Here in Kansas City, we are blessed with an incredible variety of museums dedicated to art, history, sports, music and more.
But there are also a large number of small museums in the area. They are labors of love, the product of passionate collectors and the legacy of a life dedicated to hunting.
These delightful, dark spaces are certainly worth exploring. Most places cost less than $10 per person to visit (usually less for children, seniors, and veterans) and often tours can be arranged.
As with most things these days, call ahead to confirm that the museum will be open when you plan to visit, as many are run by a few staff or volunteers. In some cases, the founder of the collection will be present to share his passion with you.
CW Parker Carousel Museum: Leavenworth, Kansas
In the late 1890s, Charles W. Parker started his carousel business, repairing, manufacturing, and shipping carnival carousels all over the United States. As the business grew, he moved his operation from Abilene to Leavenworth, Kansas. The company made over 1,000 carousels, of which only 16 still exist.
Now that legacy is preserved in the CW Parker Carousel Museum, which opened in Leavenworth in 2005. It is run by passionate and informative volunteers.
Along with exhibits on the company, carnival and carousel history, the museum includes three working carousels: the 1913 CW Parker Carry-Us-All No. 118, a 1950 aluminum Liberty Carousel, and a primitive carousel at crank circa 1850-1860, believed to be the oldest operational wooden carousel in the world, although no longer operable.
You can take a ride on Carry-Us-All No.118, which took over 1,000 volunteer hours to restore. Get on a horse with a corn cob behind its saddle, a Parker riding hallmark, or one of the Kansas Hares. The ride is accompanied by tunes from an Artizan AX-1 band organ, donated by Leavenworth native Melissa Ethridge, who stopped by the museum in 2021 for a tour.
Allow yourself at least 90 minutes to explore the museum and take a tour or two. You can learn more about the carousels in our region in this 2019 creative adventure.
Institute of Puppetry Arts: Independence, Missouri
In the Englewood Arts District of Independence, the Puppetry Arts Institute celebrates the unique legacy of Hazelle Hedges Rollins, Kansas City’s puppet maker for the world.
The company operated out of Kansas City for over 50 years. At one point, the 50-worker company was producing 1,000 puppets a week and selling over a million puppets worldwide. They made hand and finger puppets and puppets, both for home and educational use. Rollins held four patents for puppet innovations.
When the factory closed in 1983, the stock – consisting mostly of thousands of puppet heads – was donated to what became the Puppetry Arts Institute. PAI first opened in 2001. Today, you can attend workshops (or purchase a kit) and create your own puppet with an authentic puppet designed by Hazelle, Inc.
There’s even a small theater where kids can play with their new creations, and the institute puts on puppet shows featuring professional puppeteers throughout the year.
PAI has 300 Hazelle puppets in its collection, along with a selection of other puppets from around the world and across the decades. Rollins left much of his private collection to county museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, which has one of his iconic Teto the Clown puppets.
Currently on display at PAI is an exhibit honoring Missouri’s bicentennial, which includes the collection’s Harry Truman puppet. After the exhibition ends on August 31, 2022, its international puppet collection will be redisplayed.
Hall of Fame and Museum of Medicine: Shawnee, Kansas
The Hall of Fame and Medicine Museum in Shawnee was scheduled to open in March 2020, until the pandemic delayed the operation. The museum officially opened in October at the former location of the Johnson County Museum, the 1927 Greenwood School.
It is the life’s work of Dr. Bruce Hodges, who, at 89, has just retired as a practicing physician. He also spent time as a medical missionary, and much of the collection consists of materials he collected during his travels over the past 50 years.
There are over 4,000 objects in the collection, from relics from antiquity to the 20th century. About 80% of its collection is on display. Hodges is the museum’s curator and his son is the operations manager.
The museum is a self-guided experience, with medical artifacts, paintings, sculptures, advertisements and more. Some of the items now look like torture devices, but were considered high technology in their time. The collection includes a 1950s iron lung machine and a doctor’s Model T Ford, which still works, as well as an 1880 buggy, which once stood in Hodges’ waiting room.
An entire room in the museum is a reconstructed apothecary from the early 20th century. There are also hundreds of articles from African and Native American medical practices.
The Hodges Museum isn’t the only place you can explore the history of medicine and medical practices in Kansas City. There is the Clendening History of Medicine Museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, available by appointment only.
Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, is an unusual specimen regarding the historical treatment of people with mental illness. It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to learn about the advancement of mental health treatment over the past 130 years.
United Federation of Doll Clubs Museum: Kansas City
Collecting dolls is a fairly common passion shared by people all over the world, but did you know that the United Federation of Doll Clubs is headquartered here in Kansas City? In an unassuming industrial area near Kansas City International Airport sits a museum filled with over 1,000 dolls and accessories.
The organization was founded in 1943 in New York, moved its headquarters to Missouri in the 1990s and to its current location in 2001.
This museum was made possible by donations from clubs and collectors and continues to grow. It includes models from around the world dating back to the 1700s, although the majority of the dolls are of European or American manufacture. The UFDC shares videos examining the treasured dolls in the collection.
Many are exquisitely handcrafted, more sculptural than toys; some are in mint condition, mass-produced pieces over the past few decades. There are dolls made from porcelain, papier-mâché, rawhide, fabric, wood, corn husks, shells, soap, nuts, and even turkey bone. Museum drawers labeled “open me” share additional materials, such as models of doll clothes.
Don’t have enough dolls? You’re lucky. There’s also the Doll Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, and, of course, the exquisite collection of dollhouses and vintage toys at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures on UMKC’s Volker Campus.
National Museum of Silk Art: Weston, Missouri
Housed in the former Bank of Weston, the National Silk Art Museum is truly one of a kind. Local business owner John Pottie is the founder and curator. He has been collecting silk art for over 40 years and has accumulated over 500 examples of this art form. The museum opened in 2013 and regularly rotates its collection.
It includes pieces from over 200 years ago, from England, France, Germany and the United States of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although many works are reproductions of oil paintings, each took years to complete and each is unique.
Many were created with the jacquard weaving technique, which used an intricate system of punched cards, a precursor to the calculator and computer. The museum exhibits a jacquard loom from Germany, as well as information on the history of weaving.
They regularly share examples of individual pieces on Facebook, with information about the background and creation of each piece.
Get while the gettin’ good
Life can be picky. Passions and energies change, collections go beyond their spaces, new offers attract collections to other places.
For example: Leila Hair Museum at Independence. KCUR’s Suzanne Hogan profiled collector Leila Cohoon in 2020 for A People’s History of Kansas City podcast. It is currently not open to the public, having closed during the pandemic.
the Arabian Steamboat Museum, a gem of the river market, displays the contents of the sunken 1856 steamer. With another recently discovered and excavated steamer, the Malta, the organization seeks to expand its collection and establish the National Steamship Museum. The museum is unlikely to remain in Kansas City.
the Evel Knievel Museum, founded in Topeka, Kansas, plans to move to Las Vegas within the next year. Frank Morris of KCUR visited the museum when it opened in 2017.
But who knows what the future holds for Kansas City’s quirky museums? Founders of the LUMI Neon Museum have been saving and restoring iconic neon signs since 2017. They are in talks to team up with the Kansas City Automotive Museum (currently located in Olathe), seeking permanent housing in downtown Kansas City.
Want more adventures like this? Sign up for KCUR’s Creative Adventure email.