Some Museums

While I recently shared about my tight-quarters visit to the Vatican, I’ve also accumulated some really positive museum experiences that I never got around to blogging about. [My blog is the Pinterest of my mind.]

National Museum of Scotland

1. Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland.  Although I love history and appreciate a variety of art, I often leave major museums feeling “done” or overloaded… or “I know I should be interested in seeing that one other wing but I’m really just not” or guilty because it cost $18 to enter and we only stayed 2 hours…. None of these are the case at the National Museum of Scotland! We went there our last morning in Edinburgh to do something indoors and free (free in Edinburgh is a big deal!).

Where to begin? I don’t know if this is a technical classification, but I’d call this an object museum more than an art museum. You might see a painting, but you might also see a button. Or a lantern. Or the lens from a lighthouse. It’s the art of everyday life. And it’s fascinating.

The Inchkeith Lighthouse Lens graced an island lighthouse in the Firth of Forth for nearly 100 years. It was retired in 1985 when the last lighthouse keeper was withdrawn and the light was automated.

There is a load of Scottish history, well presented and understandable. And there’s a ton of hands-on activity. You can try on armor. You can make a robot spell your name. You can play an interactive game about how long-distance communication worked a hundred or five hundred years ago. If you’re inclined, you can see Dolly the Sheep (stuffed—did you know she died?). I was more inclined to stare at the famous walrus-ivory chess pieces discovered in 1831…

or these early 1900s Charles Rennie Mackintosh lamps.

I was also excited to recognize in person the “Davy lamp” developed for miners in the early 1800s, because I’d recently read about this in a dense but awesome book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, and doesn’t that subtitle speak for itself?

If you do manage to exhaust the exhibits, the view from the roof of the museum is excellent; the cafe overlooking the main hall is decent; and if while at said cafe you spill water all over your lap, you can do an OK job of drying using the bathroom air dryers. In short, go there.

Entering the Pitt Rivers Museum

2. Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, caretaker of Oxford University’s anthropology and archaeology collections, begun on one General Pitt Rivers’s donation of 18,000 objects in the late nineteenth century. Wouldn’t you like to see that guy’s attic? Well, you can. One enormous chunk of the museum is this space reminiscent of the Room of Requirement (circa book 7 when they’re looking for the diadem). (Also the Department of Mysteries circa book 5—it’s a toss-up.)

These cabinets go on in endless, dimly lit rows and bear titles including: “Pottery: North America,” “Surgical Instruments,” and “Treatment of Dead Enemies.”

You thought I was making that up, didn’t you.

Like the National Museum above, this is another one that’s interesting for adults while very kid-friendly. Out in the (brighter and less ominous) natural history room, there are plenty of things kids are encouraged to touch (that adults might not want to).

a preserved baby alligator, for example

The Pitt Rivers Museum is also free of charge, and so is the…

3. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. I blog about this museum once a year (2011, 2009) so I suspect it’s about that time. Plus I was lucky enough to blip in and out just for an hour or so this spring in between catching two trains (checked my (smallish) suitcase for 1 pound at the museum bag check, can’t beat that). I always make sure to spend time in the ironwork galleries.

This time I also became acquainted with some circa 1400 kings…

and was able to enjoy my last hour in London reading in the sunny center courtyard of the museum.

I can’t love this place enough. Their special exhibitions are always intriguing, too, although there’s usually a charge for those. My only disappointment this time was that I finally visited the nearby V&A Reading Rooms (that I’d been so curious about in 2011) and wasn’t as floored as I thought I’d be. The space was smaller than the impression the brochure gave me, and the menu rather limited. It didn’t give me the “come and hang out and relax for an afternoon reading” vibe I had thought it would. So I had a delightful lemonade and left.

Do you have a favorite museum? What’s a museum near you that travelers shouldn’t miss?

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1 Comment

Filed under European Travel

One response to “Some Museums

  1. Jo Ann

    I’d like to add the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium, to your list. It is, by modern museum scale, on the small and doable size, and I really appreciated the fact that the displays are set up chronologically. I felt like I was viewing both history and art at the same time. They have a nice collection of works by the old Flemish Masters, right up through modern pieces. I really enjoyed it!

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