The museums of Europe are manifold. Whether by ethical collection, such as the artwork accumulated by the Bavarian Dukes for museums in Munich, or by questionable acquisition, such as Lord Elgin’s taking of the Parthenon marbles; the museums of Europe house some of history’s greatest material. Some museums focus on the history of their respective country, or a particularly poignant period of their history, such as Norway’s Resistance Museum in Oslo. Others, such as Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, house a wide variety of internationally famous, ancient items.
The world’s oldest museum is among the museums of Europe, namely, The Capitoline Museums in Rome. Additionally, there are new museums opening across Europe all the time. The new Munch Museum in Oslo, Humboldt Forum in Berlin, GES-2 in Moscow and the Bourse de Commerce in Paris are just four of the museums opening in 2021. Culture and history are certainly accessible across the continent, and the museums of Europe, the keepers of humanity’s past, are the best places to learn about them.
If you would like to read about some of the lesser-known but enthralling art museums in Europe, take a look here. But now, we venture on to look at some of the best museums Europe has to offer, beginning with…
Museums of europe: London
London is home to some of the most famous museums in Europe. For natural history it is unbeatable, for collections of ancient artifacts it is awe-worthy and, as if that wasn’t enough, it is also home to one of the best modern art museums in Europe. Let’s begin with the…
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is the crown jewel of London’s impressive museum offering. The museum opened to the public on 18 April 1881, however its origins go all the way back to 1753 and the life of Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor and collector. Sloane, whilst travelling the world as a physician, would collect natural history specimens and cultural items. After his passing in 1753, Parliament were allowed by his will to purchase his vast collection of more than 71,000 items for just £20,000. A sum of money that was magnitudes less than the estimated value of the collection. The government then built the British Museum to house these items, which it did until 1992, when it got its official rename: the Natural History Museum.
Today, this ‘cathedral to nature’ houses 80 million objects, of which only a tiny selection ever go on display. It also provides a workspace for 300 of its own earth and life scientists, who ply their profession in the museum’s core research labs, library and archives. Additionally, it publishes over 700 scientific research papers every year. And their collection spans over 4.5 billion years, from the formation of the solar system to the present day. It has become a deeply iconic, educational powerhouse, and for that reason is not only one of the best museums in Europe, but one of the best museums in the world.
The British Museum
In 1753, an Act of Parliament would create the world’s first free, national, public museum. Opening its doors in 1759 to ‘all studious and curious persons’, The British Museum has since grown to become a national treasure. In the early days, guests had to apply for tickets to visit the museum and view the collections within limited visiting hours. However, from 1830 onwards, new regulations came into place meaning that opening hours could extend. Over time, the museum became increasingly accessible to all. And it now sees more than 6 million local and international visitors every year.
The British Museum has more than 8 million items in its collection. Which takes visitors on a journey spanning the last two million years of history. A lot of the British Museum’s collection is now available to view online through their Collection Online series, too. This digital collection gives viewers access to almost four and a half million objects in more than two million records. With HD images, and the ability to enlarge them, viewers can see in detail the remarkable craftmanship of the Royal Game of Ur, for instance. Or the intricate carving of the African hunting horn, and the beautifully preserved deerskin map from North America. The museum is still worth visiting physically, of course, and its many galleries: Egyptian Sculptures, Africa, Sutton Hoo and Europe and the Roman Empire, are simply brilliant to behold.
The Science Museum
The London Science Museum had its origins around one hundred and sixty years ago on the site of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. The original title was the South Kensington Museum, which was open to the public in 1857. Also on the premises at that time was The Patent Office Museum, an assortment of modern and historical machinery. Although the South Kensington Museum was mainly a venue for the industrial and decorative arts, it did still include a small science collection. This was made up mostly of animal products, food, educational apparatus and building materials. In 1862, these miscellaneous science collections were moved to separate buildings on Exhibition Road. In 1909, South Kensington Museum’s art collections got a rename: The Victoria and Albert Museum. The science and engineering collections were then separated administratively and the name ‘Science Museum’ was officially adopted.
