Geeking Out and About
Take your inner dork to these niche museums for some unselfconscious fun.
Have a blast visiting quirky collections across the country.
Why hide your dorky self behind a bland exterior of cool when there are so many interesting places where weirdos (and we mean that in the best sense) roam free?
Tech nerds who need a transistor fix flock to the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. News junkies visit the Newseum in the nation's capital, where they rifle through archives and watch old clips. And grown men who play with dolls? Well, there's a place for them at the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Okla.
Whether you're a closet disco dweeb, a Vulcan-eared Trekkie or just have an obsession with all things Bond James Bond, there's a museum somewhere in this vast land with your name on it. We surveyed a few of the strange, exciting places you should visit.
Reboot at the Computer History Museum.
Mountain View, Calif.
Take a techie tour
To see a computer with a winning streak, visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley and the home of Big Blue, the IBM supercomputer that beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov.
The museum houses over 100,000 artifacts and 15 million pages of documentation related to computing, making it a favorite destination for computer geeks.
"In some cases, it is kind of a nostalgia trip for them," said Dag Spicer, head curator at the museum. "They can see old machines they worked on or even invented."
Among the highlights are an Enigma Machine from World War II, which the Germans used to encrypt secret messages, and a working Babbage Engine, a computer that was designed in the 1850s but built in the 1990s using modern techniques. Digital music fans fawn over the earliest prototypes for Apple's iPod and shake their heads at early hard-disk drives.
Many of the museum's visitors "know computers are important and they've affected all of us, but are not quite sure how the story happened. That's our job: to explain how we got here from there," Spicer said.
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Read all about him at the Newseum.
The Newseum, which opened its flashy new quarters in 2008, had a coming-out party of sorts when President Barack Obama was sworn into office early the following year. Broadcasters from CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, Bloomberg, and local affiliates all set up shop at the newly minted museum.
Focusing on First Amendment freedoms, especially of the press, the Newseum displays world histories told through artifacts central to events and people in the news. It also features more than a full-day's worth of videos and exhibits such as an interactive newsroom.
Among the highlights are eight pieces of the Berlin Wall, including the largest piece of the wall outside of Germany.
"The artifact itself tells such a dramatic story because on one side of The Wall you see this very free-ranging graffiti done by artists who were living in West Germany; you walk around the other side and it is just bare concrete and that's what was on the East German side, which was guarded by guns and dogs," Susan Bennett, the museum's vice president, said.
Other artifacts include the cabin where Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) lived in Montana, and a broadcast tower that stood on the north tower of the World Trade Center toppled in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We think these are moments in history that should be remembered in part because we don't want them to ever happen again," Bennett said.
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Dolls for dudes at the Toy and Action Figure Museum.
Pauls Valley, Okla.
Get some action
Steve Carrell's action-figure-collecting character in the hit movie "The 40 Year Old Virgin" might be in heaven at the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Okla., the only museum of its sort in the world, according to director Lisa Driskill.
The museum's collection of 12,000 action figures includes GI Joes, Transformers, and every superhero in the book -- Batman, Spider-man, and Superman included. "We've got one where Superman's cape is all torn and he's not looking so good," Driskill said. "It's a fun collection."
Items such as the Superman collection and the World War II airplanes in the GI Joe exhibit hang from the ceiling on ropes because, as Driskill noted, superheroes and airplanes fly "so you've got to see them from the ceiling."
While all types visit the museum, the biggest fans tend to be middle-aged men who played with action figures as young boys. Some men will bring their significant others to the museum and find they only get to spend a few minutes before their companions get bored, Driskill said. "A few weeks later they come back by themselves and they stay the whole day."
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It's always playtime in Strong's Toy Hall of Fame.
Toys are us
One of the best places for fun-loving geeks to get their game on is the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. "It is a surprises-at-every-turn kind of place," said Susan Trien, a museum spokeswoman.
Interactive exhibits such as the Field of Play massage the intellect and creativity with features such as a topsy-turvy house that distorts your perspective, a giant walk-thru kaleidoscope, and a machine that sends balls across the ceiling.
Little geeks (your children) can explore the Super Kids Market, which is child-sized with fully functional checkout counters, barcodes on the produce, a meat counter, bakery and even a TV studio where kids can put on a cooking show. "It empowers them to role play as if they were adults," Trien said.
Geeky parents are sure to get a kick out of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, a 5,000 square-foot exhibit that includes about 22,000 working arcade games.
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See some shocking gizmos at Marvin's.
Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum (sandwiched between the two halves of a shopping mall north of Detroit) is crammed from floor to ceiling with oddities and antiques that mostly have a mechanical bent, though some just reek of geek.
Take, for example, P.T. Barnum's Cardiff Giant -- a famous fake of a fake petrified biblical giant "dug up" in a farmer's field in Cardiff, N.Y., and tangled in the origins of the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute."
On the mechanical side is an unusual collection of ceiling fans from the early 1900s. "When they built something in the olden days, they tried to build it pleasing to the eye," museum owner Marvin Yagoda said of his prized fans.
Dozens of vintage coin-operated arcade games are a prime draw; though the museum's latest acquisition could make it a must visit: "A chicken that plays tic-tac-toe. You'd swear it is a live chicken," Yagoda said, adding that the chicken ties most games it plays.
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Even Trekkies rock at Seattle's EMP/SFM.
From rock to Spock
Music geeks got their museum when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen opened the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle in 2000. Four years later he weaved the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (SFM) into the eye-popping Frank Gehry-designed structure, a gift to sci-fi geeks everywhere.
"Music and sci-fi are not by any means oil on water," said Brooks Peck, EMP/SFM curator. "There are a lot of ways they come together." For example, a Spaced Out exhibition once featured record album covers from the 1950s and 60s with space and science fiction themes.
Most of the science fiction exhibits, though, have a decidedly geeky vibe. Among the widely-recognized artifacts of sci-fi culture are Captain Kirk's chair from the "Star Trek" television series, the model of the Death Star used in filming the original "Star Wars" movie, and the eponymous character from "E.T.," glowing red finger and all, Peck said.
Hard-core sci-fi fans can read early correspondence from famous authors such as Ray Bradbury and view artwork depicting space travel from the 15th to the 20th century. "People can see just how far back science fiction goes and all those ways it is expressed," Peck said.
Among the curator's favorite artifacts is a cardboard model of the sound stage for the original "Star Trek" series that the producers and directors would use to plan their shooting day. "It's neat. It looks like "Star Trek", but it is also this tool that people were using to make "Star Trek"," he said, which provides insight to how science fiction is created.
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Assume your alias at the International Spy Museum.
Secret agents, man
The creative process of espionage is on full display at the final stop in our tour of geeky museums: The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where tools of the trade such as a button-hole camera, a shoe with a transmitter in the heel, and a lipstick pistol are on display.
Interactive exhibits show visitors how to be a spy, find their targets in disguise, and analyze satellite imagery like a real intelligence agent, noted Peter Earnest, executive director of the museum.
Among his favorite artifacts is a letter, signed by George Washington, directing a man to set up a spy ring in New York when the city was still occupied by the British.
"It offers him $50 and then so much a month afterwards," Earnest said. "Washington really was a spy master. He understood intelligence and was very active in trying to run agents."
Earnest said his museum doesn't have a typical visitor; rather it attracts all sorts: men, women, and families from all over the world. In short, a museum for Everygeek.
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SwitchYard Media is a Seattle-based multimedia storytelling studio.