By: Scott S. Smith, Sandra Wells & Christian Smith

The Los Angeles metro area is tied with London when it comes to having museums (broadly defined), with 300 each. But the latter’s tend to be respectable places like The Victoria and Albert Museum, specializing in decorative arts, or the British Museum, with its incomparable historical artifacts. L.A.’s veer into the offbeat, such as Altadena’s The Bunny Museum (stuffed rabbits) and Psychiatry: An Industry of Death (sponsored by Scientology) in Hollywood. We do have a lot of respected collections that don’t get enough public attention, such as the Martial Arts Museum in Burbank, the Hollywood Heritage Museum where Cecil B. DeMille had the first studio, and the Wende Museum in Culver City, devoted to the Cold War. Visiting specialty museums is always one of the highlights of our travel to cities anywhere in the world as the best way to learn about other cultures and new subjects. These are some favorites around the broader SoCal region.

Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente has one of the world’s largest collections of objects and archives from the history of the sport and so is a mecca for enthusiasts. But it can also be fascinating even for those who have no plans to brave the waves. Polynesians were surfing 2000 years ago and Hawaiians perfected the art of standing upright on boards. The crew of Captain James Cook witnessed it in Hawaii (where he was killed in 1779) and Jack London wrote about it during a 1907 visit, popularizing the sport around the world (who knew Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw were enthusiasts?). It was finally added to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, though competition was postponed until 2021 (winners of gold medals are featured). On display are notable examples of boards that illustrate their evolution, from being made from very long and heavy wood to polyurethane foam and their offshoots, such as snowboards and skateboards.

Icons of Darkness at the Hollywood Blvd. and Highland mall has the world’s largest privately-owned collection of actual on-screen items from 100 years of science fiction, fantasy, and horror films and TV. Director, producer, and actor Rich Correll began collecting 60 years ago, inspired by friends like Alfred Hitchcock, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price to keep recognition of their work alive. Take the guided tour to get the background on memorabilia from classics such as “Dracula,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Matrix,” and “Lord of the Rings.” Among its stars are costumes from “Star Wars,” props from “Harry Potter,” and heads from “Terminator.”

Museum of Jurassic Technology in West L.A. is a parody of stuffy mainstream institutions (hence the name) and more like the 16th century “cabinets of curiosity” that were the predecessors of natural history museums. The MJT actually has so many unusual exhibits that it has been the subject of two bestselling books, while the founder was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Among the dozens of offbeat exhibits, there is a study of the culture of trailer parks, one on the pre-scientific beliefs about bees, strange letters written to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and tiny mosaics made of the scales of butterflies that you need to view through a microscope.

Southwest Museum has the second-largest collection of Native American artifacts of any museum in the U.S. (250,000 items). It is on Mount Washington, north of downtown L.A., and free to visit, but with limited hours. One current exhibit recounts the expeditions that brought back items from all over the Western Hemisphere (and you can listen to wax cylinder recordings made of Native songs). Another traces the evolution of Pueblo Indian pottery from ancient times to the work of contemporary artisans (the photo is a 13th century pitcher from the Mongollon culture in New Mexico).

California Science Center in Exposition Park at Figueroa St. downtown does a brilliant job of showcasing a wide variety of science issues in a way that is fun and easily understood for kids and adults. There are interactive and hands-on exhibits with live animals on all the different types of environments, from deserts to the arctic (it has a wonderful little aquarium). The giant chart on climate change shows how shockingly warm the planet is compared with the last 800,000 years. There is a model of the Wright Brothers’ first plane and the actual Endeavour space shuttle (with a history of the shuttles and their achievements visually laid out around it). The most mind-blowing experience there, though, is always in its 3-D IMAX theater, no matter the topic.

Bowers in Santa Ana has a follow-up to the landmark “Inside the Walt Disney Archives: 50 Years of preserving the Magic,” which we reviewed. Until June 19, the Walt Disney Archives, in conjunction with the Bowers, has curated “All That Glitters: The Crown Jewels,” wearable accessories that supported the storyline about the characters. These include items from classic films like “Treasure Island” and those released in 2021, such as “Cruella.” On display are, for example, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury costume from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Kate Winslet’s necklace in “Titanic,” and the Genie’s Lamp from 2019’s “Aladdin” (photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives). Until August 28, there is also a special exhibit on early attempts to climb Mt. Everest, as well as ongoing exhibitions on everything from the state’s early missions and rancheros to the art of Pacific headhunters.

Once these are off your SoCal bucket list, there just a few hundred more to go.