The museum is famous for its interactive galleries and educational activities. One of the most alluring of these interactive galleries is the Wonderlab. In the Wonderlab guests can enjoy live science shows, demonstrations and even meet the museum’s marvellous science explainers. All with the aim of learning about the magnificent science and maths that shape our world and our everyday lives. The Wonderlab encompasses seven different zones. Each providing plenty of opportunities to engage and interact with real scientific phenomena. Including lightning strikes, giant slides that allow guests to discover the forces, and simulated space travel. For those who relish the wonders of science, this museum is simply unmissable, and a great place to take the whole family.
In December 1992, the Tate Trustees would announce their ambition to create a separate gallery from the British Tate Museum. This new gallery would display specifically international modern and contemporary art. In 1994, the trustees chose the former Bankside Power Station to be the site for the new gallery. The following year, Tate would enlist architects Herzog and De Meuron to transition the building into a gallery. The key factor in choosing these architects was that their proposal retained much of the original character of the building.
In 1996 the Tate Trustees would unveil the design plans. And following a £12 million grant from the English Partnerships regeneration agency, the site was purchased and the development began. All of the heavy duty machinery was removed, and the building was stripped back to its bare bones. The turbine hall would become the entrance and display area, and the boiler house the galleries. Since its opening in May 2000, Tate Modern has seen more than 40 million visitors. The museum holds a plethora of artistic entertainment events throughout the year, including: festivals, performances, displays and exhibitions, talks and workshops.
museums of europe: paris
The capital of France is Europe’s lantern of romance and beauty. To stroll through the streets of Paris is to breathe the air of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali and Picasso. It is no surprise that this city, that has attracted brilliant artistic minds throughout its history, is home to some of the most iconic museums Europe has to offer. We begin with…
The Louvre (Museums of Europe)
Annually, The Louvre receives more visitors than any other art museum in the world. It has a collection of works that span from ancient societies to the mid-19th century. The origins of The Louvre go all the way back to Francis I. The then King of France was a great collector of art, and in 1546 he would begin building The Louvre. Initially a royal residence, almost every subsequent monarch made an addition to the building. Including major additions made by Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the 17th century. It was only in the late 17th century that The Louvre ceased to be a royal residence, after Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles in 1682. The notion of opening the museum to the public began circling in the 18th century.
Today, the works on display in the museum are manifold and utterly mesmerising. The range of art on offer to the visitor is staggering, with everything from ancient Greek sculpture, to Islamic art to Easter Island heads. And what’s more astonishing, and alluring for the visitor, is the grandiosity of the venue. Think huge archways and pillars, ceilings decorated with golden framework and walls lined with a velvety red. Imagine this backdrop contrasted with Egyptian antiquities or Renaissance era sculptures. Truly a sight to behold. The Louvre is arguably the most impressive of the European art museums.
Orsay Museum (Museums of Europe)
The Orsay Museum, or, Musée d’Orsay, has its place in the former Gare d’Orsay railway station. A station and hotel that was designed by Victor Laloux and located on the Left Bank of the Seine, opposite the Tuileries Gardens. However, because of significant changes to railway technology, the station quickly became superfluous. Consequently, it was mostly empty by the 1970s. In the early 70s, discussion around transforming the building into an art museum began. By 1977 it was finalized through the initiative of Pres. Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The building also went through restoration and remodelling in the early 1980s by ACT architecture group. Gaetana Aulenti was the designer of the interior. He created a complex layout of gallery spaces over three main levels flanking the atrium, underneath the venue’s epochal iron-and-glass vault.
The museum showcases artwork mainly from France between 1848 and 1914. Its collection encompasses paintings, sculptures, photography, decorative arts, graphic arts and pastel work and even architecture. The paintings in the museum’s collection actually come from the museum that preceded it from the beginning of the 19th century. Namely, the Luxembourg Museum. The painting collection in Musée d’Orsay is diverse and includes works by Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet.
