Ten days ago I visited the Knoxville Museum of Art. This free museum, built on a bluff above World’s Fair Park, houses five galleries over three floors. As art museums go, the exhibits are only so-so, but it does include a nice collection of 20th-century art by Tennessee artists and/or about Tennessee itself. Most of what remains is abstract contemporary in nature – in other words, the kind of art that you don’t immediately “get” on a first viewing.
I love museums. Maybe it is the amateur historian in me. Or it could be my inner traveler, who appreciates museums as sites that help put their respective cities on the tourism map. Perhaps it is merely the frustrated artist (read: writer/photographer) in me bursting through?
For your reading pleasure as much as for my own, I’ve ranked what I believe to be the top ten museums in the world. I focused on traditional covered galleries displaying collections of art, industry, and antiquity. Open-air villages (such as Stockholm’s Skansen) and castle/governing compounds (such as Beijing’s Forbidden City) were thus excluded, and may feature on separate, future top ten lists of their own kind.
My Top Ten Museums:
- The Louvre, Paris: A striking, I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid in an elegant outdoor courtyard invites tireless art lovers and Parisian tourists (in equal numbers) to this ginormous, U-shaped mother of all museums. This Right Bank fortress-turned-palace-turned-museum, occupied briefly by Louis XIV, has, on permanent display, roughly 35,000 works of art – a few of them so famous that people queue for hours for just a glimpse. Winged Victory of Samothrace is a majestic sculpture that occupies a landing in one of the Louvre’s countless staircases. Comparable – and easy to miss at the end of a lower-level hallway – is that armless Michelangelo beauty, Venus de Milo. And no first-time visitor (or repeat visitor, admit it!) can resist navigating the tourist hordes of the Italian halls to see the Mona Lisa. Housed in a small frame behind a much larger pane of bulletproof, camera flash-deflecting glass, the Mona Lisa is arguably the world’s most famous painting. Just what is she smiling about? (But don’t expect to get close – in addition to the glass shield, there are also dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other visitors in her gallery at any time; see photo below for a case in point). The Mona Lisa is certainly worth seeing, but there are thousands of other surprises inside the Louvre that also merit seeking out – most of which reside in halls that receive far fewer visitors. One example: it took three visits for me to discover the museum’s basement gallery of African/Oceanic sculpture art, which floored me. The Louvre is, quite simply, the greatest museum in the world. Nine million visitors/year can’t be wrong. Closed Tuesdays.
- Museum Island Collectorate, Berlin: Berlin’s Museuminsel packs a lot of culture into a small space. No fewer than five (!) museums – all with much to see – are packed into this scalene triangle-shaped wedge of land in the middle of the Spree River in the former East Berlin. Remarkably, the island also includes a large lawn (popular with sunbathers) and the city’s imposing Dom (Cathedral). Berlin’s three-day Museum Pass should give you enough time to check out everything on offer here: the Altes Museum, with its two floors of Greco-Roman sculpture art; the Neue Nationalgalerie, with a satisfying collection of post-Renaissance/pre-Contemporary art; the Bode-Museum, which houses more pre-1900 European art, much of it religious in theme; the Neues Museum, with its phenomenal Egyptian collection; and the star of the show, the Pergamon Museum, home to treasures from all of Asia Minor. My favorite feature of the Pergamon Museum is a small collection of Islamic and Byzantine art in an easily-missed second-floor gallery, but the museum is more renowned for its Ishtar Gate (from Babylon) and for the Pergamon Altar that gave the place its name. This altar, from the Pergamon ruins in western Turkey, has been remarkably re-assembled here, and is definitely something to see. That said, I may have enjoyed the Neues Museum even more. While the greatest Egyptian antiquities are on display in Cairo’s aptly-named Egyptian Museum (see further down on this list), this Berlin substitute still delivers. Like Louvre visitors to the Mona Lisa, most patrons to the Neues Museum head straight for the museum’s star attraction, a bust of Nefertiti, although I was personally more taken by the basement-level tombs with their elaborate hieroglyphic engravings. Closed Mondays.
- Smithsonian Collection, Washington, DC: Whereas the Museum Island galleries in Berlin just above are exclusively Old World, Washington, DC’s equivalent is, for the most part, more contemporary in what it has on offer. International art, post-Industrial Revolution industry, and 20th-century world history are the three focal areas of the Smithsonian’s DC collection. There are several galleries to choose from. Families and school groups head straight for the Air and Space Museum, which is cluttered with Space Race memorabilia such as a moon rock and the Apollo 11 module (see photo below), or to the main hall’s “Pioneers of Flight,” where triumphs such as Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane hang from the ceiling. If you’re still in a 20th-century mood after visiting here, head across the Mall to the National History Museum, where you can spot Indy’s Raiders of the Lost Ark fedora or snap of pic of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. More sobering is the National Holocaust Museum, which opened in 2000. Traditional and sculpture art is represented here as well, although this is where National Park Service logistics become complicated. The biggest museum on the Mall, the National Gallery of Art, is technically not affiliated with the Smithsonian, but several smaller art galleries are. The Freer and Sackler Galleries, to name just two, display Asian arts and antiquities, ranging from meditative Buddha statues to illuminating Qur’an passages. Open daily.
