We pushed open a massive wooden door and found ourselves in a small, dark room. A middle-aged man was sound asleep in a plastic chair behind a dusty wooden desk. He woke up to the creak of the door as it closed and without hesitation grumpily blurted out, “Tickets here”.
He told us that two tickets cost 16000 TSH ($8 USD), which seemed to be an arbitrary number. The tickets themselves had no price on them and there wasn’t any sign or price list, but I handed over the money anyway.
After all, this was THE House of Wonders in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
With tickets in hand, and armed with the basic knowledge that this was the ceremonial palace of the second Sultan of Zanzibar, built around 1883, we pushed through the second wooden door and straight into the heart of the museum, ready to educate ourselves even more.
At the time, we had no idea whatsoever that we were entering the best worst museum in the world.
It all began as soon as we stepped into the main hall, as this is where we discovered… absolutely nothing. Okay, there were a few things in there but it would be hard to claim that it amounted to much of anything.
I can honestly say that after spending almost 30 minutes inside the House of Wonders, we still had no idea what this place was all about. Even by looking at some items on display related to Swahili culture, we didn’t really learn anything. We didn’t even see anything that could be classified as a ‘wonder’, at least not in the conventional sense.
But, This Worst Museum Was Awesome!
Here’s the beautiful part…
While it is so very true that with each new “display”, with each new “room”, with each new level, we continued to learn nothing, I did indeed become more and more fascinated with this museum as we wandered around. Of course, this had nothing to do with what knowledge I was gaining and everything to do with what I wasn’t gaining.
Instead of me trying to do the impossible – describe this museum – let me simply show you:
It all started with a very nice exterior…
And then it went downhill quickly…
Did you see the colorful umbrella?
That was a typical room full of…nothing.
About a week before coming to Stone Town, when we were on the beach in the village of Jambiani, we met a British couple that told us we needed to visit the House of Wonders during our stay in Stone Town. They also warned us that it was a special place because of how un-special it really was. We had no idea what on earth that meant at the time but now that we’ve been to this mighty fine specimen of a museum, we understand exactly what that couple was talking about.
The House of Wonders in Stone Town was by far the best worst museum that I have ever had the full pleasure of visiting in my 18 years of traveling this world.
In a way, while it lacked any ‘wonders’ in its display cases, the whole darn place was a wonder, when taken as a whole. A truly brilliant wonder if I must say so myself!
I was like a kid running around that museum, giggling and skipping and taking photos and letting my jaw drop in complete and joyous awe over and over again as I turned each new corner, and continued to find pretty much nothing.
That’s why, if you’re ever in Stone Town, please go to the House of Wonders. Hand over the $4 to the ticket man (or whatever he decides to charge you that day), push open that wooden door and fully enjoy the all encompassing feeling of not enjoying. It can’t be described any other way.
Naturally, I highly doubt that the organization or people who run this museum are aiming to achieve what I have described above (the best worst museum) but in a way, whatever inefficiencies, lack of organization or lack of funding they face, the result, ironically, is simply beautiful. And I’m not too sure if they should change a thing.
I leave you with a couple of last photos:
Any of your own nominees for the best worst museum in the world? Let’s hear them!
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Frankly speaking I am ashamed of how THE HOUSE OF WONDERS looks like now.
Zanzibar Island where this House of Wonder is, is my home.
Believe it or not, It was a House of Wonder. I remember it when I was a kid of 12 yrs when I first visited it,everything for me was Wow and surprising. I wish I had pictures than it could have been good memories.
Just 10 yrs later everything changed.
They started selling things which were in the House of Wonder to foreigners outside the country. Things worth millions.
Now The House of Wonder is just a building with nothing.The worst of all is they sold everything in all our museums in Zanzibar, we are left with just buildings and fake histories as those buildings were built by Omani Sultans and they were hated after revolution although we were families after inter marriages and breeding.
Oh the old Zanzibar is Gone, you can just come and see what is left of it.
I nominate the museum by the ghats in Udaipur, India… With the room full of turbans and the exhibit of Styrofoam statues of all the world’s wonders. 😀
‘Love it! I really couldn’t help laughing, especially at seeing the lone mop in the corner.
A simple classic!
[…] Blog My 2 Week Trip to Zanzibar (beach huts, local food, activities and more) […]
Funny read. Very nicely written. Thanks for sharing.
Great idea for a post. My nomination would be the history museum in Pyongyang. You’ll spend half of your time laughing, the other half bored out of your mind. And you’ll leave understanding significantly less about North Korean history than you came with.
Hey Dan – I’ve been to that one as well and know exactly what you’re talking about. I spent a lot of time shaking my head in disbelief inside that museum.
