20 Must-See Museums

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Twenty museums. One lifetime. You can do it!

This museum has a great collection of art spanning the Middles Ages to the present day, including American, Indian, European, Inuit and Canadian works. It offers a unique, near-complete overview of Canadian art -- from early Quebec religious work, through Inuit work from the 1950s, to avant-garde contemporaries, via the well-represented Group Of Seven, whose passion in the early 20th century was to create an art that derived exclusively from Canada and its sublime landscapes. The successful fruits of their labor captured the spirit of a country, and are now displayed on these walls.

The Shrine of the Book
The Israel Museum

The Shrine of the Book's collection contains some of the most important cultural artifacts and documents in existence pertaining to the history of Christianity. Although the manuscripts are never on display in their entirety, there is always some part to see. The exhibition "A Day at Qumran" tells the story of the Essenes, the people behind the scrolls and something of their day-to-day existence 2,000 years ago. The Shrine of the Book also holds the earliest known full text of the Bible.

Museo Nacional de Antropologa
Mexico City, Mexico

The vast building is one of the most accomplished museum environments in the world; its inventive 20-acre plot in Chapultepec Park is full of foliage, waterfalls, pools and statues. Downstairs is an incomparable display of pre-Columbian art, upstairs an excellent collection of Mexican folk art and throughout you'll find the work of recent Mexican artists and sculptors. Highlights include the colossal, powerfully silent Olmec heads, Mayan stone stelae carvings, a human-sacrificial altar, evocative temple reconstructions, tiled skulls, the imaginative female Aztec Coatlicue statue and the great Sun Stone -- a 1-foot, 26-ton carved stone calendar detailing both the creation and perceived end of the Aztec world.

Mauritshuis
The Hague, Netherlands

The Mauritshuis may not have the encyclopedic scope of many of the other museums in this list, nor are its holdings as extensive. However, what it does exceptionally well is play to its strengths -- in this case, pictures from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. Three pieces in particular have ripened in this palace on the pond. Vermeer's "View of Delft" miraculously handles real light and atmosphere in paint and conveys an overwhelming sense of rest; at a quick glance it also appears to describe the museum and its immediate environs. The acute contrasts between dark and light in Rubens' "Old Woman and Boy with Candles" makes for a intensely intimate work and one the artist was personally and particularly fond of. Finally, Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" features one of the most magnetic gazes in art.

Tokugawa Art Museum
Nagoya, Japan

The Tokugawa family reigned over Japan from 1600 to 1868. Under them, the country enjoyed the longest period of peace in its history. This time span is also known as the Edo period, during which the arts flowered in Japan. Artists of this period directly influenced Western masters such as Manet, Gauguin and Whistler and have since gone on to become household names. Other exhibits effectively present and contextualize, through accurately reproduced environments, aspects of Japanese life at the time. They include exquisite samurai swords and armor, pottery and clothing.

Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth, Texas

Designed by one of the world's greatest architects -- Louis I. Kahn -- the Kimball Art Museum is one of the few buildings in the world that actually enhances your experience of the art it holds inside. The secret lies in the silver metal reflectors that relay the light from the sky outside, across the ceilings and down the walls. Such an abundance of natural light, the airy, spacious exhibition halls and the sunken Zen-like sculpture garden outside (by Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi) make for a most relaxing visit. Its permanent collection is tiny but superb. It includes works by Duccio, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh, as well as more international holdings wide in both age range and geographical spread.

Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, Massachusetts

Highlights of this mueum's collection include a grand rotunda lined with Sargent's expert portraiture, an intense, fervent 4th-century Christian marble bust of St. Paul at prayer, and a sumptuous painting that questions life and our very existence, Gauguin's "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" However, the jewel in the MFA's crown is without doubt its Asian galleries. Here, in its curator's own words, lies "the creative achievement of half the world's population since 4,000 B.C." Included in these galleries are such rare and diverse items as Japanese postcards (20,000 of them), the largest collection of Japanese pottery outside Japan, Tibetan paintings, early photos of Japan (some as early as 1868), Chinese funerary arts and Korean ceramics.

Museo Nacional del Prado
Madrid, Spain

You can't blame the Prado for beaming with national pride. It contains the world's greatest collection of Spanish paintings (from the 12th to 19th centuries), though only a third of its artwork is ever on display. The masters Velasquez and Goya are especially well represented, yet the Prado's collection of foreign works is strong too, attesting to the historical strength of Spain. For centuries Spain ruled the Low Countries and some parts of Italy, and strong works from these locations are present: Rogier can der Weyden's "Deposition," Rubens' "St.George and the Dragon," Brueghel the Elder's nightmarish "The Triumph of Death" and Bosch's rightly famous "Garden of Unearthly Delights" are each more than worth the entrance fee alone.