- The Hermitage, St Petersburg: The Hermitage is Eastern Europe’s greatest art museum, and in fact is one of the single greatest museums of any kind on the planet. The Hermitage was founded by Tsaress Catherine the Great in 1764 and is one of the oldest museums in the world. In its three centuries it has amassed over three million works of art – so much that most of it is never even on display. On a single-day visit you’ll see so much on just one level that you’ll probably resign yourself to simply never seeing it all. The museum complex’s layout ensures that you will see the magnificent Jordan Staircase immediately after entering the Winter Palace. After climbing the stairs like Russian royalty, you’ll be able to choose from the State Apartments, displays of Faberge jewelry and royal carriages, arms and armory, Egyptian relics, Caucasus jewelry, Etruscan vases, Dutch and Flemish masters, Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, Imperial porcelain (that’s a real thing), and more religious art than you can shake a fist at. Several adjacent buildings around cobblestone Palace Square house additional galleries, such as the Treasury. This being bureaucratic Russia, separate admission fees apply for each building. These buildings, with their grand staircases, frescoed ceilings, and chandeliers, are works of art in themselves. Closed Mondays.
- British Museum, London: Another 300-year-old museum, this free, whole-square-block, “universal” museum houses enough art and artifacts to satisfy even Indiana Jones. British scientist Sir Hans Sloane donated his eccentric collection of 71,000 round-the-world curiosities to King George II in 1753, and the collection has grown ever since, now numbering approximately eight million. Everyone goes to see the Egyptian and Sudanese mummies, as well as such famous exhibits as the famously tall Winged Man-Bulls of Assyria (now Iraq); an enormous Easter Island Moai statue; the freeze-dried, possibly-sacrificial, 2000-year-old Lindow Man (discovered in a peat bog in 1984); the ornate, controversial Elgin Marbles (taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1806 without obtaining Greece’s permission; Athens now wants them back!); and the Rosetta Stone, a movie poster-sized slab from Memphis, Egypt that uncovered the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. During my last visit, I went out of my way to seek out some of the quieter halls as well; the Zen-like Japanese gallery was one such highlight. If you don’t know your world history you may find this place to be a bit stuffy (in the stereotypical British “stiff upper lip” tradition). Personally, though, I love it. Also: a 2009 face-lift to the airy Great Court has given the whole place some life. It is the foremost antiquities museum in the world, as it has been since George II bequeathed it to the public. Also: it’s free! Open daily.
- National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City: You may, at first, expect the world’s foremost anthropology museum to be located in such global museum/university cities as New York or Washington, DC, or perhaps even somewhere in China, with its many civilizations. But Mexico City, which receives much less international fanfare, is the home, and the city’s U-shaped National Anthropology Museum is the venue. In hindsight, it is no surprise at all. Mexico City is the biggest metropolis in the Americas, hosts more museums than any other city on earth, and has over a dozen Mesoamerican civilizations. Each civilization gets its own two-story hall. The lower level depicts the way these people lived during their civilization’s heyday; the upper level shows how their descendants live today. Highlights include the recreation of Pakal the Great’s burial tomb from the Mayan city of Palenque; the full-color Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feather serpent god) from Teotihuacán; and La Piedra del Sol, the giant Aztec sun stone from Templo Mayor, at Tenochtitlan in downtown Mexico City. The scale-model of Tenochtitlan itself, in the same gallery, is an impressive recreation in its own right. For an added cultural experience that is in the spirit of the museum, before or after your visit stroll a few meters from the museum entrance to the grassy lawn of Chapultepec Park’s northern fringe. Here, Totonac males perform the dazzling voladores ritual, during which they pray for rain by twirling towards the ground, upside down, playing music, while fastened to a rope that is fashioned to the top of a flagpole of sorts. Closed Mondays.
