so, of the western world’s greatest museums
by Patrick Totty Aug. 2002 Cultured Traveler
We thought we could defy the canon and name 10 (or so) of the greatest museums in the world without mentioning at least one of the museums listed below.
However, we are but a tiny tail on the Great Dog of Culture. We’ll happily let somebody else establish a new Top 10 (or so). For now, we’re content to say what we like about the current list.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Yes, The Getty has a far larger endowment and other museums have had more notable architects (the Kimbell’s Kahn, the Bilbao Guggenheim’s Gehry, the New York Guggenheim’s Lloyd Wright, etc.), but the Met is the quintessential municipal museum. That it is the local museum for the most powerful city on the planet gives it a cachet no other museum, however well funded, can match.
What else we like about it: Sheesh, it’s in New York. If you exhaust yourself on the Met, go play with the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Frick Collection, Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Cloisters, Cooper-Hewitt =pant= =pant=
British Museum, London
Oh, for the age of British Imperialism. You could just cart away national treasures, like the Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta Stone, without paying pesky fees. The result: 7 million artifacts (4 million on display). 6 million visitors per year and 30 miles of corridors. The greatest collection of Egyptiana outside of Egypt. You can even sleep there. Maybe best of all, the immense domed grandeur of The Great Reading Room is now open to the public.
What else we like about it: It’s in London: Great Indian food, that gigantic Ferris wheel, the Tates (old and new), a chance to glimpse Elizabeth Regina II, still surprisingly apple-cheeked after 50 years on that hard oaken throne.
The Vatican Museums, Rome
People who clamor for the Vatican to sell its art treasures and give the money to the poor never say to whom the art should be sold. Nor do they acknowledge the incredibly steep admission price the new owners would be bound to charge people to view art that was once free for all to see. Until those heady questions are answered (don’t worry, they won’t be), we’ll just have to traipse to Rome and subject ourselves to walking around St. Peter’s and environs.
What to see here? Twenty-two separate collections, ranging from Egyptian and Etruscan art to maps and modern religious art. The pinnacles, of course, are the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s rooms and loggias. In the basilica, there’s the Piéta, well repaired after madman Lazlo Toth’s 1971 assault, but now behind a transparent barrier. Bernini’s spiral columns over the great altar and Michelangelo’s massive dome still draw gasps.
What else we like about it: The architecture and art of the Vatican bespeak a grander humanism than many of Catholicism’s critics will acknowledge. The Renaissance reached a peak of artistic expression here, and the Church sponsored and inspired it.
The Prado, Madrid
The Welsh travel writer Jan Morris once said that the hallmark of the Spanish was that everyone among them, from hidalgo to impoverished commoner, had a natural dignity and gravity that no other nationality could duplicate. The Prado partakes of that national characteristic by managing to assert its presence in most anybody’s Top 10 list despite the relative thinness of its collections compared to other museums on the roster.
Where it is strong, it is front-rank: Spanish art has its greatest redoubt here, with Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, Murillo and other notables well represented. The museum’s neo-classical façade augments the city’s considerable collection of 18th-century architecture, including the opulent Royal Palace.
What else we like about it: Madrid under Franco was a hot, dour, uptight place. Now it’s a hot, energetic, hang-loose place that’s enjoying all the attention Franco denied it over his 36-year reign. The Prado is the serious excuse fun-lovers can pull out if somebody says their visit to Madrid is becoming too frivolous.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Bolsheviks, who hated or envied just about everything and everybody, especially detested the tsars. Tyrants like Peter, Nicholas, Catherine and Elizabeth had a habit of looking west and importing everything from ideas and architecture to art and Faberge eggs. The existence of those riches was traumatic for low-brow Leninists (the high-brow ones either sold them off or stole them for personal use), but good for the rest of us: The Hermitage remains one of the richest collections in the world, and the greatest museum in Russia.
Over three centuries, the Hermitage acquired a stunning span of art, all the more impressive because of Russia’s isolation relative to the great art centers of Europe. In its Western European Art section alone, the museum covers English, French, Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and German art, and sprawls over 120 rooms.
What else we like about it: St. Petersburg is Russia’s crown jewel. A devastating siege by the Nazis in WWII and 70-plus years neglect by the Soviets were not enough to destroy the beauty of this great canalled city. With its bright Italianate colors, neo-classical and Georgian architecture, and dazzling summer light, this city is the golden gateway that beckons travelers into Russia.
The Smithsonian, Washington, DC
Had the feral ignoramuses who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 understood the U.S. a bit more, they might have considered attacking this great museum. For it is here that the physical basis of some of this country’s most important memories are lovingly stored – everything from Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis monoplane to the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated.
Beware, though: There’s so much here it invites insanity. When dealing with the Smithsonian, it’s best to select a theme and stick to it. Firmly resist the temptation to indulge your wandering eye. Do as Ulysses did and lash yourself to a figurative mast that forces you to stay focused.
What else we like about it: I. M. Pei’s gorgeous National Art Gallery – modernism at its best. It’s close to some fine monuments, especially Maya Lin’s sublimely perfect and appropriate Vietnam War memorial (avoid the politically correct FDR monument, which has him sans cigarette and constrained in a wheelchair; it is tacky beyond belief).
The Louvre, Paris
Art will out, even over national rivalries. Many French were not pleased when an American, I.M. Pei, won the 1985 commission to redesign this venerable, but dark and cramped, palace-museum and bring it into the modern era. They were even more astonished when Pei proposed digging up the museum’s great plaza to make more exhibition space, covering over the new space with a restored plaza and then capping the whole thing with a glass pyramid. Sacre bleu!, such an intrusive shape for the venerable museum.
