The best museums in the world
What is the best museum/art gallery in the world?
This was the question put to our communities on Facebook and Twitter. Unsurprisingly, the most popular tourist destinations in the world came out on top. None of the top ten museums were outside North America and Europe. Is this a chicken and egg scenario…do more people go to France because of the museums or do more people like the museums in France because they go there. No doubt it is a bit of both.
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Remember, not all museums are as amazing as the top 10 below but, even when (or because) they are small and/or poorly maintained, they may reveal as much about the culture in which they are situated.
The top ten most popular museums were:
1. The Louvre
The Louvre may be the world’s greatest art museum – but it’s also the one most avoided by visitors to Paris. Daunted by its size and overwhelming richness, many people head to smaller galleries. But if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilisation from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must. The former fortress began its career as a public museum in 1793 with 2500 paintings; now some 30000 are on display. The most famous works from antiquity include the Seated Scribe , the Jewels of Rameses II and the armless duo – the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo . From the Renaissance, don’t miss Michelangelo’s Slaves , Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and works by Raphael, Botticelli and Titian. French masterpieces of the 19th century include Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque , Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and the work of David and Delacroix.
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One of the world’s oldest and finest museums started as royal physician Hans Sloane’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – which he later bequeathed to the country – and carried on expanding its collection (which now numbers some seven million items) through judicious acquisition and the controversial plundering of empire. It’s an exhaustive and exhilarating stampede through world cultures. There are galleries devoted to Egypt, Western Asia, Greece, the Orient, Africa, Italy, the Etruscans, the Romans, prehistoric and Roman Britain and medieval antiquities.
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This former railway station houses a superb collection of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, making it a must-see for any art lover. The museum displays France’s national collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d’art produced between 1848 and 1914, including the fruits of the Impressionist, Post Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements. The Museum fills the chronological gap between the Louvre and the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. Austerely housed along the Seine in a former railway station built in 1900, it was reinaugurated in its present form in 1986.
Image by Zingaro. I am a gipsy too.
4. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York
Its grand reopening in 2004, following the most extensive renovation project in its 75-year history, created a veritable art universe of more than 100,000 pieces. You could easily hole up for a couple of days and still not properly see it all. Most of the big hitters – Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rothko, Pollock – are housed in the central five-story atrium. The sculpture garden – returned to its original, larger vision – is a joy to sit in.
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What can you say about this gorgeous behemoth? Its size, and the depth and breadth of its collection, simply overwhelms. More than five million come a year for special exhibits, or just to see the cavernous Great Hall entrance, the Temple of Dendur, the Tiffany windows in the American Wing, the collection of African, Oceania and other works. Also great is the famed European Collection on the 2nd floor – it’s a city within a city, really, and its easier to get lost here than in Central Park outside. Avoid rainy Sundays in summer if you don’t like crowds. But, during horrible winter weather, you might find the 17-acre museum deserted at night – a real NYC experience. The rooftop garden is also a find, especially in the summer, when it becomes a wine bar on weekend evenings.
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The Galleria degli Uffizi, home to the Medici family’s private collection, was bequeathed to Florence in 1743 by the last of the family, Anna Maria Ludovica, on condition that it never leave the city. Housed inside the vast U-shaped Palazzo degli Uffizi its sheer size alone impresses (don’t dream of viewing the 50-plus rooms and 1555 masterpieces properly in one visit – preselect which artists or period of art interest you most).Vasari designed the private corridor, Corridoio Vasariano, linking Palazzo Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti, through the Uffizi and across the Ponte Vecchio. Cosimo I’s successor, Francesco I, commissioned the architect Buontalenti to modify the upper floor of the Palazzo degli Uffizi to house the Medicis’ growing art collection. Thus, indirectly, the first steps were taken to turn it into an art gallery. It was opened to selected public visits in 1591 – making it one of Europe’s first functioning museums. Francesco also had a roof garden created – now a cafeteria.
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Converted in 1819 from a natural history museum to a repository of Spanish art held in royal collections, the Museo del Prado hosts over 7000 works. The strongest collections are the 17th- and 18th-century Spanish paintings featuring the likes of Velázquez, Goya and Ribera. It’s an artistic feast that is many visitors’ main reason for visiting Madrid. Welcome to one of the best and most important art galleries anywhere in the world. The paintings held in the Museo del Prado’s collection (although less than half are currently on display) are like a window on the historical vagaries of the Spanish soul, at once grand and imperious in the royal paintings of Velázquez, darkly tumultuous in the pinturas negras (black paintings) of Goya and outward-looking with sophisticated works of art from all across Europe. Spend as long as you can at the Prado or, better still, plan to make a couple of visits because it can all be a little overwhelming if you try to absorb it all at once.
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The museums are huge and you’ll never manage to see everything in one go – you’d need several hours just for the highlights. Each starts at the domed Quattro Cancelli area, near the entrance, and finishes at the Sistine Chapel, so if you want you can walk straight there. Bear in mind, though, that you can’t backtrack once you’re there. Each gallery contains priceless treasures but for a whistle-stop tour get to the Stanza di Raffaello, the Pinacoteca, the Gallerie delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery) and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. Unless they’re of particular interest, you could skim the Museo Gregoriano Profano (Gregorian Museum of Pagan Antiquities), Museo Pio-Cristiano (Pio Christian Museum), and Museo Missionario-Etnologico (Missionary and Ethnological Museum).
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There are 18 Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. Two share the 19th-century US Patent Office building, a neoclassical quadrangle that hosted Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and a Civil War hospital.
The Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection contains more than 4000 images of known faces from all walks and eras of life. The presidential portraits are particularly notable. Look for Gilbert Stuart’s famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and a carefree bust of a first-term Bill Clinton. The sports and performing arts paintings and photographs are also fascinating, such as one of Mickey Mantle watching Roger Maris hit another home run in the 1961 season.
The Museum of American Art’s has the largest collection of American art, colonial to contemporary, in the world. The museum is a bit of a holding facility for the Smithsonian’s 38,000-odd pieces of art, from sculpture to photography, folk art, crafts, prints and drawings. It is especially esteemed for its 19th-century collection of American Western art including nearly 400 pieces by George Catlin, known for his haunting portrayals of American Indians living on the Great Plains.
Image by Bob Jagendorf
10. Tate Modern
The public’s love affair with this phenomenally successful modern art gallery shows no sign of waning. Serious art critics have occasionally swiped at its populism (eg Carl Höller’s funfair-like slides, Olafur Eliasson’s participatory The Weather Project, both in the vast Turbine Hall) and poked holes in its collection. But 5 million visitors make it the world’s most popular contemporary art gallery, and London’s most visited sight. The critics are right in one sense, though: this ‘Tate Modern effect’ is really more about the building and its location than about the mostly 20th-century art inside. Leading Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron won the Pritzker, architecture’s most prestigious prize, for their transformation of the empty Bankside Power Station, which was built between 1947 and 1963 and decommissioned 23 years later. Leaving the building’s single central chimney, adding a two-storey glass box onto the roof and using the vast Turbine Hall as a dramatic entrance space were three strokes of genius. Then, of course, there are the wonderful views of the Thames and St Paul’s, particularly from the restaurant-bar on the 7th level and coffee bar on the 4th. There’s also a café on the 2nd level, plus places to relax overlooking the Turbine Hall. An 11-storey glass tower extension to the southwest corner in the form of a ziggurat – a spiralling stepped pyramid – by the same architects is now under way and will be completed in 2012.
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