- Vatican Museum, Vatican City: The Holy See, aka Vatican City, is the smallest country in the world, so tiny that it blends into surrounding Rome without any fanfare or border crossings – save for the unmistakable Swiss guards, that is. What is all the fuss about? Well, there’s an insignificant basilica named after some little-known martyr, Peter Something-or-other. I am also told that an old guy in a pointy hat lives near there and sometimes pops his head out of the window for blessings en masse. That might something to see. </sarcasm> St. Peter’s Basilica is an awesome site, as is its massive square, which features an elaborate Nativity scene at Christmas and every pigeon in Mediterranean Europe during the warmer months. Around the corner, though, is something equally impressive. The labyrinthine Vatican Museum houses the world’s largest collection of religious art and Roman sculpture. The highlight of any exhausting visit almost certainly is the Sistine Chapel, where Catholic Cardinals convene to elect a new Pope. The Sistine Chapel is, of course, even more famous for its stunning frescoes by Michelangelo, most notably Genesis, which features the intimate God Creating Adam. Interestingly enough, the standard route ensures that Sistine Chapel is one of the last places your feet will take you during your self-guided Vatican Museum tour. There is much to see along the way. Galleries of Egyptian sculpture art. Large, grassy courtyards open to the region’s legendary blue skies. And hallway after endless hallway of nudes, their “junk” shamefully plastered over by fig leaves courtesy of a disapproving Pope Pius IX in the 19th century. Closed Sundays.
- Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago: I confess: I might be biased here. I enjoyed many elementary and middle school field trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, and credit these trips as instilling in me a fundamental love of art from an early age. This all-encompassing art museum – the country’s best – is not only a beautiful colonnaded building, but it is also grand enough to merit several all-day visits. (Speaking of colonnades, the photo below is of one of the museum’s lions, which frame the classical entryway along Michigan Avenue, adorned with a wreath for the holiday season. At the time of writing, the lions might be wearing Blackhawks hockey jerseys!) My two favorite works are Georges Seurat’s full-wall, post-Impressionist 1886 masterpiece A Sunday on la Grande Jatte (famously featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Edward Hopper’s 1942 retro classic Nighthawks, but you will in fact find art from all genres and many centuries. Arms and armory, European decorative art, Asian and African galleries, an impressive collection of American art (including Grant Wood’s much-parodied and oft-misunderstood American Gothic), and the charming Thorne Miniature Rooms round out the list. The museum’s Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which opened in 2009, backs onto nearby Millennium and Grant Parks and features three floors of art from 1900 to the present. Another confession: I have no idea who Renzo Piano is, but the new/old architecture of the new/old wings of the museum mesh seamlessly. Methinks he is an urban architect from whom we have not heard the last. Open daily.
- Egyptian Museum, Cairo: If you like massive, seemingly-random piles of Egyptian deities, columns, and obelisks, then Cairo’s legendary Egyptian Museum is the place for you. Over 120,000 items are housed inside this pink granite building on Tahrir Square, just one block from the Nile. Problems become known soon after entering. For one thing, the building is not air-conditioned. For another, the roof leaks on (rare) rainy days. For another, the building is only designed to house perhaps half of what is has, hence the aforementioned piles. Look closely, though, and there is a method to the madness: 50+ distinct galleries house fantastical wooden models of Egyptian and Nubian warrior armies; gold-encrusted jewels from Tanis; animal mummies (including a mummified crocodile!); and Greco-Roman ruins. The star of the show, however, is most certainly the colorful, solid gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun. This literal death mask, featuring a blue goatee, is displayed alongside furniture, jewelry, and other items belonging to the boy king and unearthed in 1922 in his Valley of the Kings tomb, near Luxor, by archaeologist Howard Carter (possibly the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century). That said, my personal favorite is the Royal Mummy Room, which houses what is left of Ramses II, his father Seti I, and others Egyptian nobles. Note that a separate admission fee is required to access this climate-controlled gallery. Note also that it plans were announced, perhaps a dozen years ago, to build a newer, bigger museum elsewhere in Cairo, and that the “Arab Spring,” followed by dwindling tourism numbers, may have put the kibosh on those plans. Open daily.
- German Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg: Germany joins the U.S. on this list as the second country with more than one “top ten” entry. As regards tourism to Germany, medieval Nuremberg sees but a handful of the number of visitors that make it to fast-paced Berlin or beer-swilling Munich. But Nuremberg is actually my favorite Deutsch city in several ways, and its awesome German Nationalmuseum is the single most impressive museum in the country. In a nutshell, the massive German Nationalmuseum is Europe’s best museum of general culture and collections. You can be kept busy for days wandering its hallways and corridors, marveling at the stunning exhibits of pre-Renaissance religious art, musical instruments (one of the world’s most comprehensive collections), gold and silver coins, wood-carved furniture, Fasching (Carnivale) masks, medieval armor, model homes, beer steins, and scientific equipment. You can – and probably will – get lost in here! The museum’s library houses over 550,000 volumes of European art history and culture. Additionally, the GNM displays several works by Albrecht Dürer, the Northern Renaissance master and mathematician who was born in Nuremberg and who many scholars consider the father of the Self-Portrait. Closed Mondays.
Do you enjoy visiting museums either in your home city or on your travels? Any particular favorites? Have you been to any of the museums on my list? Leave a comment below!