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The case for visiting offbeat museums and attractions

People gather in front of the Union Theatre, one of Los Angeles's first purpose-built cinemas. (Forest Casey)
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On a recent Saturday morning, my husband and I were the only visitors to the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles. Situated in the historical Union Theatre in the West Adams neighborhood, the attraction is open by appointment and affords a panoramic peek into Shenyang, China, during 1910 to 1930. Reached via spiral staircase, the 360-degree, three-dimensional terrain of painting and miniatures combined to create a breathtaking immersive experience. We sat together, watching the light change across the city. Listening to the recorded soundscape of birdsong, the distant clatter of pots and pans, a train whistle and the echo of shoes on cobblestone reminded me of other times when I had climbed sets of stairs to look out over Marrakesh, Morocco; Paris; or San Gimignano, Italy.

Patented by Irish artist Robert Barker in 1787, the panorama became a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. It’s more than a painting on a wall. “It’s an interface,” explains Sara Velas, director of the Velaslavasay Panorama. “Because you’re using your own mind and sensibility to create the illusion, it’s then something that can live on beyond your encounter. You take an active part in making it happen.”

My visit to the panorama conjured recent journeys and also churned up memories of childhood road trips with my father, Ross Ward, creator of Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park, N.M., which my stepmother, Carla, still owns and operates. Dad’s enthusiasms turned every drive into detours trading standard guidebook recommendations for the wonder of concrete dinosaurs, clock collections and desert puppet theaters. As the pandemic continues, small museums, roadside attractions and “art environments” present an uncrowded antidote to more mainstream offerings, and our visits can help to keep their doors open. Whether you have weeks or only a few hours, a journey off the beaten path offers an opportunity to learn new things and deepen your appreciation of the surrounding area.

“The places that we think we know can actually surprise us and become unfamiliar to us in new ways,” says Todd Lerew, director of special projects for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. With an ongoing mission to visit more than 600 small area museums, Lerew has explored troves of citrus, sneakers, streetlamps and archives of historical documents covering topics including refrigeration and Mexican migrant labor camps. “What I have done many times is open up Google Maps, type in ‘museum’ and see what comes up.”

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Susceptible to a similar serendipity, my dad would let an article in a 40-year-old copy of Arizona Highways magazine lead him to a creased page of the Rand McNally road atlas. He’d follow country roads and byways to places such as Bottle Village in Simi Valley, Calif., or the May Natural History Museum in Colorado Springs.

Now I use websites such as RoadsideAmerica.com and SpacesArchives.org, as well as the Atlas Obscura app, to locate all manner of attractions, including the Vanadu Art House in Hyattsville, Md. I’d seen photos of the place for years, but nothing prepared me for the sensation of stepping into this three-dimensional collage of metal, concrete, shard and shell.

“The spaces are meant to be experienced physically,” says Annalise Flynn, principal of vernacular art services, who oversees the Spaces website, a preservation project of the Kohler Foundation. “They loom. They have winding pathways that you walk throughout. They sometimes are domestic spaces that are actively lived in, and that’s a unique and important experience when it comes to understanding the relevance of creativity to the human life.”

Flynn has helped to create a searchable database of art environments and attractions all over the country. “Anytime I’m going anywhere,” she says, “I always look to see what’s around, what’s on the way, what’s in between.”

Although it’s possible to drop into many of these attractions, they often don’t keep regular hours, and they may be part of a home or other place of business. Be respectful, and make an appointment if you can. Once there, common courtesy (and the art of conversation) is your best approach.

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“I’ll get out of the car, and I’ll be shooting from the street, and someone will come out and ask me a question,” says Kelly Ludwig, a road-tripper/photographer/designer who has spent years documenting the creative work of hundreds of self-taught artists. “The next thing you know, I’ll be in their double-wide drinking Pepsi out of a jar. One thing leads to another.”

This kind of personal interaction is indicative of both the passion behind the project and the often scarce or limited resources keeping these exhibits afloat. Unlike during a trip to Disneyland or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll often have a chance to speak directly with the creator or steward of the collection. It should go without saying that you should attend to both art and artist with the same level of respect and care you would offer at more mainstream venues.

“Often,” Flynn says, “people who build art environments are building in some way to create community.”

A great example of this is the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, where artist Tyree Guyton has used paint and found objects to transform abandoned homes and his street into a living art gallery. “In essence, we’re not so much recycling things as much as we’re attempting to recycle the human spirit,” says Jenenne Whitfield, president of the Heidelberg Project.

