It's all very well and good to stroll through SFMOMA and the Academy of Sciences acknowledging the artifacts of our prosaic existence, but do any of those daubs and dinosaur bones speak to the grandeur of the offbeat? Just as a civilization can be judged by the things it leaves unsaid, it's the obscure and the esoteric that most sharply frame our common humanity. The five museums below encompass just a bit of that arcane knowledge too splendid to be trusted to the mainstream. (Free admission unless otherwise noted.)
Museum of Ophthalmology
655 Beach (at Hyde), 561-8500
Just behind the receptionist's desk at the American Academy of Ophthalmology there's a roomful of artifacts concerning the trusty eyeball, and they're absolutely fascinating. The treasures include Renaissance-era leather-rimmed spectacles; a spooky papier-mâché eyeball from the turn of the century; 19th-century French opera glasses in abalone, ivory, and opal; 200 years' worth of goggles and shades (the emerald Ray-Bans circa 1960 are especially foxy); a first edition of Porterfield's two-volume Treatise on the Eye (1759); and — our favorite — 19th-century Eskimo eyewear made of horn, bone, leather, and baleen. Definitely worth a peek.
245 Columbus (at Pacific), 788-7882
It's like the overstuffed attic of a Hindu prince or some occult-minded relic hunter with a taste for patchouli. Burning incense and tribal music greet the urban explorer as she wends her way through a spacious parlor crammed with dreamy objets d'art from the four corners of the globe. Vishnus and Buddhas of infinite variety are accompanied by drums, bells, wands, masks, fossils, teeth, scarabs, tapestries, unicorns, a gigantic green crocodile, a macramé beast reclining on a $2,200 Victorian sofa, and in the center of it all a three-tiered shrine inlaid with Shivas, Venus di Milos, pocket change, and Christmas lights. This odd room is the idea of Robert Hemphill, who was inspired, a business card says, by “the legends of Mwokipai people of the Mpo Islands,” which tell of “a place where the ancestors could go dream magical dreams” — a place that contained items of great spiritual power or a “magical level of craftsmanship.” Open evenings only, Wednesday through Sunday.
Tattoo Art Museum
841 Columbus (at Lombard), 775-4991
Tattooing has been around for a hundred centuries in various painful manifestations, but it's been a relative snap since the electric tattooing machine was invented in 1905. These and other epidermal factoids are offered alongside a staggering selection of tattoo artistry at Lyle Tuttle's pigmenting parlor, the North Beach descendant of his legendary Tenderloin studio. Among the attractions are tattooing tools through the ages (including jury-rigged prison apparatuses made from ballpoint pens and guitar strings), displays on Maori, Japanese, and American Indian tattooing traditions, magazine clippings about Tuttle from around the world, and every design you can think of — kilted pipers, buxom hula girls, shark-stabbing mermaids, et al.
Cartoon Art Museum
Opening in the fall at 1017 Market (at Sixth Street), 227-8666, www.cartoonart.org
They redeem newspapers, adorn refrigerators, sweeten the morning coffee, and infiltrate the common consciousness on a regular basis, but the comics seldom engender the respect they deserve — outside of the Cartoon Art Museum, that is. Last month this Dagwood duomo vacated its longtime location at Fourth and Mission for new and improved quarters a few blocks away. The museum's 10,000 pieces (some dating back to the 18th century) include comic books, editorial cartoons, animation cels, and original strips starring the Yellow Kid, Mutt & Jeff, Nancy & Sluggo, Prince Valiant, Calvin & Hobbes, and many others. In addition to exhibitions, the museum offers cartooning classes, book signings, a research library, a gift shop, and a studio where you can draw your own comics. Established in 1984, it's the only museum of its kind west of the Mississippi. Admission $2-5.
Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason (at Washington), 474-1887
Of course we couldn't leave out this living, breathing temple to our most eccentric and beloved mode of transit. It's located inside the handsome old brick powerhouse where visitors can watch the motors, gears, pulleys, and 10-foot winding wheels at work, an awesome sight. Scattered about are exhibits of century-old artifacts, including bumpers, heelers, nippers, and other fix-it tools, and Clay Street Hill Railroad Car No. 8, the only survivor of Andrew Hallidie's original 1873 fleet. Vintage photographs, blueprints, tokens, punches, transfers, and mechanical devices are among the treasures, and the well-stocked gift shop sells authentic old enamel street signs at $25 a pop. Be sure to check out the Sheave Room downstairs, where you can watch the restless underground cables in all their subterranean glory.