Wilbur D. May Museum – Reno, Nevada - Atlas Obscura

Wilbur D. May Museum

An eccentric millionaire's personal curio collection includes at least one shrunken head. 


There is only one place in Nevada where you will find a shrunken human head, taxidermy animals, Egyptian tomb artifacts, antique firearms, and well-endowed Polynesian fertility statues under one roof. The Wilbur D. May Museum houses the private collection of its namesake, who traveled the world throughout the 20th century collecting oddities and exotic wonders.

Wilbur D. May was born in 1898, an heir to a successful department store chain. However, Wilbur found himself unhappy in routine business work. Despite many attempts to make a go at taking over his father’s business, he found himself inevitably drawn to adventure in exotic locales instead.

He volunteered as an ambulance driver early in World War I, and later took lengthy vacations from his father’s business to hunt big game in Africa and Asia. In a fluke, he actually made money off of the stock market crash of 1929. He invested in burgeoning oil industries at the advice of a hunting acquaintance and increased his fortune. He used his wealth to continue traveling the world, breeding racehorses and Boston Terriers, flying airplanes, and sponsoring world travels for youth groups.

Like many eccentric millionaires, Wilbur was a collector. Throughout his travels he traded with locals for artifacts which he brought home to his ranch in Reno. Upon his death the massive accumulation was converted into a museum. The motley mix of artifacts runs the gamut of history. You’ll travel the world as Wilbur did, seeing the assortment of things he picked up in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.

There’s fine china and silver, giant elephant tusks, 6th century BCE figurines, African tribal masks, Japanese swords, snuff bottles, American Western art, and more. You name it, Wilbur brought it back with him and it’s on display in his museum. The highlight is his shockingly large collection of trophy mounts from the golden era of safari, displayed in a recreated version of his trophy room, where nearly 200 pieces of taxidermy (mostly heads) decorate the walls.

The museum has an old-school cabinet of curiosity vibe. You get the feeling as you walk through that it is a collection out of place, a relic from a time when cultural artifacts were up for grabs for travelers who had the money. Wilbur was a man of his time. His museum offers visitors a chance to step into the shoes of an eccentric millionaire and his impressive collection. 

Know Before You Go

In addition to Wilbur's collection, the Museum also hosts art shows and traveling exhibitions throughout the year. Check their calendar to see what's currently on display.

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