There are many reasons why people visit museums. Some want to learn about the past, while others are curious about the country they are visiting or just want to enjoy art and culture. Museums are great for meeting new people, learning how our ancestors lived and expanding our minds.
As someone I love history and learning about the past, I always stop at a museum while travelling. I naturally assumed everyone does the same until a recent conversation with someone who felt differently. It made me stop and wonder exactly why do people visit museums and why others don’t like them at all.
There are different types of museums out there. Each offers an opportunity to learn more about our past and the world. However, not everyone likes museums for their own reason. No matter how you feel about them, you might have wondered why to visit museums anyway. Here are my reasons why museums are important.
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5 Reasons why it’s important to visit museums
To many, museums are wonderful places filled with wonder and mystery. To others, they are just boring storage places for old crap and not worth a visit. It could be a case of the saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” but I think it goes deeper than that.
- Museums teach us about the past. Everything there has a story to tell. We can easily learn how things were done, how life looked like and even what people wore and did every day. It is living history from times gone by that help us understand ourselves.
- Museums make us smarter. When we visit museums, we gain new knowledge. Art and everyday objects have stories to tell about the past. Many museums even partner with schools to enhance education while other host hands-on workshops for people of all ages.
- Museums are great for research. Academics, researchers and regular folks often come to museums to study. Examining old artifacts is a great way to collect information. For example, old pottery is not just showing us how others consumed food. The techniques and materials used to make it tell us more about how we progressed and evolved in addition to what people ate.
- Museums inspire. They are great for stimulating new ideas, recharging and providing new perspectives. When you visit museums, you have access to the works of great masters, inventions and objects that changed our lives. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that inspire us the most.
- Museums are a testament to the perseverance of humanity. The first known museum opened in 3rd century BC at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. Museums document history and show us that people have needed to collect and preserve things for a long time.
Why most people visit museums
Unlike today, early museums were not as accessible to everyone as they are today. They were usually gathering places for the wealthy and educated elites. Once museums as institutions became accessible to everyone, they offered more people a chance to learn and see what’s inside.
People visit museums for different reasons. For some, it’s a great way to see objects from faraway places that they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. For others, it’s an opportunity to see rare and valuable artifacts that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy otherwise.
Take the pyramids and mummies of Egypt. A trip to Egypt might be cost or time prohibitive for many. However, a museum trip is more attainable and offers an opportunity to see ancient artifacts up close-up. As museums often have extensive collections of objects from around the world, you can experience them all in one place. Simultaneously, specialized museums offer an opportunity to explore and learn about specific ideas or destinations.
Museums also house historically significant items that have influenced what we know of the past. Take the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum (London), the Mona Lisa at the Louvre (Paris) or the world’s oldest soccer ball at the Smith Museum (Scotland). Each has a different story yet provides us with a vast knowledge of how people did things in the past and how that has changed over time.
Another great benefit of visiting museums is that you can find things from places and cultures that no longer exist. Take the handmade pre-historic tools used by our predecessors, ancient texts that talk of things lost and forgotten or the mosaics of cultures that once thrived then were lost over time.
Why museums have a dark past
Many museums started as private collections donated by wealthy donors. Quite often, they had the means to travel and collect objects. Sometimes they did so by questionable means or by simply claiming them. Unfortunately, the black market in antiquities has always been tempting for those with the means and desire. Tomb robbing has been as old as tombs themselves.
Think about it. There are objects we don’t even know about hidden in private collections. So many of them were stolen and forgotten. Others have been lost or destroyed during wars and conflicts. It makes me sad just to think about it.
The reality is that many of the things in museums would be lost or destroyed if it wasn’t for the people who collected them. However, there are many other valuable objects that we have lost forever. Be that through greed or conflict.
Today, many countries are staking claims to objects removed in the past and now stored in foreign museums. The case of the status taken by Lord Eglin from the Parthenon, now stored at the British Museum, is one of those examples. Who has the right to them? Should they be returned to their original home? It’s definitely something worth thinking about and acknowledging as a moral issue.
The different types of museums
The beauty of museums is that they are versatile and diverse. There are many different types of museums to suit every taste. That is also why they are fun to visit. However, because there are so many of them, it’s actually very difficult to slot them into neat categories. Often, museums host exhibitions from other places, which adds to the challenge of qualifying them.
Many museums offer a blend of exhibitions, especially the ones that came from private collections. Those often have a focus that is more general, whereas others focus on specific subject, location or theme. These can include religious, national or cultural exhibits specific to a particular region. Quite often, the different types of museums vary based on their funding. That could come from state, municipal or private sources, but doesn’t reflect the collections housed in them.
There are numerous articles about the different types of museums and none of them are the same. I’ve tried to sort the ones I’ve been to into coherent categories and I’m not totally convinced of their accuracy. However, this should give you an insight into the many different types of museums out there.
