The Deal: It’s the biggest house on the block. That’s how you’ll know you’re there. The 18th-century, three-story brick house tucked away in a North Philly neighborhood has no signage, no flashing red arrows, but behind its unassuming facade, this Civil War museum has more charm than Scarlett O’Hara. The GAR is stacked with flags and swords, medals and uniforms, petrified tree trunks and cannonballs split wide open. You can easily get lost in the archives, drool over the uniforms or gawk at soldiers’ striking daguerreotypes. (We don’t blame you; their voluminous moustaches are pretty sexy.) This place is a testament to badassery, the kind that modern times has done away with. But don’t worry. Every Tuesday, you can tour the museum, pick up a rifle and pretend.
Star Attraction: He’s 160 years old and hidden in a room behind a curtain. He was wounded in battle at least five times. He’s nothing short of a legend — and he’s a horse. Meet Old Baldy, the then-warhorse of General George G. Meade and now-stuffed horse head hanging in the GAR. Make sure you get up close to check out the nicks on his white muzzle. —Frida Garza
Philadelphia Doll Museum
Where: 2253 N. Broad St., 215-787-0220, philadollmuseum.com
The Deal: To see the interior of the Philadelphia Doll Museum — a storefront on North Broad Street containing a one-room museum and one-room gift shop — you have to be either lucky or determined. So, on a second attempt during advertised visiting hours, we talked our way into what turned out to be the family reunion hosted by Barbara Whiteman, an avid collector turned museum director who first had just five dolls, then 10, then bought a case — until she had hundreds of glass, plastic and bead eyes staring at her from her very own museum. Now, donations often come by mail, some with known provenance, others that Whiteman can’t identify but puts under glass nonetheless. A more precise title of this museum would be the Philadelphia Black Doll Museum. “We’re not playing with dolls, we’re teaching history with dolls,” Whiteman says, gesturing to cases containing everyone from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to Barack and Michelle Obama in inaugural garb. Handmade and mass produced, valuable and flea-market ready — it’s all on display here. One thing a visitor will learn is that dolls, whether from Australia, Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South, share one culture-spanning trait: an innate and unshakable creepiness. Another lesson: Pretty much anything can be made into a doll, if you’re hard up. The museum has dolls made of corn husks, baby-bottle nipples and even chicken wishbones. “A lot of children don’t know what a wishbone looks like,” Whiteman complains. “That’s because their parents have given them too much Kentucky chicken.”
Star Attraction: For sheer terror, nothing beats “Big Boy.” With the face of an infant but four times the heft, he’s a leering nightmare in glue-and-wood composite. “We have no explanation as why this doll was made so large,” the website notes. “Just more to love.” —Samantha Melamed
Wells Fargo History Museum
Where: 123 S. Broad St., 215-670-6123, wellsfargohistory.com
The Deal: Henry Wells and John Fargo joined forces in the mid-19th century for a California banking/express-mail business. From there, the company’s ascension to power went something like this: Gold Rush, westward expansion, success. Honestly, it was hard to take in all the facts from the video demonstration on Wells Fargo’s version of history, what with all the games and gizmos nearby. This place is proof that shameless company promotion is best experienced in interactive form; guests can message friends in Morse code using a working telegraph, travel through a virtual forest in a swaying stagecoach or have their faces printed on replicas of old U.S. currency. And then there are the two video games, for the more competitive Wells Fargo fanatics. The first requires players to sift through sand beneath a rushing river via touchscreen. Any gold found during your dig must be balanced on a pan as you curse endless rapids that threaten your profits. The second game is so marvelously surreal that you will never look at the Wells Fargo six-horse stagecoach the same way again.