The Museum of Modern Art
New York, New York

Founded by 3 wealthy women in 1929 as the first museum to ever be dedicated solely to modern art, MoMA was, from the get-go, something different. It has become the greatest and most complete collection on Earth of late 19th- and early 20th-century art, and often wows with its more recent acquisitions and temporary exhibitions. Its home, thanks to Japanese architect Yoshio Tanaguchi, is as much a work of clean, spacious art as its collection. Here you'll come across world heavyweights like Dali's "Persistence of Memory," Monet's "Water Lillies," Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon," Pollock's enormous drip paintings and Matisse's "The Dancers." The museum in addition houses true classics of design, including an E-Type Jaguar and Bell helicopter, as well as photographic and film works by such greats as Ansel Adams and Orson Welles. There are also perceptive contemporary pieces to be found, such as the eternal, delicate graphite wave studies of Vija Celmins.

The Egyptian Museum
Cairo, Egypt

As well as gathering together some of the finest archaeological finds from all Egypt, this museum also provides a rare opportunity to simply pop in and within minutes be standing face-to-face with one of the greatest works of mankind, Tutankhamun's golden mask. A portrait of unbelievable quality, craftsmanship and beauty, the highly polished gold face -- at once a god, a king and a teenager -- glistens like water: delicate, magnetic yet untouchable all at the same time. Once you've recuperated from seeing this beauty, stroll at your leisure through the remaining trove of treasures from his tomb and make a point of seeing 2 more objects. The Narmer Palette, the earliest stone carving in the collection, tells the tale, visually, of Egypt's first pharaoh crushing his enemies. Later works on the first floor, the statues of Ahkenaten (King Tut's father), tell of the awesome power of the rulers of this ancient land; Ahkenaten single-handedly, and for the first time, strived to create a form of monotheism in Egypt and a revolution in the way he and his family should be depicted. The theory is that he was killed for such controversies, and the high priests did their best to strike any evidence of his name from all earlier history.

Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Austria

Like the Medici in Florence, the Hapsburgs of Vienna were wealthy, enthusiastic patrons and collectors of art. Their legacy is one that sits Vienna on top of the pile of the richest art cities in Europe. Today their mighty collections of royal carriages, decorative arts and sculpture, coins, a castle, books, armor, musical instruments, European paintings, as well as Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Near Eastern antiquities, are spread throughout 8 buildings across the city. You will be rewarded handsomely for paying particular attention to the tiny stone "Venus of Willendorf," a universal image of nature and nurture felt as acutely today as it would have been upon its creation 30,000 years ago. Elsewhere lie superior Titians, Mantegna's physically perfect "Saint Sebastian," masterpieces by Brueghel the Elder (the largest collection in the world), a flourish of Rubens and a dozen Holbeins. Farther along still are the 10th-century imperial crown, the sumptuous carved-onyx "Gemma Augustea" and the star of any celestial table setting, Benvenuto Cellini's colossus in miniature, the golden "Saltcellar," fit (and created) for a king.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York

A block of New York's Upper East Side, sandwiched between the Museum Mile of Fifth Ave. and Central Park, contains works plucked from 50,000 years of human creativity, belief and power. The Met, as it's more commonly known, is a powerhouse. Its collection spans the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the ancient, classical and Islamic worlds. The works include painting, photography, sculpture, glass, costume, interior design, musical instruments, antiquities, armor, statuary and the entire first-century Egyptian Temple of Dendur. The best, though perhaps most impractical, way to see the collection is simply to take advantage of the "pay-what-you-wish" entrance fee and stop by as often as you can. We'd recommend packing in the aforementioned temple, medieval armor, the Renaissance patio from Spain, microscopic illustrations in the Islamic "Sha-Nameh," English Lansdowne rooms, Sargent's "Madame X," Rosenquist's dolls' heads, Rembrandt's "Aristotle," the Greek 5th-century Euphronios Krater, African tribal headdresses, Flemish panel paintings and the Chinese garden court.

The National Archaeological Museum
Athens, Greece

This museum holds the greatest collection of ancient Greek art on Earth. It is in these remnants of a bygone age that we see the birth of the concept of the importance of man as an individual amongst all the other beings of creation. These ideas are evident in the museum's 5th-century B.C. bronze Zeus, perfectly poised to throw a lightening bolt; modeled so as to be freestanding, he is the result of close observation, the study appears to be of a god, but in truth it is the study of man. Other wonders include the gold funerary masks of Mycenae (such as the one famously misidentified as Agamemnon's), the sensitive 5th-century B.C. relief of "Demeter giving seeds of grain to Tripolemos," the classical sculpture of Nereid riding a horse (her garments blowing in the wind), and the pottery collection, the finest in Greece.

The National Palace Museum
Taipei, Taiwan

The pieces in the collection are the result of more than a thousand years of personal, imperial collecting. The most turbulent period of the collection's upheaval was between 1924 and 1965. Between these years the Chinese emperors, their courts and treasures were taken out of the Forbidden City (or Palace Museum) and put on the move constantly to dodge a warlord's troops, the Japanese and finally the Communist army. Remarkably, the collection was kept out of enemy hands in 20,000 crates, which were moved all over China by a variety of means -- not least by foot -- and hidden in a series of ingenious places, including a sugar warehouse. In 1965 they were moved into the vast tunnels dug out of the mountainside behind the newly opened National Palace Museum. As a fitting, true microcosm of the value of the collection, we recommend hunting out the tiny Ch'ing Dynasty carved olive stone boat, complete with 8 individual figures, shutters and, at a mere 3.4 cm long, a 300-character poem inscribed delicately on its base.

