Bobblehead museum draws nods of approval

Photo: Visit Milwaukee
Photo: Visit Milwaukee 

What do Shrek, Jackie Kennedy, Aaron Rodgers and Wonder Woman have in common? You'll find bobblehead versions of them - and many more characters - at the new National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Co-founders Phil Sklar and Brad Novak have collected bobbleheads for more than a decade, but it wasn't until four years ago that the friends decided to turn their hobby into a business. Their museum opened February 1 and displays more than 6,500 bobbleheads, making it home to what it calls the largest collection in the world.

"Our goal is that people leave the museum with more knowledge and curiosity than when they got here," Sklar said.

Bobbleheads date from the 1700s, when decorative Chinese nodding-head figures could be found in Europe. They gained popularity in the United States in the 1960s with the creation of sports bobbleheads for players such as Willie Mays.

Older bobbleheads - some of which you can see in the museum - were made from papier-mâché or ceramic, which could easily crack or chip. Modern bobbleheads use plastic or resin and are more durable.

With its second-floor location in a busy neighbourhood, the museum feels like a library, cultural centre and cozy hangout in one space. Stop by the wall map to mark your hometown city with a pin, then nod a hello to the 6-foot-tall bobblehead that seems to smile back at you. Listen to the museum's theme song, but be prepared: The catchy tune might get stuck in your head.

Photo: National Bobblehead Museum

Photo: National Bobblehead Museum

The museum has sections for sports, pop culture, history and politics. On the shelves, bobbleheads stand in tidy rows. With the push of a button, some of the figurines even talk. As visitors stroll, they can read facts about bobblehead history and the real people who inspired the figurines.

Ten-year-old Bianca Ladd of Milwaukee admired the collection of animal bobbleheads - particularly a small, furry cat - as well as the larger figurines on display.

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"Some of the bobbleheads here are really big," Bianca said. "One is even taller than me!"

Lillian Pollnow, 10, was visiting from Illinois. Pointing out a Bruce Lee bobblehead to her father, Adam, she said she recognised the martial-arts star from nonfiction books.

Wandering the aisles, you'll see popular television and cartoon characters from different generations. There are bobbleheads from Betty Boop, Peanuts, "South Park" and "The Simpsons," among others.

"It's fun to see grandparents, parents and children point out these characters to each other," Sklar said.

Sports fans will appreciate the large collection of player and mascot bobbleheads, representing professional and college teams. In the pop culture section, the wizard Gandalf from "The Lord of the Rings" towers over several smaller hobbit bobbleheads. There's a collection of creepy villains from horror movies - it's placed strategically on a high shelf to avoid startling the youngest visitors.

Eagle-eyed guests will spot a rare Albert Einstein bobblehead with real, flowing hair. You'll also find bobbleheads of presidents, celebrities and Supreme Court justices.

For those who want to explore the exhibits in a more structured way, the museum offers scavenger hunts.

In addition to running the museum, Sklar and Novak work with a manufacturer to produce custom bobbleheads for sale. From start to finish, creating a new bobblehead takes 90 days.

So far, the museum's diverse collection is earning guests' nods of approval.

"Walking in, kids are excited and overwhelmed because there are so many different bobbleheads. It's hard to get bored," Sklar said.

"Kids should definitely visit," Bianca agreed.

For more information, visit bobbleheadhall.com

The Washington Post