According to Britannica.com, the collections at general museums are on “more than one subject […] were founded in the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century. Most originated in earlier private collections and reflected the encyclopedic spirit of the times.” Based on that description, some of my favourites in this category include:
The British Museum – This place has always been on my list of places to visit because of the awesome and historical exhibits like the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures and Egyptian mummies. With over 8 million works, its permanent collection is the largest and most comprehensive in existence.
National Archeological Museum – A fantastic stop while in Athens, its collections include artifacts that were stored around the city until the museum opened. Here you can visit the extensive collection of jewellery, pottery, bronzes and sculptures from ancient cultures.
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – Since the ROM is located in Toronto, I’ve been there quite a few times. As one of the largest museums in North America, it offers global art, culture and nature exhibits from across the ages. Its collection includes more than six million objects and specimens.
As the name implies, art museums focus on art objects. These can range from paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from different times. Quite often, these are very subjective and can inspire a debate. Most people would be likely to visit museums in this category.
The Louvre – By far, one of my favourite museums to date and an iconic Parisian staple. With over 38,000 objects ranging from prehistoric to current, this is the world’s largest art museum. Once the home to French kings, it’s one of the most visited museums in the world.
Victoria and Albert Museum – Located in London, this place is beautiful inside and out. It is also the world’s largest decorative art and design museum with over 2.3 million objects from ancient times to the present day.
The Uffizi Gallery – Located in beautiful Florence, its collection includes priceless Italian works. Here you can see an extensive selection of art from the Renaissance period. It was as interesting as it sounds and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Van Gogh Museum – An absolute must while in Amsterdam. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of Van Gogh’s work as well as personal items, including sketches and letters.
Picasso Museum – Dedicated to the works of Pablo Picasso, this is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the artist. I was surprised to discover that his talents extended to sculpting, writing, designing, and not just painting. A remarkable talent.
Some museums are hard to define. To me, they are focus on a particular specialty, dedicated to a particular subject. When you visit museums in this category, anything goes.
Museum of Broken Relationships – This little gem in Zagreb was probably one of the most interesting places I’ve been to. The whole concept revolves around mementos of broken relationships. There are letters, keepsakes that represented something as well as photographs. Each has a description of the story behind what happened. Some are funny, others sad and heartbreaking.
If you like to visit museums, you might enjoy Architecture and museums in Amsterdam.
Bata Shoe Museum – A whole museum dedicated to footwear right in Toronto. If you think women today are wearing crazy shoes, just wait until you see what they wore in the past ones. The vast collection of 13,500 items makes this the only one of its kind in North America.
Wieliczka Salt Mine – Once a salt mine, today, this is a popular attraction in Krakow, Poland. Inside you’ll find dozens of statues, four chapels carved out by the miners and many carvings made by contemporary artists. It is truly mind-blowing if you consider this is all made out of rock salt.
If aviation is your thing, here is a handy list of aviation museums around the world.
If it has anything to do with popular culture, you know it’s fun. These are some of the most unique places for people who like to visit museums.
Abba Museum – Very quirky place that is an homage to the band Abba in Stockholm. Although not technically qualified as a museum as it is for-profit and doesn’t’ conduct research, it’s still a fun place to visit.
Computer Games Museum – If you didn’t know this was a thing, it’s alive and kicking in Berlin. From early design ideas to popular games of the past, this is the place for game fans. Alex was particularly happy playing the arcade games.
Motown – Detroit’s roots are more than just cars. This was home to the sounds of music that had a huge impact on the industry. The label’s original administrative building and recording studio is a walk through sounds of the past. The guided tour is like a performance in itself.
This particular category is self-explanatory. While the focus is mainly on religion and religious arts, I don’t think all churches qualify as museums. Likewise, not all religious museums are churches. Many people visit museums like this for religious reasons, but often you don’t have to be religious to stop by.
The Vatican Museum – Probably one of the most iconic museums in this category, is located within the Vatican City’s city boundaries. Various Popes have amassed the massive collection of sculptures and Renaissance art over the centuries. The place itself is also worthy of admiration. Sistine Chapel anyone?
The Sagrada Familia – I was hesitant to include this on the list at first. Although a church, it is a fabulous tribute to Gaudi’s vision and passion. It is also Barcelona’s signature landmark.
The Aga Khan Museum – Located in Toronto, this museum focuses on the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of Muslim art, culture, and religious traditions. Collections include Islamic art and heritage, including artifacts from the private collections of His Highness, the Aga Khan.
Sometimes ancient ruins make for a great history lesson. These types of museums are probably my favourite. I love to visit museums that are filled with history and ruins.
The Parthenon – Perched on top of the Acropolis, the Parthenon stands silently above Athens. You can marvel for hours at the beauty that once was and ponder the influence it had on those that came after. This was definitely a bucket list item for me and worth the climb.
