Museums offer more than insight

You can spend hours researching a city or country before you arrive, but if you haven’t the time before you touch down, its museums are the perfect places to soak up some local atmosphere and begin to understand the workings of the place.

As well as finding out about the city or country’s history you can also learn something about the priorities of its government and inhabitants. The buildings themselves can be telling, as can the value of the collection and the kind of pieces included, but the entrance prices and way the information is displayed also say a lot about who the museum is there for.

London is the example that first comes to mind. Home of the British Museum and several others of world renown, these major museums have recently had their usability and access much improved – the key thing being that the entry fees have been scrapped. This welcomes not only those who have money to spend on their own enlightenment but also people looking for a cheap outing, and means that visitors are free to plan for several shorter visits, to look at particular pieces or galleries they may be interested in, without fear of information overload. The public spaces of the British Museum and the V&A are quite welcoming and used not solely by museum visitors, but also by local passers by enjoying a civilised surrounding for their morning coffee. Add to these two quick visits to the local Science Museum and Natural History Museum and you’ll have an excellent idea of where the city of London comes from, the story of the wealth of its empire, the life of its citizens then and now, the role it has played in international history and its priorities in the way it's seen by both visitors and residents.

Some museums are destinations in their own right. One of the main reasons for some people to visit Paris is to enter under the glass pyramid of the Louvre and visit the mealy mouthed Mona Lisa and nothing distills the essence of Russia’s grand and tumultuous past better than a trip around The Hermitage. Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is a perfect introduction to the vast entirety of Egypt’s history and the kind of desert art and architecture most travellers come to Egypt to experience, and The Met is so famous and synonymous with the city that even people just going to New York for the shopping won’t leave it off their to-do list. Visiting all the museums in these great cities is nigh on impossible, but it is the smaller ones which have often had to be the greatest survivors, relying on only small amounts of funding, but many have fantastically interesting things to say, so after you’ve had your introduction to a place in one of the larger museums it is worth seeking out one of the smaller collections for the same reason, to really discover what themes and things are important to a place. Or else just to sate your own appetite for learning. This world throughout history has been a pretty mind expanding place!

Just like a city visit there are many ways to visit a museum, but three main options come to mind; join a tour and learn a bit more than the plaques say tell about the highlights, plan your trip in advance and mark out a route making sure not to miss anything, or arrive and wander. You can possibly tell by my admittance on beginning that a museum visit is a way to make up for a lack of preparation that I am an ‘arrive and wander’ visitor. For me this leaves my mind open to discovering something new. And if any artifact is that important there are bound to be signs or queues pointing it out to me – if not then I don’t think I shall be too sorry to miss it, just like in a city there are some places that are famous for the wrong reasons and not worth seeing after all. I'd rather see something unexpectedly fantastic!

More of the World's Top Museums

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