The name is honest, this museum’s venue is an old orangery. In fact, the building was constructed in 1852 to save the many citrus fruits from the jardin des Tuileries in winter. The stone building has a glass wall on the side of the Seine and a brick wall on the garden side in order to conserve as much heat as possible. The administration converted it into a warehouse, military accommodation and a site for musical and sports demonstrations throughout the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Until eventually, in 1921, it fell into the care of the administration des Beaux-arts.
The Orangerie museum is home to plentiful works of impressionist and post-impressionist painters throughout the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. It showcases the illustrious masterpieces of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Armedeo Modigliani, as well as Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and lots of other artists active in this period.
The Centre Pompidou
Originating in 1969, and named after the then French President Georges Pompidou, the Centre Pompidou is now a considerable part of Parisian culture. Alternatively known as the Beauborg, given its central location in the historic Beauborg plateau, the venue houses a multi-cultural centre and a museum of modern art. The museum of modern art now housed in the Centre Pompidou, was transferred from its original house within the Palais de Tokyo. The architectural competition to decide who would design the centre saw 681 different participants from 49 different countries. After much deliberation, the panel gave three architects the opportunity to collaborate on the project. Two Italians, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, and one Englishman, Richard Rogers, would go ahead with the design.
The museum is full of colour and character. Its collections are boundless, and include what they title ‘masterpieces’, along with visual arts, drawings, photography, film and new media and much, much more. Their masterpieces do not leave one wanting, with works by Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp and the realist paintings of Otto Dix. The venue also holds a number of virtual exhibitions, conferences and debates, shows and concerts and cinematic experiences.
Museums of europe: Berlin
Germany’s capital is the birthplace of some of Europe’s most significant art movements. With over 150 museums, Berlin leaves its visitors with a chess board of options for absorbing culture. Whether its the contemporary art scene or palatial opulence, Berlin can guarantee its visitors a great experience.
Complete by 1930, Pergamon is one of the museums that constitutes the internationally renowned National museums of Berlin. It is located on the city’s Museum Island along with Altes, Bode, Neues and Old National Gallery. In 1999 this island was given World Heritage status by UNESCO. Berlin’s most visited museum, Pergamon gets its name from its main attraction, the altar of Zeus from Pergamon. A masterpiece among Hellenistic art, this impressive structure was shipped to Berlin in 1910, and the museum was built, mainly, to accommodate it. The museum also houses other monumental archaeological structures, such as the Market Gate of Miletus and the Ishtar Gate.
The Pergamon museum comprises three separate museums: the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art. The Collection of Classical Antiquities is one of the world’s most noteworthy collections of Greek and Roman art. Indeed, it is this collection which houses the mighty Pergamon altar. The Museum of the Ancient Near East tells the story of a 6,000-year history, pertaining largely to Mesopotamia, Syria and Anatolia. Its 270,000 items were acquired during the great German excavations in Babylon, Assur, Uruk and Sam’al.
In 1871 the Imperial Prussian court announces their desire to set up an art museum. Following this, the art historian Willhelm von Bode creates the museum in question. In 1904, the museum opens to the public under the name ‘Kaiser Friedrich Museum’, in honour of Friedrich III. The earliest collections include paintings and sculptures donated by the prince-elector of Brandenburg. Half a century later, the GDR Minister of Culture renames the venue the ‘Bode Museum’, in honour of its creator and first curator. Between 2000 and 2005, significant restorations are made to modernise the museum.
Exhibitions at the Bode Museum are wide ranging and utterly fascinating. Among them are collections of coins and medals, including a coin engraved with the face of environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Additionally, visitors will be able to view the works of Late Antiquity and Byzantine Art, as well as sculptures and paintings from the 13th-18th century. The Byzantine Art collection is particularly impressive. It boasts an impeccable array of artwork from the 3rd to the 15th century, from almost all areas of the ancient Mediterranean. It focuses largely on pagan and Christian sarcophagi from Rome, ornamental structures from the Eastern Roman Empire and objects from everyday life in late ancient Egypt.
