Never go to museums with a museum lover. If you do, you can expect an all-day, marathon-like experience, walking through every room, stopping at every piece, reading every placard, and watching every video in full, maybe even twice, until your legs are jelly and your brain is mush (the good kind of mush, not the runny post-8-hour-Netflix-marathon kind of mush, but the substantial I-just-read-a-James-Joyce-novel-in-one-sitting mush). When you finally emerge from the building and out onto the streets, you’ll be squinting at the sunlight, standing dumbfounded with your mouth agape at the hordes of people and traffic while your brain adjusts and your body reorients itself to real life, because you just spent 6 hours (or, in my case, more like 10) in another world. Better to go alone.
The best museums are not just buildings housing collections of things.
They are more than the sum of their parts. From design to curation to visitation, they are experiences. Treasure troves of knowledge, museums place the world’s greatest wonders at our fingertips, transporting us through millennia and across continents and cultures.
The Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Vatican Museum – these are undoubtedly the greats. They house some of the world’s most valuable and significant treasures. But there are plenty of amazing museums out there. Big and small, new and established, near and far, these are some of the most unique museums I’ve visited. With innovative design and exceptional content, they immerse us fully in an engaging experience, giving us a deep, lasting understanding of their subjects.
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France
Gazing out the foggy glass dial of an oversized old train station clock onto the rainy streets of Paris, filled with tiny cars and conjoined across the Seine River by ornately sculpted bridges.
Paris’s Musée D’Orsay lives in the shadow of its older, larger, more popular, and slightly wealthier sibling the Louvre, but it is not to be underestimated. On my last trip to Paris, I decided to forgo the Louvre entirely in order to dedicate more time to this beauty. Built in a century old railway station, it is a magnificent building inside-out and merits a visit for its architecture alone.
But it also houses some of the world’s most prized sculptures, luxurious furniture, and the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. As you walk through the museum’s many galleries, endless works by Manet, Gaughin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, and Monet (the building houses 86 Monet paintings alone) display the progression of artistic movements and techniques throughout 19th Century France, lending context and thus a greatly deepened meaning to pieces that cannot be well understood in isolation.
2. Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece
Surrounded amongst an immense wealth of sculptures dating back some 2,500 years, I peered down through glass platform beneath my feet into the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighborhood, filled with the remains of homes, workshops, and streets upon which the likes of Socrates and Aristotle once roamed. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass panels in the building, I could see the Parthenon itself in one direction and modern-day Athens in the other.
The new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009, is a shining example for all the world in museum design and the seamless weaving of old with new. Built with extreme care at the foot of the Acropolis over an important archaeological site, patrons can actually look down into the ruins of ancient Roman and Byzantine Athens while walking through museum galleries that hold every artifact ever discovered on the Acropolis (which, being the cultural and intellectual hub of ancient Greece, is a lot). This unique design allows people to feel like they’re exploring the ruins while preventing the erosion that comes with increased foot traffic. As you can see below, there is a large viewing space at the entrance of the museum and glass paneling in the flooring that offer a window into the site.
The second floor of the museum, which houses all of the art and artifacts found on and around the Parthenon displayed as they were thousands of years ago, features floor to ceiling windows that provide a beautiful view of the Parthenon itself. The goal of architect Bernard Tschumi was to create a viewing experience that would allow for patrons to easily imagine the Parthenon in its original condition.
For any museum or history super-nerds out there, part of the reason for building a brand new, state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum was to regain claim to the Acropolis’s Elgin Marbles, once taken from Greece by the UK and still housed in the British Museum under the claim that Athens did not have a museum and funding that could adequately care for and protect the marbles.
3. Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA
We had lived in Portland, Oregon for a few years and every once in a while my parents would take my sister and I up to Seattle to explore. On one trip, after visiting the Space Needle, we decided to check out a brand new museum they’d built nearby: Experience Music Project. As a 10-year-old, I wasn’t yet thrilled by the prospect of walking through a museum all afternoon, but I agreed and ended up having a total blast. It’s probably my favorite memory of Seattle. As the title suggests, it’s much more of an experience than a museum.
