14 July 2008

The 10 Best Museums and Galleries

I have a little confession to make. I am addicted to any books about travel. Travel narratives, travel guidebooks, glossy coffee table books about places I may never travel to. I will buy them or, better yet, receive them as gifts. The latest gift was a book titled The 10 Best of Everything, an ultimate guide for travelers (Nathanial Lande and Andrew Lande). This is a fat National Geographic book filled with lists of everything from the 10 greatest tea houses to the 10 best polo clubs ( no I wont be needing that list either). While I do disagree with some of their ratings (Peets coffee the best in the world.....seriously???) I do think their top 10 museum and gallery list is pretty comprehensive, and also one of the only lists where I have been to all of them. Below is their comments on the museums and galleries along with my usual 10 cents on their 10 best.

1.The Smithsonian Institution- The Smithsonian is the worlds largest research and museum complex, with 16 museums and galleries, the national Zoological Park, and various research stations. More than 142 million objects detailing America's history are housed here, so you'd better prepare for a long week of walking. There's so much to see that,if you spent one minute day and night looking at each object, in 10 years you would only see 10 percent of the whole. Therefore, head out with a plan. Focus on only 1 or 2 exhibits at 2 or 3 museums.

My take- this museum , or museums, are free and amazing. They are all scattered along the Mall and there is truly one for every taste and interest. Send the children and culture-phobics to the Air and Space Museum and buy them a little space ice cream. Avoid summer visits like the plague, in winter you can have the exhibitions nearly to yourself. If you tire of being outdoors, walk over to the Sculpture garden of the National Gallery , get a non-space ice cream and wait for the others. Don't let the smaller museums of DC get overlooked, the Phillips Collection is one that is nearly always worth a look.

2. The Louvre- The Louvre was a medieval fortress and the palace of the kings of France before becoming a museum 2 centuries ago. The addition of I.M. Pei's pyramid shocked many when it was unveiled in 1989 as the new main entrance, yet it somehow works, integrating the palace's disparate elements. The museum's collections, which range from antiquity to the first half of the 19th century, are among the most important in the world. A good place to start is the Sully Wing, at the foundations of Philippe-Auguste's medieval keep- its the heart of the Louvre, kids love it, and it leads to the Egyptian rooms.

My take- A must. Watch out for being run over by the hordes of Japanese making their way through at breakneck speed. learn that the Mona Lisa is really...small. Fans of the Dan Brown books can keep themselves occupied with the Vitruvian Man . The seemingly jarring contrast of the Pyramid and the Louvre really do work far better than a modern interpretation of old. Hit this museum but by all means also stop by the Musee d'Orsay.

3.Egyptian Museum -Though many western museums contain impressive collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities, none begins to rival the riches on display at Cairo's Egyptian Museum. Devoted entirely to the legacy of the pharaohs,the museum has over 120,000 items of antiquity on display, ranging from the delicately crafted jewelery to towering granite colossi of kings.

My take- This museum breaks my heart. It is so spoiled for choice that things are literally lying against the walls, waiting to find a home and description. It is an example of the sadness of a country that does not allot many funds to the arts. I am sure museum curators from places like the Louvre would love to get their hands on the wealth of items that make up the Egyptian Museum. Tut travels...a lot. Make sure he is home when you plan to go. If you are a female, watch out for the locals trying to pinch and/or befriend you. That is the time to use your guidebook to HIT them. Hard. The Lonely Planet makes an excellent man swatter.

4. State Hermitage - Russia may be isolated from the artistic centers of Paris, Rome, and London, but the Hermitage has managed to acquire a spectacular collection of World art- more than 3 million items - spanning the years from the Stone Age to the early 20 the century. The museum occupies 6 buildings along the Neva river, the leading structure being the confection-like Winter Palace . This gloriously baroque, blue and white structure was finished in 1764 and over the next several centuries was the main residence of the czars. Catherine the Great founded the museum that same year when she purchased 255 paintings from berlin. The museum's focal point is Western Europe art-120 rooms in 4 buildings ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Titian, da Vinci, Picasso, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Goya are all represented here.

My take-If you have ever read Russian history, or just seem Dr. Zhivago the museums housing will entrance you as much as the exhibits. I keep picturing turn of the century pre- revolutionary Russia every time I am lucky enough to come here. Bring a guidebook. If you do not speak Russian or read Cyrillic, you are really limited to only titles and artists for each work, only the main pieces merit a description in anything other than Russian. See the painting that a mad student tried to attack. Remember when you see mostly non- Russian art that Russian religion prohibited 3 dimensional images of people- Russian artists have no tradition of non religious art until the late 1800s which is why nearly all the art is foreign.

5. The British Museum - Britain's largest museum looks after the national collection of archaeology and ethnography- more than 4 million objects ranging from prehistoric bones to chinks of Athens' Parthenon, from whole Assyrian palace rooms to exquisite gold jewels.

