I love museums, I really do. As a history buff they are the hedonistic desire for me that others get from a blockbuster movie release or electrifying night out. Museums are often one of the first places I head to in a new place when I am looking for an uplifting experience, a sense of awe. They are amazing places to develop your mind, to increase your knowledge and awareness and usually the only place to see some of the world’s most iconic artefacts and works of art, but they also offer a fascinating and sometimes even unique insight into the countries and places you are visiting.
May 18th is international museum day! A day set up in 1977 by the international council of museums to raise awareness of the importance and value of museums to society, and in honour of that I want to celebrate just a few of the best. But I’m not talking about the headline museums here, we all know of the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian in New York or the Natural History Museum in London. I want to celebrate their not so famous counterparts, the smaller, more underrated museums that most tourists and travellers bypass on their way to the famous sites. So in no particular order, here are 10 of my favourite small, underrated museums around the world.
10. The World Museum, Liverpool, England.
Although the worlds – and much of the rest of Britain’s – attention is generally focused on the Natural History Museum in London, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t mention my home towns very own contribution to any good museum list. Liverpool has a number of museums, but the World Museum is the cream that rises to the top. Housed in the aesthetically and historically beautiful conservation area of William Brown street, it is worth going to see just for the architecture of the building itself. The World Museum isn’t perfect, the displays are limited and small and they have devoted just a little too much of the collection space over to interactive entertainment and learning experiences for children. However, it does have one of the country’s top anthropological collections, a wide ranging archaeological and natural and physical science collections as well as Britain’s only free planetarium.
9. City Palace Museum, Udaipur, India.
The ironically unimpressively monikered City Palace Museum is a little run down and shabby, but still worth visiting for the unbelievably beautiful collection of glass and mirrorwork and the lavish mosaics and ornamental tiles alone, but the palace is more than a simple art gallery full of tiles and mosaics, it is a homage to the grandeur and splendour of the golden era of Rajasthan and contains limited collections from the era, but what they do have is stunning and exquisite.
8. Museum of Eroticism, Paris, France.
With the world renowned and unassailable Louvre just a short Metro ride away, many of the smaller museums in Paris get overlooked, and this is no exception. This is perhaps one of the weirdest museums you will ever visit, stuffed with a few floors of phallic reproductions of both funny and frightening proportions, pornographic films from the turn of the last century. Some of the artefacts are quite interesting, some are just strange, others will downright freak you out, but the museum has numerous floors full various artefacts and works of art that document our ancestors perversions as much as our own and show that people have not really changed all that much. Unfortunately – or fortunately depending on how you look at it – the pretentious ambience of cultural snobbery that the French have tried to imprint on the large phallic objects and nude art is ruined somewhat by hordes of teenage girls giggling and pensioners having strange contortions somewhere in between nervous tittering and a full blown myocardial infarction.
7. Museo de la Cultura Maya, Chetumal, Mexico.
This contemporary building is a hidden gem in Mexico and an utter surprise once you get inside, charting the rise and the history of the Mayan culture. It isn’t one of the largest museums in Mexico, or even one of the best, but it is a great way to spend an hour or two to learn about the Maya.
6. Cheng Ho cultural museum, Melaka, Malaysia.
This is a small but infinitely fascinating museum dedicated to the enigmatic figure of Cheng Ho, an influential figure in Melaka’s history as well as Chinese trade. The exhibits are well laid out, if a little frayed at the edges, and some are positively strange (don’t ask about the giraffe on the balcony), but all are extremely interesting.
5. Pasifica Museum, Bali, Indonesia.
Unlike its larger neighbour, the provincial state museum, the Pasifica museum is run down and generally bereft of visitors, but that just means you have the great works of art from around the Pacific region all to yourself.
4. JEATH war Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
This is a strangely named but eternally humbling museum in Kanchanaburi, home to the famous bridge over the river Kwai. The acronym stands for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland, the five primary nations that engaged in ferocious local action in WWII, and like the name and the location suggests, the museum houses collections, pictures and memorabilia dating from the second world war.
It is only a small building, and is not maintained to the highest standards by the lone old monk who seems to be the only one looking after the place, but if you look past that to the history and the context of the environment it is extremely informative in a way that will fill you with a new respect and deeper understanding of the events of the WWII.
3. The Cat Museum, Kuching, Borneo.
The cat museum in Kuching is perhaps one of the kookiest, off the wall and out of this world museum I have ever visited, and not just because it is located in the surreal UFO shaped city hall. It is hardly surprising that a city dedicated to all things catlike and that calls itself the cat city would have a museum fully devoted to our feline friends.
The kitsch, one of a kind collection doesn’t take itself too seriously but is there to simply celebrate everything feline and pay homage to Kuching’s moniker, the cat city. It is a great deal of fun and has a few really nice pieces of original art in amongst the surreal displays of cat food from around the world, movie posters and media featuring cats and frankly unnerving six foot tall cat statues.
2. El De Haus, Cologne, Germany.
This unassuming building is home to the former headquarters of the Gestapo and now holds a number of exhibits and artefacts relating to the Third Reich as well as an old Nazi prison preserved in its original state. Not as famous as Auschwitz or the German Historical Museum Berlin, but it is absolutely worth a visit. It is shocking, chilling and even horrifying at times, but it is an infinitely fascinating insight into the Nazi regime. Germany in general tends to try and brush some of the more horrifying aspects of its past under the carpet, but it is refreshing to see such open discussion and examination of the horrors of Nazi Germany. Lessons from the past don’t come more stark and in your face than this, and it is good that the visceral emotion associated with the time is now beginning to be replaced with a reflective period of learning. As hard as they are to face sometimes, we should never stop learning from the past.
1. Alexandria National Museum, Alexandria, Egypt.
This amazing museum doesn’t have the mask of Tutankhamun or some of the headline pieces of it’s more famous counterpart in Cairo, but has enough to offer in its own right. Alexandria is infamous for being the greatest historical city with the least to show for it, and this beautifully renovated museum – housed in a restored Italian style palace – lives up to that epithet by celebrating the cities unique history, covering its ancient Egyptian, Hellenistic, Graeco Roman, Coptic and Muslim influences, as well as pieces that cover the lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the ancient wonders of the world, and the great Library of Alexandria.
In many ways this museum is far superior to its more famous counterpart in Cairo, and sets the standard in Egypt with thoughtfully and intelligently laid out collections and technologically superior, air conditioned and perfectly lighted displays. Apart from all that, the architecture and surroundings of the beautiful villa and it’s grounds make for a stunning way to spend a few hours of your time.
This little list is far from comprehensive, and certainly isn’t intended to state categorically that one museum is better than another, I just wanted to list some of the little, lesser known or less popular museums I have enjoyed visiting during my travels. I hope that in some small way that this might inspire you to seek out and visit a few museums of your own when you are on your travels. Apart from being a free or extremely cheap way to spend your time if you are travelling on a budget, you can gain a deeper cultural or historical understanding of the place you are visiting and appreciate it in a whole new light.
If you enjoyed this list or you have visited a few interesting lesser known museums on your own travels, then please feel free to comment below or leave a message on my Facebook page here.