From riding the monorail through the metallic curves of its modern facade to a watching music videos play over a giant instrument sculpture, this museum is one-of-a-kind. It’s super interactive and basically a musical playground for both kids and adults. It’s filled with sound-proof studios you can enter and learn a number of different instruments from piano to guitar to bass to vocals. My absolute favorite was always the drums booth, and I would spend hours jamming out in there.
Being located in Seattle, the epicenter of the grunge movement and a big hub for musical movements of other genres, has helped the museum gain the largest collection of memorabilia from artists like Nirvana and Jimi Hendricks. A few years after opening it expanded to include other aspects of popular culture, adding an entire wing for a Science Fiction Museum, but it still focuses largely on music.
4. Dalí Theatre & Museum in Figueres, Spain
Just walking around Barcelona, Spain can fee like living inside a Surrealist work of art. Gaudí has certainly left his mark on Barcelona, from the almost melted looking spires of the astounding La Sagrada Familia, to the skull-like balconies on the house he designed right in the middle of downtown Barcelona, to Parque Güell, a giant fantasy land filled with whimsical mosaic sculptures and hidden cavernous spaces. But just outside of Barcelona, in a town called Figueres, lies a great Surrealist experience from another artist: the Dalí Theatre and Museum.
Everything about the place screams Dalí, from its location in his hometown, to the building itself (the largest Surrealist object in the world), to the fact that he died and was buried within it. The brick red exterior is covered in yellow plaster loaves of traditional Catalan bread, symbolizing consumption and representing the colors of the Catalan flag, and topped with giant eggs, symbolizing fertility. Dalí constructed it in the town’s old theatre, naming it a theatre-museum, because he thought museums should replicate the theatre-going experience.
“I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” -Salvador Dalí
Walking through the museum past cars that rain from the inside, upside down rooms, courtyards filled with Dionysian figures, and furniture that looks like celebrity faces feels dream-like. On top of the larger-than-life displays, the museum also houses some more rare collections like Dalí’s pen drawings, holographic art, and jewelry he designed.
If that’s not enough for your Dalí fix, you can drive farther into the countryside and arrive at his and Gala’s (his wife) former home, now a museum as well, called the Portlligat Museum-House. The man sure didn’t mind having his life on display for the public. There you can walk through the home and see how they lived, look at their furniture, collections of Gala’s bizarre clothing, and even take a stroll through their gardens which house sculpture replicas of some of Dalí’s painted creatures.
5. Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California
This absolute GEM is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, and possibly the world. There is no way to adequately describe this bizarre, magical realm, so you just need to go. Now. It’s a celebration of life’s mystery, a curation of what lies in the gap between the certain and the unexplainable, and an exercise in the nature of curiosity and truth. It questions the fundamental assumption that what is false is necessarily untrue and what is correct is necessarily truth, and you’re gauranteed to leave feeling profoundly mentally altered without the assistance of hallucinogens.
Filled with an unending array of the bizarre and esoteric, of folklore and mythology, of the magical, the unexplained, the impossible, and the mysterious, of the world’s greatest forgotten inventors and philosophers, astronomers, and musicians who may or may not have existed, as well as offbeat collections from everyday folk, you might get trapped here for a while. Methods for displaying the items are creative and interactive and the commentary thought-provoking.
So what is Jurassic Technology?
I have no idea. And I’m not completely convinced that the owners do either, or that such a thing even exists. But that doesn’t matter, as you’ll come to understand throughout your visit. Everything, regardless of its status as fact or fiction, is presented in the same manner, sparking a sense of wonder and curiosity and encouraging an exploration of that blurred line between truth and fantasy.
In order to maintain the sense of mystery (and because photography is forbidden), I’m not going to post any photos of the interior. At the end of your journey through the fairly small but time-consuming museum, you end up in a beautiful, green courtyard filled with birds and a live accordian player. You’re invited to snack on tea and freshly baked cookies while you mentally debrief your experience.
There is a line at the beginning of the museum’s book that is something of a motto for the place, and I’ve come to think of it as a great motto for museums in general and, indeed, my own life.
“The learner must be lead always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flower into the mysteries of life.”
What are your favorite museums?