Everyone knows the worlds most famous and iconic museums in the world, those museums that every tourist heads to on their tick box visit of any major city, but how many of the smaller, underrated and more quirky museums have you seen? How many iconic museums have you never heard of? Here is a list of the top 25 best overlooked and underrated museums around the world.
I love museums, I really do. As a history and culture buff they are the hedonistic desire for me that others get from a blockbuster movie release or electrifying night out. I can genuinely spend days just wondering round exhibits and displays and 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 artifacts 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 and some of my favourite museums around the world.
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 just a small selection of my favourite underrated and lesser known museums around the world.
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.
The US Space And Rocket Centre, Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA’s first visitor center, the U.S Space and Rocket Center is a vast complex of facilities that showcase and celebrate the space agency’s accomplishments as well as Huntsville’s often overlooked role in NASA’s development and the US space race, providing an envioronment of hope, optimism and education that will inspire and teach future generations to continue its work. This vast complex is home to the historic shuttle park and rocket park with an actual Saturn V Moon Rocket standing as a huge city landmark and an amusement park that lets visitors enjoy momentary weightlessness on the Moon Shot and G Force fairground rides, as well as the Smithsonian affiliated Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a must see for any fan of space exploration!
Western Approaches, Liverpool, England.
A ‘hidden gem’ is a bit of a cliche in tourism, but in this case it is literarally true. Hidden away in a nondescript street in Liverpool is Derby House, an art deco, 1930s office block that whilst aesthetically beautiful, blends into its surroundings and looks no different to any of its neighbours. It is easy to miss, easy to ignore, and that was once one of its biggest attributes.
You see, what most people don’t know as they walk past, is that beneath their feet is a warren of tunnels and rooms that once made up one of Britain’s most important, top secret WWII bunkers. This secret underground bunker was once known as the Citadel, a bomb proof, gas proof 55,000 square feet concrete and steel bunker was the home of a specialist team of Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marine personnel who played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic, stopped the German U Boat threat and ensured not only Britain’s connection to the US and Canada but its eventual victory over Germany in WWII, and this once vital piece of wartime history has now been turned into one of Liverpool’s best museums, with painstakingly restored exhibitions and even a recreation of the operations room itself.
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.
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 and pornographic films from the turn of the last century. Some of the artifacts are quite interesting, some are just strange, others will downright freak you out, but the museum has numerous floors full various artifacts 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.
Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire, England.
Blists Hill Victorian town is an open air museum, recreated in painstaking detail to transport you back to the age of steam and give visitors a glimpse into what life was like at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums in Shropshire, there are also half a dozen smaller museums devoted to textiles and other specific industries that made the region what it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.
There is a huge treasure trove of artifacts, exhibits and displays throughout a maze of galleries that showcases the rich and diverse history of Singapore that is well worth setting aside a good few hours for, but it is the grand colonial architecture of the building itself that draws just as many eyes.
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.
National Comedy Centre, Jamestown, New York.
The National Comedy Centre in Jamestown is a vast space dedicated to the history and the culture of comedy. Endorsed by some of the biggest names in not just comedy but showbusiness itself, from Dan Akroyd to Jerry Seinfeld and beyond, this center is a homage to comedy in the home of stand up. On the service it is very much a museum of comedy greats, holding items such as Charlie Chaplins cane and handwritten notes from the infamous Rodney Dangerfield, to more mainstream memorabilia such as the helmets from the Coneheads movie or even Egon Spengler’s infamous Jumpsuit donated by the late, great Harold Ramis’ family! That’s right, the suit from the original Ghostbusters! The original one, not the crappy reboot no one liked! As you explore this awesome collection of memorabilia, the Comedy Center takes you on a journey through comedy itself, not just to show you the history of the art form but to celebrate comedy in all its forms and allow you to experience the very subjective nature of comedy in your own unique way.
Harry Potter Studio Tour, London, England.
The Harry Potter Studio Tour is quite simply one of England’s premier tourist attractions and rivals anything available in Universal Studios or any other premier tourist attraction around the world. Technically this is studio tour as much as it is a museum but the props on display and the exhibitions easily class this as a specifically niche museum. This huge tour gives you a glimpse into the detail that was put into the making of the films as it allows you to tour the actual sets and see the props and special effects used. I can’t stress enough how amazing this tour is, and it is fantastic value for money too, I’ve been at least half a dozen times now over the years and it changes all the time to keep things fresh.