The State Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia

Spending just a second in front of each piece in the Hermitage's collection would take up over 3 weeks of your time. Its 2 million items are spread throughout 5 palaces built over 5 centuries. As with the Prado and Uffizi, it's best to stick with what's uniquely local (despite excellent Picassos, Matisses and Italian High Renaissance paintings). Focus on the artwork and artifacts of the 6th- to 4th-century B.C. tribes who populated this part of the world and buried their leaders and gentry deep underground. These Sarmatians and Scythians left behind awesomely decorated everyday and ceremonial items, like saddles and wall hangings, as well as what forms the superior core to Czar Peter the Great's famous Gold Treasury. The latter contains gold combs, bottles and shield emblems that display the most remarkable skill -- a triumph of detail and storytelling over size. The Hermitage's other speciality lies in the halls of Russian furniture and decorative arts. There you will find an unusual collection of tapestries and embroideries of courtly portraits.

Vatican City
Rome, Italy

It contains some of the finest works of Italian art from the Renaissance and High Renaissance, aka the finest works ever produced. The dome was designed by Michelangelo, the portico created by Bernini, and St. Peter was martyred here. Fact and legend coalesce on this spot, making it one of the most overwhelming and intoxicating places on Earth. Of the tens of thousands of works on display (spread throughout around 1,400 rooms), a few stand out from the others: The "Belvedere Torso" and marble "Laocoon" are both staple models, called upon by artists throughout art history. Bernini's "Baldacchino" is a magnificent marriage of political and religious aims, uniting Old Testament wisdom, Constantine's Christian tradition and a triumphal church under the guidance of the Barberini family (who paid for it). The Christ in Michelangelo's "Pieta" is not dead, but simply in a peaceful state of repose awaiting his return and triumph -- look closely, blood still pulses through his veins. Finally, the Italian wonder of the world: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes.

Galleria degli Uffizi
Florence, Italy

What the Prado is to Spanish art, the Uffizi is to Italian. But more so. It too has a small, but strong collection of foreign works, and some of its native creations are split between other institutions, like the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. The collection was born and cultivated by the enormously philanthropic Medici family over a number of centuries. The fruits of their generous patronage are beguiling. Having to single any works out is painful, but Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" stand out as colorful gems -- the latter chock-full of political and religious intrigue -- as do many of the earlier works on display. From a technical perspective, Cimabue's "Madonna in Majesty" and Giotto's enthroned Madonna both act as hinges in Western art; their vitality and presence ensured that high religious art would never look the same again.

In the late 19th century, the British national collection was split 2 ways: one half became the British Museum (the museum of all mankind); the other became the Natural History Museum (the museum of all creation). Here, in the Natural History's 70 million or so specimens, lies the evidence of what man has learned of all facets of creation over the last 250 years. So important is this collection, that parts of it have been presented over the centuries as evidence used to debate and argue the age of the planet and the evolution of life. The specimen of cacao used in the Cadbury Brothers' original recipe for chocolate is here, as are Darwin's Galapagos finches and the plants from Capt. Cook's expeditions. Over half the meteorites that have hit the planet are here too, alongside complete dinosaur skeletons and rare examples of dinosaur skin.

The Louvre
Paris, France

The Louvre is France's finest cultural institution, and one that bares its history on its sleeve. You can enter via a contemporary glass pyramid, walk around its 12th-century fortress perimeter underground, follow the ornate stairways of the 16th-century kings between galleries and, thanks to the 18th-century French Revolution, walk through nearly every room in the building. After viewing the "Venus de Milo," notice the ceiling of the small room beyond; it will tell you more about the Venus' influence on art history than the sculpture's explanatory plaque. To the right of the large crowd staring at the "Victoire de Samothrace," you'll find yourself alone with a delicious Botticelli fresco ignored in the corridor's shadows. On your way to join the queue to get to within 8 feet of the "Mona Lisa," stop at the clump of "Venus and child" pictures by Botticelli, Lippi and Ghirlandaio. The subject and composition are identical in each, but notice the joy in the sly Lippi smile, the near photo-realism of Ghirlandaio's faces and the sensitive study of a woman lost in Botticelli's rosy-cheeked, sullen virgin.

The British Museum
London, England

A quick glance at what the British Museum has lost will tell you much about the importance of what remains; its natural history and library collections alone formed separate institutions, each taking their place amongst the greatest of their kind in the world. A (free-of-charge) visit to this museum is vital if you want to learn where not only our culture, but others too have come from, and where it is we each look to be going. In the words of its current director, in the British Museum "you can locate your culture in the context of the whole world." What a rare blessing that is, indeed..

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