From artifacts and antiquities to timeless works of art, museums offer visitors an unparalleled view of human history. Here is our list of some of the world’s finest museums – and what makes them so wonderful.
Where they’re located: Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Russia
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Washington D.C. that the Smithsonian complex is considered the world’s largest museum. The institute’s 19 different facilities contain roughly 136 million exhibits, specimens and works of art. Meanwhile, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg – with holdings of roughly 3 million items – boasts the world’s largest collection housed in a single museum.
Oldest Building: Santa Sophia
Where it’s located: Istanbul
When the Hagia Sophia was first constructed in 360 A.D., the building – located in the heart of Constantinople – was used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. After a relatively long run under Byzantine leadership (1,100 years, give or take the occasional invasion), Islamic sultans sacked the city and converted the cathedral into a mosque. Five-hundred years later, when Turkey gained independence, President Atatürk commissioned Santa Sophia as a museum of Byzantine artifacts. Today, the Turkish government prohibits citizens from using the museum as a place of worship.
Most Eclectic Architecture: Gugginheim Bilbao
Where it’s located: Bilbao, Spain
This museum’s spectacular structure was the brainchild of Frank Gehry, one of the most notable architects of the 50 years whose other works include the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Cinémathèque française in Paris. Gehry was chosen after he won an international competition that displayed his unconventional style, as well as his concern for mitigating environmental impact with sustainable architecture. Since its doors opened in 1997, Gugginheim Bilbao has received millions of annual visitors – and the museum’s architecture has been hailed as Gehry’s masterpiece.
Best Artwork Collections
Rather than draw apples-and-oranges comparisons, we’ve divided this category into a few subsections.
Best Renaissance Collection: Uffizi Gallery
Where it’s located: Florence
The Uffizi boasts the most impressive collection of Renaissance-era art on the planet. Period. The highlights include Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’, Albrecht Durer’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ and notable works by period mainstays like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (though no Donatello, sadly). The building itself, which dates back to the M’edici era, will also be of great interest to history buffs.
Best Baroque Collection: Rijksmuseum
Where it’s located: Amsterdam
The Dutch Golden Age of painting was dominated by two masters – Rembrandt and Vermeer – who borrowed heavily from the Baroque movement and infused it with an appreciation for still-life, landscapes and portraiture; their transcendent style would greatly influence subsequent artistic periods (such as Impressionism). The Rijksmuseum boasts an impressive collection of work from both of these visionaries, as well as a large number of other Dutch painters and sculptors who put their little country on the artistic map over the years.
Best Impressionist Collection: Musee D’Orsay
Where it’s located: Paris
Located just across the Seine River from the massive Louvre complex, the Musee d’Orsay features a vast collection without the long lines and crowded halls of its much larger counterpart. The gang’s all here – Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir and more than 40 other masters of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist movements. The Musee D’Orsay isn’t just limited to Europeans, either – the museum is home to the original print of ‘Whistler’s Mother’ and works by Munch and Mary Cassatt.
Best 20th Century Art Collection: Tate Modern
Where it’s located: London
Cubism, or Arte Povera? Surrealism, or Pop Art? Wherever your artistic sensibilities lie, there’s something for you to enjoy at the Tate Modern, which houses the world’s premier collection of 20th century art. In addition to more than 4,500 modern works, the museum also features hundreds of paintings and sculptures that date back to the 1500s.
Where they’re located: London
This London institution boasts a permanent collection of more than 8 million antiquities. The museum’s most famous (or infamous) residents include the Rosetta Stone and the Eglin Marbles, as well as the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts ever assembled. With time permitting, walk a few blocks to the British Library, which houses an extensive collection of written treasures, from a pair of original Gutenberg bibles to hand-written Beatles’ lyrics.
Most Kid-Friendly: Center of Science and Industry (COSI)
Where it’s located: Columbus, Ohio
Name any topic that captivates young learners – dinosaurs, space, bugs, the human body, et. al — and chances are that COSI is featuring a major exhibit on the subject as we speak. Live demonstrations and performances are routine (‘Rat Basketball’ and ‘The Electrostatic Generator Show’ are two of the museum’s current offerings), while kids (and adults) of all ages will enjoy the life-sized castle constructed entirely from LEGO pieces.
Weirdest: The Kunstkamera
Where it’s located: St. Petersburg, Russia
Peter the Great first commissioned the Kunstkamera – Russia’s oldest museum – in 1727. Over the years, it has amassed a collection of more than 2 million artifacts, many of which are really, really weird. Have you ever wondered what a two-headed sheep looks like firsthand? Or desired to see the heart and skeleton of a man who stood more than seven feet tall? The museum’s vast ‘Chamber of Curiosities’ has plenty of grotesque artifacts to behold. But for the record, there’s a lot of beautiful artwork and priceless artifacts to see at the Kunstkamera, as well.
By Brad Nehring