Worth the Trip? The Museum of Whimsy in Astoria, Oregon

Astoria is well known for the cult classic The Goonies, and the less well-known but equally important Kindergarten Cop starring Arnold Swartznegger. About three in a half hours south of Seattle, Astoria is a cute sleepytime town, that recently started stirring in its slumber. Filled with historic, repurposed architecture, at least two hipster coffee shops, and a collection of tourist hotels along the waterfront, this town has around 10,000 people, and looks like it may be growing. 

In the midst of this stirring, is the Museum of Whimsy. Originally a neo-classical 1924 bank building, the museum is just a block from the main street shops, with striking columns and a hand-painted lions. This museum is maybe exactly the kind of detour you need, but not the one you expected. The building itself is an impressive presentation of what we should do to bring value to old buildings, and its visual magnitude makes you want to walk inside immediately. 

Front of Museum of Whimsy – image from @mzmuseum

From social media, it is assumed that you’re about to walk into someone’s strange collection of antiques. That is true, that is exactly what it is, but it’s also something else entirely. Walk inside and you’re immediately overwhelmed with, well, whimsy. Those aren’t just victorian lamps, it’s a topsy-turvy version of them. That isn’t just a hand-painted boat, it has an entire living space inside its porthole. You’re greeted at the front desk by the owner/collector herself, Trish Bright, a pleasant woman with whimsically curly hair. She isn’t intrusive or loud, she lets her museum speak for herself. 

They are antiques, to be sure, but they are altered. They are collections of “junk”, but they are collections of the strange and unusual. Old and new dioramas, wax boxes and heads, cornucopias of color, and corners of unnerving delight are ever present when walking through this large space. Are the walls closing in, just a little? 

image of altered teapot – image from @mzmuseum

That is another word for it too: unnerving. In the daylight, the wax heads and colorfully crocheted mannequins look like they’re suspended in having a party. I would not want to be in this bank at night. This stuff moves around. I know it, you know it. 

One of the most bizarre and perhaps unsettling things in this museum is the premature baby display that they used to have in fairs and exhibitions. You’d pay twenty-five cents to see a tiny baby trying to live in this god-forsaken world. Ultimately, visitors will learn that the money went into taking care of the babies, but that doesn’t take away from the starch white uniforms hung up in the background and the incubator with tiny, scrunched up face dolls staring back at you.

image of baby exhibit they used to have at world fairs! – image from @mzmuseum

There were other pockets of the learning portion of the museum too. In the corner next to the library, there was a collection of beaded purses direct from Native Americans in the early 19th century. The Chinese headdresses discuss the history of them in the performance circuit. You do learn things here, it just gets a little tricky not get overwhelmed by the clowns staring at you. 

There are two floors to this museum. There are clean and interesting bathrooms at this museum. For five bucks, you’re getting a lot. After being bombarded by whimsy downstairs, you are gently guided upstairs to another collection of things. For some reason, it’s an entirely different experience. Downstairs was organized-but-definite-chaos, and upstairs was prestinely presented, like a sparkly showroom of magical dinnerware, but less cluttered. It kept reminding me of how antique stores always have “more furniture upstairs!”. Yes, there were fake cupcakes and pompoms galore, but where was that feeling of falling into a demented Alice in Wonderland? 

image of clown tent – image from @mzmuseum

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if there’s anything anyone will ever know about me is that I love a good museum gift shop. After 45 minutes of not being able to touch anything, I wanted to touch everything. I wanted my souvenirs. This place screams for a carnival-like poster. Postcards! Pins! Something. Instead, they had a room prime for a gift shop near the front but with very few gifts, and zero that I could see that had the name Museum of Whimsy on them. Bummer! 

But also, perhaps this is a testament to how uncommercialized and one-of-a-kind this place is. Mixed emotions! 

I could have purchased a wax head for a couple hundred dollars, but I decided to pass. 

IN SHORT: This museum feels like it could have been called the Museum of Artsy Fartsy, Dreams with a Dash of Nightmare, or Kitsch Galore. If you’re a museum, antique or novelty enthusiast, this quirky dream-like place is definitely worth the trip. Astoria itself is worth the trip. Within a five minute walk, you’re at the Oregon Film Museum (housed in the old county jail, respectively), and the Flavel Mansion (If this place isn’t haunted, I don’t know what is). 

pompom dress greeted you as you first enter into the museum, wax children in the background! – image from @mzmuseum

Details:

The Museum of Whimsy is open sporatically. The curator/owner of the museum always puts more stuff out so I suspect if you visited on a yearly basis it would be a completely different museum! Usually open on weekends from 11-4, but check their Facebook for updates. $5 dollars. 

Sarah E. Miller is a freelance writer, dabbler, collaborator, and an occasionally funny lady. She spends her days writing for a wide variety of people, visiting all the museums, helping creative people expand their visions and dream-scheming up big ideas. She is also the Founder and Marshmallow-in-Chief of the Lonely Arts Club.

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