pomander, a metal ball stuffed with perfume-soaked cloth that French nobles would hold up to their noses when walking in public. Another exhibit presents a chunk of resinous agarwood, a pricey ingredient that owes its scent to a fungal infection, and antique bottles of essential oils like bergamot and “skunk oil” (don’t crack the seal on that one, please).

Details:Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays at 1518½ Walnut St. in Berkeley. Admission is $25. Proof of vaccination required as well as masks indoors.aftelier.com

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