Star Attraction: The Stagecoach Adventure Game, wherein players wrangle items as they race to a finish line, makes a modicum of sense for the “Past” level, which is set in the Old West. But why the hell would a stagecoach speed like a bat out of hell through a futuristic metropolis replete with aliens and gamma rays? No one uses stagecoaches now; do they become a fun throwback in the future? Is this trend somehow timed to first contact? Why does everything look like Tron? If this is Wells Fargo’s vision of the future, why do we trust them with our money? —Michael Blancato
American Helicopter Museum & Education Center
Where: 1220 American Blvd., West Chester, 610-436-9600, americanhelicopter.museum
The Deal: It’s pretty straightforward: a collection of big, medium and Mini Cooper-sized crafts that can hover — which is amazing, when you think about it. Six of the biggies sit outside, including a massive Osprey, a two-rotor-blade beast that takes off and lands like a copter but can shift into high-speed airplane flight. Some of the copters are accessible, and during my visit, two kids were climbing inside those cockpits and gleefully yelling, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” Oh, wait — it was me who kept having Apocalypse Now flashbacks, while the museum emphatically points to helicopters’ good work, like rescue missions. A sign above the entrance door proclaims, “Helicopters Save Lives.” Explanations of what you’re looking at are sometimes lacking, and the whole experience veers between professionally presented and cheesy. But there’s this off-the-coolness-chart thump-thump-thump feature: About once a month the museum offers helicopter rides for $40.
Star Attraction: The museum’s sole attendant suggested the Osprey as the highlight, but I had the strongest reaction to the HH-47 Chinook, a mean-looking Great White Shark of a craft. On display were two Boeing ads for the HH-47, one of which called it “A powerful commitment to our warfighters.” I felt the urge to back slowly, carefully away. —Theresa Everline
TUSPM Shoe Museum
Where: 148 N. Eighth St., 215-625-5243,
The Deal: This little-known, centuries-spanning collection of footwear located in Temple University’s School of Podiatric Medicine is one part shoe-history lesson and two parts spying on the students doing whatever it is they do in their labs nearby. The Shoe Museum is housed in a series of hallways all over the school building, making for a strange and semi-voyeuristic experience of walking through and around classrooms, offices and labs during your tour (so, you know, wear comfortable shoes). Amidst all the clogs, boots and mules, you may catch a glimpse of Betty Ford’s surprisingly sexy silver pumps, some Egyptian burial sandals or, if you’re really lucky, Sally Struthers’ sky-high blue heels from her days on All in the Family. Visits are by appointment only and free.
Star Attraction: Guide extraordinaire Barbara Williams — a medical archivist prior to her gig at TUSPM — is the collection’s most valuable treasure. With so many rare pairs so far-flung, you need a skilled navigator. And Williams has got a story for almost every shoe. With about 900 pairs in the collection, that’s a lot of stories. —Madeline Bates
National Liberty Museum
Where: 321 Chestnut St., 215-925-2800, libertymuseum.org
The Deal: Museums can sometimes reflect their founder’s peculiarities. The National Liberty Museum is a raw translation of publishing executive and philanthropist Irvin J. Borowsky’s moral subconscious: tolerance and freedom. And glass art. Some of it is classical: Bacchus, nymphs, Poseidon. A lot — like the glass accompanying historical exhibits celebrating the moral character of heroes ranging from Gandhi and Harvey Milk to the victims of 9/11 and Anne Frank — is didactic. When tour guide Kevin R. Orangers looks up at the spacey-psychedelic “peace portal,” he sees sea horses and a land-line telephone, but guests are invited to share their own visions. “When visitors walk in, it might be hard for them to understand the glass metaphor. And we’re working hard to change that.” The metaphor, as it stands, is this: “Liberty is fragile! Liberty is strong! Liberty is beautiful!” Other marvels include a glass figure of a miner above the exhortation that “Commitment to work fulfills obligations to job, family and yourself,” and a painting in the Three-Wolf-Moon style depicting the Statue of Liberty rising into the cosmos above Mount Rushmore, Iwo Jima and 9/11 firefighters. A chapel-like stained-glass-adorned room on the top floor is dedicated to world religions, and includes an exhibit on the Trail of Tears and a short biography of Cornel West. This is a deeply strange museum. Or, as Orangers put it more than once, a “head-scratcher.” But the glass art, hero laudation and denunciations of totalitarianism and intolerance are all conveyed in an unadorned vernacular that is absolutely worth spending an afternoon puzzling over. Here’s hoping that as the National Liberty Museum undergoes a renovation to streamline its message, it continues to embrace the weird.
Star Attraction: “Another head-scratcher,” says the Orangers, introducing two life-size statues of children made out of jelly beans with their heads on backward and standing before a wall of motion-activated fake butterflies. —Daniel Denvir
Where: 2313 Frankford Ave., pizzabrain.org