I have to nominate Mammoth Caves and Shoshone Bird Museum near Shoshone Idaho. You turn at a sign on the hwy and navigate a long badly rutted dirt road, past some cool carved rock heads, out in the middle of nowhere to arrive. You pay your entry fee and are given a gas lantern to do a self guided ‘tour’ of the cave which ends up being a small cavern that doubles as a bomb shelter. The fascinating part is when you get back to the museum. It’s in a huge yurt like structure. You wander through a maze of 3 concentric circles jammed with cases stuffed with the treasures of a families life. They traveled the world collecting whatever caught their interest and it’s all here covered in dust and cob-webs and utterly fascinating. Stuffed lion? It here. Kind Somebodies toothpick? It’s here. Shrunken heads? Check. I will say the bids sanctuary area is very sad, be prepared.
Hahaha this is funny. Enjoyed reading it throughout. Thanks for sharing!
I visited this ‘museum’ 7 – 8 years ago if I recall correctly. It was in alot worse state then – I am pretty sure we thought it was an abandoned old mansion with a homeless guy showing us round then asking for a tip – no displays at all. So all in all – it looks like it is improving!
Hilarious! Unfortunately, I’ve been to a lot of these best-worst museums. I’m going to nominate the Terrengangu State Museum in Malaysia. Absolutely stunning, gorgeous exterior, nothing inside. And the AC is cranked up to refrigeration.
My pic for the best/worst would have to be the Egyptian Museum in Turin. Famed for having a collection second only to the British Museum in London, but omg. Seemed to be opened or closed on a whim. Although they had some really cool exhibits, most unfinished for some reason, there were open boxes with artifacts and sacrophagi lying about in the hallways. The place was dirty and dusty. I can only imagine, thank God people were respectful of the pieces. I have no idea what sort of security they had. Minimal it seemed at best but this was twenty years ago. I’m sure I’ve been in some pretty podunk museums that were in small towns in America about semi-obscure people or events, but yeah, I suppose if archetecture was your thing or to know the purpose of the building might’ve been interesting. Thanks for the tour! – Dan Murphy
Hilarious !!! Thoroughly enjoyed this.
I personally think you got the whole calling wrong here. Judging from your photos, I saw your worst/best or best/worst museum has a heck of a lot going for it even though you might not have uncovered the hidden secrets that I saw in plain sight. You needed to look beyond the madness and see all the greatness. Though I have not been here, I was truly fasinated at this place. I saw this museum with different eyes and loved it. Of course, the best part for me was the solitary mop in that bare concrete enclosure. That was priceless. No pun intended. And the middle-aged man who was sound asleep in a plastic chair behind a dusty wooden desk, for me, takes the cake. All you needed was to use a little imagination and everything would have taken on a whole new meaning. You should have gone back the next day and asked the ticket collector that you missed a few things and could you have another look around. The most disappointing museum I have visited is the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain but one of the craziest was the Salvador Dali Museum in Figures, Spain, so much so I had to go and see it twice on two different occasions. You may never know until you get a second calling. All the best on your travels
Without a doubt — The War Museum in Kuwait City, or as the sign on the front of the decrepit back-alley building says “Kuwait House of National Works,” which I visited in 2013. It is a small and obviously underfunded museum, with a sleepy guy at the front desk. The whole museum consisted of a rather old and dusty diorama of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, some flags, etc. I had read on the internet that it also includes the brass head of Sadam Hussein that was broken off from the statue in Baghdad that was famously filmed being pulled down by an American tank. Apparently the US military donated the head to Kuwait, and Kuwait didn’t know what to do with it (obviously Kuwait despised Sadam). So they gave it to the museum. But where was it? I walked the entire very small museum and didn’t see it. So I woke the desk guy and asked. Turns out it is in a small separate room behind a closed door, and you have to ask to see it. There is nothing else in the room which has black curtains covering the walls, and only a small spotlight shining down on the head. The head is sitting on the floor on a shallow mound of dirt inside a kind of brick frame. I presume it is displayed this way as a symbol of shame and disrespect. The nose and face had some shiny places that I am guessing were from people rubbing it with shoes, again a sign of disrespect. I would be interested to know if the museum and brass head are still there the same as I saw in 2013.
When I read your title, I thought the post was going to be about the slave museum in Stone Town. That place will haunt you!
Hey Beverly – That was definitely an intense museum. Very informative and much more organized!
….I read this hearing you laughing!
Every palace/museum I saw in Uganda. It all started with entering a small stuffy room that had yellowed photocopies of pictures on the wall. These pictures were usually of kings and the guide would show such pride in showing us these pictures. Then we would be taken to the king’s or president’s palace and instructed to take lots of pictures of it. We were never allowed inside. The guide would be insulted if we didn’t take tons of pictures! It was all very comical and you just had to laugh.