As someone who loves history and learning about the past, museums are a regular stop on my travels. 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.
To me, museums are wonderful places filled with wonder and mystery. To others, they are just large 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. Let’s take a look.
Why are museums important
That old stuff housed in a museum has a story to tell. It is living history from times gone by that help us understand ourselves. I think our innate need to understand why things happen is ingrained in us and is the reason why we have museums.
The first known museum opened in 3rd century BC at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. Since then, museums have become a common sight in all parts of the world, documenting local and foreign history. To me, that clearly shows that people have had the need to collect and preserve things for a long time.
Museums are important not only for collecting valuable and historical objects, but also for the research, they do. Collecting old pottery is not just to show us how others consumed food. The techniques and materials used to make them tell us more about how we progressed and evolved in addition to what people ate. Fascinating stuff.
Same goes for everything that is kept in a museum from religious items, all types of art, everyday things and numerous objects of cultural importance. Researching everything about them is just as important as the collecting.
Benefits of visiting museums
Unlike today, early museums were not as accessible as they are today. They were usually gathering places for the wealthy and educated not the general public. Once museums as institutions became accessible to everyone, they offered a chance for more people to learn and see what’s inside.
One of the biggest benefits of visiting museums is that you can see objects from faraway places that might not be accessible otherwise. Take the pyramids and mummies of Egypt. While a trip to the land of the Nile might be prohibitive, a trip to a museum offers a close up experience might be more informative and immersive. In addition, you’ll get to see artifacts that are centuries old.
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 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 talks of things lost and forgotten or the mosaics of cultures that once thrived then were lost over time.
Museums’ darker past
Many museums originated with 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 stolen and forgotten. Others have been lost or destroyed during wars and conflicts. It makes me sad just to think about it.
Part of me is grateful for the fact that many of the things in museums would be lost or destroyed if it wasn’t for the people who collected them. However, another part of me is heartbroken over the fact that so many other valuable object that we lost forever.
If you follow the stories, many countries make claims against objects taken away in the past and now stored in a foreign museum. The case of the status taken by Lord Eglin from the Parthenon, now stored at the British Museum, are one of those examples. Who has the right to them? It’s definitely something worth thinking about.
Different types of museums
The beauty of museums is that they are versatile and diverse. That is also, why they are fun to visit. However, because there are so many different types of museums, 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 source, but doesn’t reflect the collections housed in them.
There are numerous articles out there 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 at least an insight into my thinking.
1 General/historical museums
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 encyclopaedic 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 includes artefacts 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 art, culture and nature exhibits from around the globe and across the ages. Its collection includes more than six million objects and specimens.
2 Art museumsAs the name implies, art museums focus on art objects. These can range from paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from different times. Quite often, these are very subjective and can inspire a debate. 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 – 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 beyond painting his talents extended to sculpting, writing, designing and more. A remarkable talent.
4 Specialty museums
Some museums are hard to define. To me, they are simply a specialty, dedicated to a particular subject.
Museum of Broken Relationships – This little gem in Zagreb was probably one of the most interesting places I’ve been to. The whole concept evolves 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.
Bata Shoe Museum – A whole museums dedicated to footwear right in Toronto. If you think women today are wearing crazy shoes, just wait until you see the ones from the past. 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.
5 Cultural museums
If it has anything to do with popular culture, you know it’s fun.
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 – In case 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.
6 Religious museums
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.
The Vatican Museum – Probably one of the most iconic museums in this category, it’s located within the city boundaries of the Vatican City. Various Popes have amassed the massive collection of sculptures and Renaissance art over the centuries. The place itself it 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 acquisition, preservation and interpretation of Muslim art, culture, religious traditions of past and present. Collections include Islamic art and heritage, including artifacts from the private collections of His Highness the Aga Khan.
7 Outdoor museums
Sometimes ancient ruins make for a great history lesson. These type of museums are probably my favourite.
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 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.
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 the 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.
8 Residences turned museums
This is probably the most interesting type of museum. Walking though 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 a 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.
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.
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
Looking at the different museums it’s easy to see why people would be inclined to visit them. Add special events, creative marketing and interesting exhibits, and you got yourself a worthy attraction. It’s easy to see the importance of museums in tourism as they draw people in.
Many people will travel to places with museums and often attend because of what they can see. Not all places offer access to the same type of content, which provides them with more reason to visit. As there are so many different types of things to see, it’s hard to imagine someone unable to find something to like.
So what about you? Are you a museum person? What has been your favourite one so far?
About the author:
Travelling in the footsteps of history and blogging about it. Forever Indiana Jones wanna be. Come along for the ride!