But the more they thought about it, the more Pei’s deceptively simple form made sense. The pyramid would serve as both an new entrance and a skylight that would flood the expanded space with sunshine. It showed respect for the fine old buildings around it by tapering and then vanishing at its topmost point, as though to say, “I’m just the emcee, you guys are the real stars.”
So, these days the French are proud of the Louvre in a new way. The old way was, “We have one of the grandest old ladies in Europe. We know she’s looking threadbare, but sit up and pay respect.” The new way: “Hey, have I introduced you yet to my new amante?”
What else we like about it: The Mona Lisa, Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou; down the highways, Burgundy and Champagne, Provence and the Languedoc. C’mon, don’t drag it out of us.
MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Cesar Pelli’s sleek 53rd St. tower soars above the base of this museum with a clean, simple, repetitive geometric pattern to its skin that’s plainly in keeping with the spirit of the art it represents. This is a museum that has never shied away from keeping current, architecturally or conceptually, with its subject matter. Although it was the pre-WWII Europeans who pioneered the creation of modern art, it was the Americans who quickly realized the art’s significance and moved to embrace and preserve it. Thanks to MoMA, New York City emerged after WWII as the world’s center of art.
What else we like about it: Now undergoing a massive refurbishment and the addition of a new education and research center, MoMA recently picked up its collection and toted it to a former factory in Queens. Voila, “MoMA QNS.” It’s a move that pays a wonderful compliment to the city’s workaday folks by bringing the world’s greatest collection of modern art straight to people who can’t always make the trip to 53rd St.
The Uffizi, Florence
North American visitors on their first visit to Florence are astounded by the sheer casualness with which the Florentines strew about great art. As they head through the Piazza della Signoria toward the Uffizi, they’re shocked to see such marvels as Cellini’s Perseus holding up the head of Medusa and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines lined up under the Loggia dei Lanzi, open to the air. “If this is what these people leave outside,” they ask themselves, “what the hell do they put indoors?”
What is indoors, in what used to be the Florentine city-state’s suite of municipal offices, is one of the finest collections of paintings and sculptures on earth. The casual extravagance, which it seems Florentines enjoy more than the citizens of any other city when it comes to art, continues here. The Uffizi boasts works by Carvaggio, Van Dyck, Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Brueghel, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, and dozens more Renaissance artists.
What else we like about it: An American woman in Florence for the first time turned a corner and entered the Piazza della Signoria. Stunned by its beauty, she sought distraction in a gelateria, where she bought a cup of coffee gelato. Stepping back into the piazza, she took another look at the view, then took a taste of her gelato, which, she later said, was the best ice cream she’d ever tasted. After the taste, she slumped against a 500-year-old building and whimpered, “Take me now, Lord.”
We quite understand.
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
OK, so the organs-on-the-outside exoskeleton design is so ‘70s. This is still a gutsy landmark building that’s incredibly friendly to art. Once you’re past the frantic exterior, there’s nothing on the inside to compete with the exhibits.
Inside, of course, is France’s premier collection of modern and industrial art. The modern art collection is divided between “The Moderns,” artists from 1905 to 1960, and “The Contemporaries,” artists from 1960 on. The distinction is a good one, allowing the museum to signal guests that “modern” art began to change dramatically in the 1960s.
What else we like about it: This building brought prestige and life to a scruffy neighborhood, Beaubourg. Just as the Tate’s new annex on the south bank of the Thames is reviving an old industrial neighborhood, the Centre Pompidou is proof of the power of distinctive architecture and art to transform cities.
The Tates, London
Three years ago, the Tate, Britain’s national art museum, wisely spun off its modern art collection and sent it packing to new digs in the restored Bankside Power Station on the south bank of the Thames. In doing so, the Tate, located just southwest of the Houses of Parliament, gave some breathing room to its collection of British art, the most extensive in the world. Now called Tate Britain, its transfer of art to the Tate Modern at Bankside allowed its burgeoning international modern art collection to find a home that will not run out of exhibition space for several lifetimes.
What else we like about them: You have to hand it to anybody who can take a hulk like the Bankside Power Station and actually tame the beast and make it into an awesome display space. Between the art and the sheer vastness of the converted building, there’s much to entertain the eye. (See our August 2000 discussion of the Tate Modern).
The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
We’re placing this museum on this list for two reasons: Its Guggenheim pedigree and its architecture. This is the most significant museum design of the late 20th century, if only because it busted the genre out of the habit of looking so solemn, as though museums are replacements for churches (which, for many people, they are). Bilbao was a moldering regional backwater until it made a leap of faith and accepted Frank Gehry’s design for a titanium-clad museum that looks like a fourth-dimensional origami. As with the Pompidou and the Louvre in Paris, Gehry’s design is so distinctive that anybody who sees it immediately knows what and where it is.
Alas, Gehry is now beginning to parody himself by outputting a bunch of similar designs that look like exploded tin cans. Ten years from now, when it will be obvious to all that his BMP museum in Seattle and his upcoming Los Angeles symphony concert hall are failed experiments in urban trendiness, his Bilbao opus will still be drawing raves.
What else we like about it: Northern Spain gets passed over by a lot of people who think that the rectangle created by Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada is a good-enough cross-section of the country. Bilbao, with its heavy Basque presence, is gateway to a whole northern tier of Spanish provinces that are surprisingly green and climactically mild, and have a rich underlay of Celtic and other non-Castilian traditions.