“So many of these places are a chance to see the possibility of sort of following through artistic inspiration without the confines of what you think you are allowed to and not allowed to do with your life,” says Dylan Thuras, co-founder of Atlas Obscura. “You come away with what might be your own possibilities in life.”

For Thuras, a childhood trip to the sprawling House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis., sparked a desire to expand his exploration of the unique and unusual. This fervor led to a book, a website and, ultimately, a new take on guided travel.

The same Wisconsin attraction inspired my dad to start building his own museum in our backyard. His creation, in turn, moves untold numbers of visitors, including John Preble, curator of Louisiana’s Abita Mystery House, who writes on his website: “Before seeing Tinkertown, I didn’t realize that the public might be interested in seeing my collections and inventions.”

A visit to a small museum or art environment might motivate you to start painting, to research family history or to consider your own possessions and passions in a new light. The price of a ticket is often low, but your contribution might help buy a bag of concrete, fund research for the next panorama, pay the electricity bill or feed the museum cat.

“That is my ultimate virtuous cycle,” Thuras says of Atlas Obscura. “We suggest a place, and you go there and not just have an incredible experience but are supporting this art project or small museum. You make a connection with that person in this intimate environment, and then that person who runs that thing is able to keep doing it. That is the ultimate goal of this entire endeavor, in a way.”

In some ways, writing this piece took on the velocity and spontaneity of a good road trip. In every interview, I swapped stories and photographs and shared more than a few laughs. My dad has been gone for nearly 20 years, but every day I’m grateful for the legacy of curiosity, flexibility and enthusiasm he passed on to me. I think of his maps each time I set down one of my own.

Goodman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her website is tanyawardgoodman.com. Find her on Twitter: @campfiresally.

More from Travel

If You Go

What to do

Abita Mystery House

22275 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs, La.

985-373-0097

abitamysteryhouse.com

A collection of found objects and homemade inventions along with miniatures, odd exhibits and what curator John Preble refers to as “pure junk.” Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; call to confirm it’s open. Admission $5 per person ages 6 and up.

Bottle Village

4595 Cochran St., Simi Valley, Calif.

bottlevillage.com

One of a handful of art environments created by a woman, and more amazing because Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey began constructing the fantasyland using rocks, bottles and found objects at age 60. Though it was damaged in a 1994 earthquake, its magic remains. Open by appointment only; reserve tours through website. Admission $10 per adult and $5 per child.

Heidelberg Project

3600 Heidelberg St., Detroit

313-458-8414

heidelberg.org

Art, energy and community are the focus of this outdoor environment in the heart of Detroit’s East Side. Its creator, artist Tyree Guyton, has inspired countless others to work together to create a metaphor for transformation and hope. Open daily 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.

House on the Rock

5754 State Rd. 23, Spring Green, Wis.

608-935-3639

thehouseontherock.com

A repository for the obsessions and fascinations of Alex Jordan, this spot houses the world’s largest indoor carousel, a 200-foot-tall sea monster, memorabilia of all kinds and a bird’s-eye view of a scenic valley. Open dates vary by season. Admission varies by package. From $17.95 adults; $10.95 ages 7 to 17; and $1.95 children.

May Natural History Museum

710 Rock Creek Canyon Rd., Colorado Springs

719-576-0450

coloradospringsbugmuseum.com

Beetles, iridescent butterflies and spiders are just a few of the creatures preserved in this enormous private collection of insects. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., May to October. Admission $8 per person ages 13 and over; $7 seniors 60 and over; $6 children ages 6 to 12; and free 5 and under.

Tinkertown Museum

121 Sandia Crest Rd, Sandia Park, N.M.

505-281-5233

tinkertown.com

More than 50,000 glass bottles surround the compound housing an animated miniature circus and Western town, along with collections of all kinds and an antique 35-foot boat that braved a 10-year voyage around the world. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday to Monday, April 1 to Oct. 31. Admission $6 per adult, $3 for children ages 4 to 16.

Vanadu Art House

3810 Nicholson St., Hyattsville, Md.

A testimony to the value of recycling, this art house is the work of Clarke Bedford and is tucked into a quiet neighborhood. Be mindful of neighbors and gentle with the structure. Knock on the door, and you might be lucky enough to meet the creator. Free.

Velaslavasay Panorama

1122 W. 24th St., Los Angeles

213-746-2166

panoramaonview.org

In addition to the traditional 360-degree panorama, visitors may explore Nova Tuskhut, a life-size Arctic trading post, and meander through the site’s tranquil and verdant gardens. Open by appointment; available to book 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus occasionally Sunday. Admission $7 per adult, $5 students and seniors.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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