My take- Make the obligatory stop at the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. Marvel at the light and spaciousness of Norman Fosters addition the the museum, seen above. This is a place best done in chunks to prevent sensory overload. If art , rather than objects is your interest, go to the Courthauld or the National Gallery. Most must see exhibits at the British Museum ( like the Terracotta Soldiers) have an allotment of same day tickets, get there early, bring a paperback ( or a guidebook) to while away the time waiting for a ticket.

6. The Prado- The spanish royal family is responsible for the prado's bounty of classical masterpieces. Over centuries, kings and queens collected and comissioned art with passion and good taste. In addition to stars of Spanish painting such as Velazquez, Goya, Ribera, and Zubaran, the prado has big collections of Italian and Flemish artists. Fernando VII opened the collection to the public in 1819, in the same neoclassic building it is housed in today, designed by Juan de Villanueva.

My take- This museum is filled with 'heavy' art. My eyes can only take the dark, sombre colors of Goya and the like for so long. When I reach my fill I head over to the Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum . This museum, owned by the family, contains much more approachable art. By all means go to the Prado, then down some sangria and see the Thyssen. Its light and space will refresh you after the Spanish masters. When seeing the art at the Thyssen, remember that this art was in this families homes.

7.The Metropolitan Museum of Art - The Met is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere. Its collection, some 142 million items, is not only broad- the entire world, from antiquity to the present- but deep, with holdings so large in a number of areas that some collections might be considered museums unto themselves. Its European paintings are stunning : works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Rodin...The Egyptian collection houses the tomb of Perneb and the exquisite Temple of Dendur. The American Wing contains American arts and crafts, including a room from a franl Lloyd Wright Prairie House. And the list goes on and on.

My take- This museum is New York, Something for everyone. I can't help but remembering the book I read as a child, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler- where childrem lived in the museum researching a statue. That book, and the museum, made my childhood self think all things were possible. Whenever I enter I try to imagine where I would sleep there, like the children in the book did. You will never get a handle on this museum, just dive in and enjoy.

8. The Vatican Museum - Twenty-two separate collections comprise the Musei Vatacani, each one more spectacular than the next. The most famous are probably the the Museo Pio- Clementino, with its splendid classical sculpture; the raphael Rooms, entire rooms painted by Raphael; the Pinacoteca ( picture gallery), which contains the cream of the Vatican's collection of medieval and renaissance paintings; and, of course, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. But there's also ancient Egyptian exhibits of the Museo Gregoriano Egizio and the Etruscan offerings of the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco. And thats just a start.

My take- Rome is, in my eyes, a living museum so it is very hard to pry yourself away from the rest of the city to devote much time here. See the Sistine Chapel (crowded....really crowded...) your neck will be sore but so worth it. Consider binoculars to appreciate it fully. The art is worth it but so much else is in Rome it is really hard to budget your time wisely here!

9. The Uffizi Gallery- "Great"is an overworked adjective in Italy, where so many of the country's monuments and works of art command the highest praise. In the case of the Galleria degli Uffizi, it barely does justice to a gallery that holds the world's finest collection of Renaissance paintings. All the famous names of Italian art are here, not only the ranaissance masters, but also painters from the early medieval, baroque and Mannerist heyday.

My take- The bomb. No words can top what is painted. Make sure to pop over to the galleria dell'Academia to see David ( get tickets in advance) see modern artists studying the past , them make your way to the Uffizi. Wear comfortable yet stylish shoes, this being Italy.

10- the Rijksmuseum - Nearly 1 million objects fill the Rijksmuseum, the largest collection of art and history in the Netherlands. Is it most famous for its paintings by 17th century Dutch masters, including van Ruysdael, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, and 20 works by Rembrandt van Rijn. Established in 1800 to exhibit the collections of Dutch stadtholders, the museum also displays are from the Middle Ages.

My take- Vermeer defined light in paintings. He brought light to the dark work of the Dutch. If you have seen ( or hopefully read) the Girl With the Pearl Earring, come and see what the artists made. Then pop over to the van Gogh Museum to marvel at his sunflowers, fields and chairs.


Anonymous said...

I take it you're not a Modern art fan then? For London you recommend the National Gallery & Courtauld over either Tate gallery, for New York there's no mention of MOMA, and in Madrid I'd take the Reina Sofia over the Thyssen any day!

(I totally know what you mean about the heaviness of the Prado - stunning art, but better in small doses)

Heather said...

Itinerant, Thanks for the reminder of the Reina Sophia, stunning place you are right! I am a fan of certain modern art, I enjoy the tate Modern but admit I have a hard time appreciating Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin....a tent with former lovers names in it = art??? I guess I get it on the 'it makes you think' level but not on the visual appreciation level.