Top Five: Museums (a personal choice)

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. 

Terror Háza
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.

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8 Responses to “Top Five: Museums (a personal choice)”

  1. Tina Says:

    Love this list, Kevin! I think I might add the Museum of Communism in Prague – hysterically and very ironically located above McDonald’s. Location aside, the museum’s collection of posters, manuals, clothing, household items, and other Communist-era objects gives a fascinating (if often chilling) glimpse into Prague’s history, as does the re-created interrogation room.

  2. thelittlereview Says:

    Great post! I’m also a bit of a museum skeptic… nice to know I’m not alone among historians! I think you are right about space being crucial to museums- there needs to be a connection between the place or building and the stories that are being told. The ones that are just buildings made to house random collections of artefacts tend to leave me a bit cold. On that note, one of the best museum I’ve been to is the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side. Located in a real tenement building, the museum offers several different tours of the tenements, telling the life-stories of the various different occupants over the centuries through their living spaces. The cramped spaces and the small authentic details – like a poster on a wall or food cartons in the kitchen – really give you a sense of the history. Another fascinating museum was the checkpoint charlie museum in Berlin. I went there years ago and found it so interesting that I stayed there far too long and lost my friend who I was interrailing with!

    Niamh

  3. Ursula Callaghan Says:

    For what its’ worth, this summer I visited several museums and found them to be a great place to go on a wet day. I visited Collins Barracks, this year for the first time and found it amazing. I spent over fours hours there and the layout and display and the use of technology such as audio and indeed some video sequences allowed visitors an opportunity to get some hands on experience with one or two exhibits. On the day I visited there were a least 400 people, from all walks of life and indeed all parts of the world in the Museum. They also have a wonderful coffee shop and gift store and free parking.

    I also spend several hours in the Hunt Museum in Limerick and found some real gems within. The Hunt Museum also offered a Docent tour which is free and the Museum also run various workshops which are very innovative and makes the museum more accessible to a broad range of interests and ages. Outside on display is their ‘Horse Outside” a community project and is a wonderful colourful piece of sculpture.

    Yours sincerely
    Ursula

  4. Ciara Says:

    Great suggestions, Kevin. Tina’s & Niamh’s additions also sound fascinating. I recently visited the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat in Barcelona where, situated in the basement of an old palace, are pretty extensive Roman ruins. Glass floors allow you to walk through the streets of an ancient village where the ruins of public baths, cloth dying, a fish salting factory, and a church, amongst other buildings. There’s also an extensive artifact collection and several interesting wall carvings and murals. The audio tour takes about two hours, but you could easily spend longer there.

  5. Brian Hanley Says:

    A museum can tell you a lot about the politics of the place your in. I found the Terror Museum in Budapest far harder on the communists than the Nazis, or was I imagining that?
    Anyone who grew up reading ‘Warlord’ would love the Imperial War Museum in London. The Stasi museum in Berlin is a bit like a 1980’s secondary school (the building anyway). The equipment looks very low-tech.
    Great social and cultural history in the Rock and Soul, and Sun Studios museums in Memphis.

  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    Wow, some great suggestions rolling in there folks. And interesting to see some of the patterns for what makes a good museum. It certainly appears that the relationship between the visitor and the space is a common theme – from Barcelona to Sun Studios – in what makes a good experience great. I’m adding all of these to my list of ‘must sees’. Thanks.

    Oh, and re the Terror Museum Brian – yes, I seem to recall it giving over far more space to the Communist era than the Nazi one. Whether that was because it was longer in chronological time, or whether there’s something deeper there, I don’t know. But I think you’re on to something there in the way that museums are presented, and what they mean for the society that produces them. (I was there just after the protests that took place across the heart of Budapest in 2006, so perhaps was in a different mindset in looking at the city.)

    Kevin

  7. Archaeology in Maynooth Says:

    I was told about this blog recently. Thanks for the post. It was great to hear your honestly in your regard for museums at times. It was also great to see the Natural History Museum in the list! Perhaps you could follow up this list with Top Five Irish Museums?

  8. David Convery Says:

    The Museum of Genocide in Vilnius, Lithuania is definitely worth a look – it was the former HQ of the KGB and its basement includes torture rooms and execution cell with bullet marks on the concrete wall – chilling. The DDR museum in Berlin is fantastic and is a great social history, rather than political history, of life in the DDR with clips from the children’s show Sandman, old food packaging, cars, toys and a mock living room/kitchen area from the time. Also worth a look is the Petrie Museum in UCL in London, containing thousands of objects from Egypt. If the vastness of the BM is too much, check this out. The intimacy of daily life can be found in pull out drawers containing jewellery, pieces of pottery etc. Also the Soane museum at Lincoln’s Inn, just around the corner from Holborn station in London is also a great and eclectic one. Both of these are free. The Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is great, but massive. So many more…

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