By Kevin O’Sullivan
I am, I must admit, not the biggest fan of museums. Monuments, yes. Galleries, certainly. But there’s something about museums that often seems, well, too wordy, unfocussed, or over-done. Which might seem like an odd admission, coming from (a) an historian, and (b) one about to list his five favourite museums. But read on…
The British Museum
Start with a classic. If you can get over the size – in many ways it’s too big, and there’s too much that you simply don’t want to see. And if you can ignore the provenance of its artefacts and how many of them were acquired. Then there is so much to excite and amaze, on repeated visits, that you can always find yourself in an unexpected room, in an unexpected wing, or on an unexpected floor – for hours on end. That and the A History of the World in 100 Objects tie-in has opened a whole new way of exploring even the most obscure exhibit. Oh, and it’s free too.
The home first of the Hungarian Nazi party, then of the Communist secret police, and spread over four floors, Budapest’s House of Terror ticks two of the boxes for what I feel makes a great museum. The first is direction: you start at the top and work your way down, following a definite path that winds past Communist-era posters and publicity broadcasts to testimonies from those who experienced both regimes. The second is its relationship to its own architecture – the building is not simply a vessel for the exhibits, it is part of the exhibit, right down to the lift that brings the visitor slowly to the basement and the genuinely terrifying exhibit – the preserved space used for executions by the building’s previous occupiers – that awaits at the other end.
Anne Frank House
The same emphasis on place is obviously at the heart of this museum, which needs little introduction to its context. The relationship between the building and the narrative is the key. Though it starts in the obligatory light, airy and modern visitor centre, it’s in the house’s confined corridors, its tiny bedrooms, its hiding spaces, its restricted views of Amsterdam’s canals and the manner in which the story of Frank’s life unfolds as you make your way through them that the real power of this museum lies.
The Blascaod Centre
There’s a theme running through here that I hadn’t considered before I made my choices: space. In the Blascaod Centre it’s the floor-to-ceiling window looking out across the Atlantic Ocean from the Kerry coast to the subject of the museum’s attentions. Somehow it manages to connect this place on the mainland with the wildness offshore, and rolls you along the waves that lie in between. Whatever your thoughts about its appearance from the outside – and there are plenty who have had plenty to say about it – the stories the centre contains are among the most powerful I’ve encountered. From the fishermen who perished and the migrants forced to leave, to those who spent their while lives there and the academics who collected their stories, this is island life powerfully and simply presented.
Natural History Museums
Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been to Paris to see the whales. To New York to see the dinosaurs. To London to see Darwin. This summer I walked for half an hour in the afternoon heat to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History – only to find it closed. And of course I’ll always come back to that smell of formaldehyde in Dublin. There’s just something about the narrative of the natural world, something that I can’t quite articulate about the mixture of stuffed animals and the mystery behind those who collected them that grabs my attention. Like a snapshot of a world of innocence and exploration lost.