Corning Museum Of Glass, New York.
Corning’s unique tourism offering centres around all things glass, celebrating its unique industrial heritage and the Corning Museum of Glass is the real highlight of this charming little town. This museum is not only the worlds largest space dedicated to contemporary glass design, but is dedicated to the art, history and science of glass, has over 50,000 glass objects, some over 3,500 years old. Glass in and of itself may not seem like it is all that interesting, but when you consider the cultural impact the industry has had on corning, thefact that it was here that the very first lightbulb for Thomas Eddison was made and the impact that it has had around the world since, you realise this relatively unknown museum packs a much larger punch than first impressions would suggest.
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.
Antiquities Museum, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt.
The Bibliotecha Alexandrina In Egypt is in and of itself a cultural and historical wonder, the modern reinvention of the lost ancient library of Alexandria built on the spot its prime library was believed to be. The library itself is an absolute marvel, but what most visitors don’t know however is that the library also holds four seperate museums in its grounds, the History of Science Museum, the Manuscripts Museum, the Sadat Museum and the most impressive Antiquities Museum, one of the few museums in the world that displays artifacts discovered at that exact location with some digs still in situ.
The Art Science Museum, Singapore.
This iconic landmark on Marina Bay is well worth a visit just for the architecture alone, but there is also an ever changing rota of exhibitions and displays over the 20 gallery spaces inside that are always worth a look to see if there is anything that catches your interest. I was lucky enough to catch the travelling Harry Potter Studio Tour exhibition there once, with items that they didn’t even have at the tour in London!
Musée Hergé, Belgium.
Dedicated to the life and work of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, this museum is perhaps better known by its nickname, the Tin Tin Museum after Hergé’s most famous creation. Gallery after Gallery is dedicated to the comic series The Adventures Of Tin Tin and the characters made famous in the comics and cartoons, and is a must see for anyone like me who loved the series as a child.
Science And Industry Museum, Manchester, England.
Manchester in England has a proud history of industrial and science revolution, and it is at the Museum of Science and History that you get the truest sense of this heritage. In a vast building literally housing dozens of planes, trains and automobiles that played an important role in the development of science and technology in the city, the building opens out onto half of what was the worlds first real train station, part of the Liverpool and Manchester railway which opened in 1830.
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. It is a genuinely plasant way to spend the day on your own enjoying works of regional art and exploring their cultural influence.
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.
Tarpesti Ethnographic Museum, Romania.
This small independent museum may not seem like much from the outside, but the dedicated work of Nicolas Popa and a small line of dedicated artisans have worked tirelessly to keep the rich cultural heritage and history of Romania alive through works of art and sculpture. Many of the works are used in local performances to help teach and pass down the culture and traditions of the region to young children, making this more than just a simple museum.
The Cat Museum, Kuching, Borneo.
The cat museum in Kuching is perhaps one of the kookiest, off the wall and out of this world museums 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.
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.
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.
National Museum Of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Despite being a national museum this amazing facility is often overlooked due to the fact very few travellers make it to Ethiopia and the ones that do often don’t spend much time in Addis, but depite that this relatively small museum has gallery after gallery of Ethiopia’s artistic treasures and holds perhaps one of the most culturally important artefacts in the world, Lucy, the partial fossilized remains of the oldest specimin of early hominids and mankinds oldest ancestor.
Lucy Desi Museum, Jamestown, New York.
This small museum pays homage to one of Comedy’s most important stars, Lucille Ball and her importnce to the local area by exploring the lives, careers and cultural legacies of Lucille and her husband Sesi Arnaz with original costumes, props and reconstructions of actual film sets. This is the ultimate I Love Lucy fan experience but even those who aren’t mega fans will enjoy learning about the impact Lucy and the show had on popular culture.
Maritime Museum, Liverpool, England.
The Maritime Museum in Liverpool is the heart of the city’s famous Albert Dock and showcases Liverpool’s proud seafaring heritage and the importance of the city in much of the worlds history, from early trade to the height of the Empire and its strategic role in both World Wars. It also houses the International Slavery Museum which explores Liverpools role in the slave trade, and in ending it.
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 my favourite the little, lesser known 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.
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