Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Truer words could not be said today. For me, a nation’s museums encapsulate its own culture but also take visitors beyond the country’s borders, helping one understand the shared connections and fascinating differences between all people. In museums, I feel connected not only with people living today, but also with all those people who came and went hundreds or thousands of years before. Museums make me proud to be a human.
British Museum, London
Empire has its benefits — the systematic pillaging of world cultural heritage and its subsequent preservation. Where might key pieces of the Parthenon have ended up if Lord Elgin hadn’t carted off the best pieces? Similarly, the wholesale looting of Iraqi museums in 2003 makes Sumerian and Babylonian collections in The British Museum that much more important.
And yet, “That’s here?!” kept running through my head as I walked through the crowded galleries last August. The archaeology books I grew up reading were filled with pictures of the very objects I found myself standing next to that day.
Mixed emotions aside, The British Museum remains the favorite museum I’ve ever visited, from the stone age atlatl carved like a mammoth to the handwritten letters between residents of Roman Britain. The modest exhibit of Japanese items took me back nearly 20 years to my childhood. An amazing day only got better when I connected with a friend for the 2008 edition of the Non-Smoking Vegetarian Teatotallers’ Pub Crawl.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
My favorite museum in the States, the MFA’s collection includes important early American art, key pieces of European art (the usual Monets, Renoirs, and Van Goghs), and a surprisingly excellent collection of Egyptian and Asian antiquities.
The National Gallery, London
I never intended to visit The National Gallery, but after wandering alone from Russell Square through Covent Garden on my first afternoon in London and allowing myself to get lost, I emerged onto Trafalgar Square. To my left, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On my right, the steps leading up to The National Gallery.
I switched my iPod from The Clash to Mozart’s Requiem (as performed by the Academy and Chorus from the aforementioned church). With an hour before the museum closed for the evening, I blew through the Impressionists (“Yup, I’ve seen a picture of that.”) and the stifling religious iconography of the Medieval period.
Instead, I lingered among the Dutch Masters until the docents began herding visitors to the exits. It was dark outside when I walked down the steps and looked up at Nelson’s Column. In the distance, the moon rose over Big Ben.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo
What wasn’t hauled off to the British Museum, the MFA, or the Louvre sits crammed into the echoing halls of the Cairo Museum. In August 1994, I’d just wrapped up a dig in Jordan, and was touring key sites in Israel and Egypt with archaeology professors and students. I hadn’t visited the British Museum or the MFA yet, and my first exposure to important pieces of Egyptian archaeology happened right there in Egypt.
From King Tut’s treasures and the strange art of Akhenaten’s rule to the famous mummies in their climate-controlled room (a brief respite from the 113-degree heat outside), there was more than I could possibly take in in a day.
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
Sure, the other museums that make up the Smithsonian have important works of art and fascinating displays about history and science, but nothing so elegantly summarizes the American spirit for me than the Air & Space Museum. The Wright Flyer, Apollo 11 command capsule, and Spirit of St. Louis symbolize the spirit of exploration and progress that emerge now and then from behind the darker spirit symbolized by the hulking nose of the Enola Gay…
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
…which brings me to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. My grandparents visited us in Japan in 1981/1982, and I took a multi-city train trip with my Grandpa B. The apocalyptic diorama full of bomb-blasted mannequins in the museum gave me nightmares for years. “Favorite” is perhaps not the right word for this museum, but the horrors of that museum made me an unreserved pacifist for life.
National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin
Two days after visiting the British Museum, I spent a rainy day in Dublin at the National Museum of Ireland, where I learned that Dublin was founded by Vikings. Who knew? The gold hoards were certainly spectacular (with many a missing item noted as “in the collection of the British Museum), but I particularly enjoyed seeing the bog people.
Trinity College Library, Dublin
The Dublin Writers Museum north of the Liffey held my hopes for finding literary inspiration while in Dublin, but instead the tourist-thronged Book of Kells and medieval manuscript exhibits at Trinity College’s library were much more intriguing. Beyond the spectacular illuminated Bibles, the exhibits included day-to-day books from medieval Europe.
The Long Room in the Old Library building itself is a place of beauty, scented with the leather of books older than most cities in America. The room is lined with marble busts of writers dating back to the 18th century. The oldest harp in Ireland (the very harp depicted on its coins) stands to one side, along with a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the Easter Rising of 1916.
Auckland War Memorial Museum
Without much time to leave Auckland during my free time on a business trip last December (or to learn much beforehand — I left on 24 hours’ notice), the Auckland Museum served as my crash course in New Zealand’s natural and human history.
The dramatic effect of human migration was evident on the natural history floor, where it felt like the exhibits included mostly extinct or near-extinct species (including a cast of the famous Sue from Chicago, though humans had little to do with the extinction of the T. Rex).
Growing up as an American in Japan, my perspective and understanding of the Pacific War were dominated by those two countries. Seeing exhibits about World War II from the point of view of a third Pacific island country was fascinating.
National Archaeological Museum, Amman
A lot less shiny (and biblical) than the Israel Museum less than 50 miles across the Jordan Rift Valley, the National Archaeological Museum in Amman, Jordan nevertheless has an amazing collection spanning essentially the entirety of human civilization, from the paleolithic to the Islamic era. Jordan controlled what is today the West Bank in the early days of excavations at Jericho, and key sites in the country also include well-preserved Roman cities and the rock-hewn Nabataean capital of Petra (you know, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Standing face to face with a skull on which someone nine thousand years ago carefully recreated the features of the deceased was one of those moments I’ll never forget.
Bonus: 5 more museums to visit before I die
- Musee d’Orsay, Paris
- The Louvre, Paris
- Prado Museum, Madrid
- The State Hermitage, St. Petersburg
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York