The Roman Forum and the Colosseum – I won’t lie, this was the most exciting place I have ever been to. Once clad in the finest marble then looted and abandoned, there is history drenched in every piece of rock and stone. This was the heart of the Roman Empire and a must stop in Rome. You can visit museums all over the world and not find one like this one.
Castelo de São Jorge – A medieval fortification and a Moorish castle that offers fantastic views of Lisbon. Walk on the fortified walls to imagine the life of troops that lived there. You won’t be disappointed.
Pompeii – In a category of its own, Pompeii offers a unique and interactive way of learning about life during Roman times. Preserved by the ash from the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano, this once vibrant city now stands silently, waiting for more to be discovered.
Residences turned museums
This is probably the most interesting type of museum. Walking through actual rooms people once lived in is definitely informative. It allows you to see things in context and it’s easier to imagine how they lived.
Palacio Nacional da Ajuda – Once home to Portugal’s royals, the Palacio is now a museum. Many of Lisbon’s state events are still hosted here in a spectacular dining room. The architecture is as impressive as the interior. If you want to visit museums in Lisbon, this is a good one.
Kensington Palace – While many members of the British Royal family still live here, visitors have an opportunity to tour selected parts of the building. During our visit, there was an exhibit with Diana’s dresses. It was interesting to see her clothes especially since they also had pictures of her wearing them.
Like to visit museums that used to be royal residences? You might like Rundale Palace!
Versailles – It’s hard not to imagine Marie Antoinette running through the hallways with her entourage in tow. The grand parties of the French court were legendary and having stepped foot in this place, I can totally believe that. Then there is the garden. Do yourself a favour and check it out.
Importance of museums in tourism
Many people will visit museums when they travel. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the country they are visiting and its past. Often, they will visit museums that offer different content to what they have at home or have seen before. Museums are great for attracting tourists and for preserving the local culture. They create jobs and provide a fun way to learn for visitors to learn about the past.
Looking at the different types of museums, it’s easy to see why people visit museums. Add special events, creative marketing and interesting exhibits, and you got yourself a worthy attraction.
Why some people dislike visiting museums
For every person that loves to visit museums, there will be one who dislikes them. There are many reasons why people hate museums, and let’s be honest, they are not for everyone. Museums are usually housed in very large buildings. It can be tiring and boring if you have to shuffle from one glasses exhibit to the next and not understand what you are looking at.
Without context, a vase is just a vase. It doesn’t matter why it’s there or how old it is. If you go in with the expectation that everything will come to life, you’re going to be disappointed. Most museums offer audio guides that will explain what you are looking at and why it’s there. They provide context for visitors and help to make the experience more interesting. t
Some complain that everything is locked away and you can’t take pictures. There is a reason for that. Many items in museums are one of a kind and, once damaged, can’t be replaced. They can get damaged by heat and light or knocked over by accident. Locking them away helps preserve them and keep them out of reach of people who have no appreciation or respect for what’s there.
We hear stories of stupid tourists damaging priceless artifacts for a selfie all the time. No wonder museums need to keep things locked up. If you don’t like to visit museums, they don’t go. It’s as simple as that.
How to make visiting a museum more enjoyable
If you want to visit museums, here are some tips to make the experience more enjoyable. Pick a museum that has collections of things you find interesting. I personally don’t like modern art, so I don’t go to modern art museums. While that is my preference, there are many out there who love to visit modern art museums. I leave that experience to them.
Also, you don’t have to spend hours walking around a museum building aimlessly. Get an audio guide and choose which exhibits you want to see. Once you feel tired, bored or restless, call it a day. There is no point in forcing the experience and you’ll be glad you did.
In many countries, you can visit museums for free. Those that charge admission often have a specific day (ex. every last Sunday of the month) where admission is free for everyone. Find out when that is and go on that day. You won’t feel like you have to stay because you’ve paid the admission. You can also come back on another day to see a different exhibit if you enjoy your visit.
Finally, set your expectations before deciding to visit museums, especially ones you’re not sure about. Many museums offer virtual tours that you can access on their site. Take advantage of that and check it out before you go. The virtual tour might be enough for you and that’s perfectly fine. You’ve just saved yourself some time. Or, it will make you want to visit in person and learn more about the exhibits.
Final thoughts on why people visit museums
Most people fist visit museums as kids, usually on a school trip or with parents. These experiences likely shape how they feel about museums later on. Even if you haven’t visited one as a child, you’re likely to visit a museum at some point in your life. You’ll either love it or hate it. One isn’t better than the other, so don’t feel bad if you don’t enjoy it. But if you go in open-minded, it will make the experience more enjoyable.
With such a variety of museums, there is likely something that will appeal to everyone. We all have different interests, and that’s what makes museums fun and exciting. If you’re like me and love to visit museums, I don’t have to tell you why you should visit one. You’ve probably been to many and have a list of your favourite ones. I’d love to compare those lists!