The Neues Museum’s design is the product of the imagination of Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Built from 1843 to 1855, the building sustained great damage during World War II. After which, it was left abandoned. However in the 1980s, measures were put in place to secure the structure. In 2003, a difficult process of restoration began, which the British architect David Chipperfield would undertake. He would preserve the building’s façade and interiors, and incorporate the blemishes of the war into the final version of the building. Upon completion stood a restored historical building that serves as a modern museum.
Two collections are on display in the Neues Museum: The Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, and The Museum of Prehistory and Early History. The former provides a comprehensive insight into the cultural changes of ancient Egypt over four millennia. And the latter, with its 6,000 exhibits, offers a thorough display of archaeological finds from all over Europe and Asia. Which, in turn, provides a cultural history of those areas from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages.
museums of europe: Brussels
Brussels is bustling with culture. Home to over 80 museums, covering art, crafts, history, nature, comic strips, chocolate and even beer, the city has something for everyone.
The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM)
The origin of the Musical Instruments Museum goes back to 1877, when it was an attachment to the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory. The aim of it back then was to teach students about early instruments by showing them first hand. In the early stages of the museum’s formation, the museum’s curators would bring two collections of instruments together. One was the collection of Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis, which the Belgian government would purchase in 1872. The second was a gift to King Leopold II in 1876 from the Rajah Sourindro Mohun Tagore, and comprises around one hundred Indian instruments. Since 11 January 1991 the Musical Instruments Museum has been part of the Royal museums of Art and History.
The Musical Instruments Museum has more than 7000 instruments in its collection. The collection is split into the regions of the world from which the instruments originate. For example, one section’s focus is Western Wind and Percussion Instruments, and another’s is The Middle-East. The museum assigns a dedicated ‘organologist team’ to look after each separate collection. Visitors can expect to see instruments from every corner of the globe, as well as participate in their own music making in the atelier. That’s right, this museum has its own music room that guests can use. The curators at the Musical Instruments Museum believe that one needs to feel and play an instrument to truly appreciate its power.
Brussels City Museum
The idea to create this local museum came around the 1860 mark. Following which, the City of Brussels begins to collect a range of evidence of its history. The two people at the forefront of this municipal museum project were Charles Buls, the then mayor of the city, and Alphonse Wauters, a local archivist. The museum was set up on the second floor of the Maison du Roi (House of the King), and opened its doors in 1887. The aim was to attract foreign visitors and teach the local population about the history of their city. The collections have been enriched since the 19th century. This is largely due to significant donations and archaeological excavations. But its also a testament to the hard work of the City of Brussels to collect local historical objects.
The oldest works in the museum’s collection date back to the middle ages. Whilst the newest objects are from the 21st century. The collection includes everything from paintings to ceramics to maps. Perhaps the most impressive of the masterpieces in the collection is the altarpiece of Saluces. A collaborative effort by carpenters, painters, gilders and cabinet makers, the motif centres on the ‘life of the virgin’. The altarpiece originally had its place in the Cathedral of Mondovi, in Piedmont, but in 1984 it would return to Brussels and join the museum’s collection.
Art and History Museum
This museum’s first collections were acquired during the reigns of the Dukes of Burgundy and subsequently the Habsburg archdukes. Initially, the items would find their homes in various locations across Brussels. However, in 1847, the newly created Kingdom of Belgium would move the artworks to the Halle Gate, under the title ‘Royal Museum of Armour, Antiquities and Ethnology’. But, by 1889, the venue had become insufficient for the growing collections. Consequently, they would find their new place in the Cinquantenaire Park. During the interwar period, the collections expanded due to Belgian archaeological expeditions around the world. Most notably in Egypt, Syria and Easter Island.
The Art and History Museum is full of historical wonders. Coming from all four corners of the world (except Sub-Saharan Africa), the collection dates from prehistory to the 20th century. In the National Archaeology collections, visitors will discover items from the rare collection of Gallo-Roman artefacts as well as great examples of Merovingian glasswork and metalwork. These collections take visitors on a journey from the Stone Age to the Metal Ages. Additionally, in the museum’s Antiquity Wing, visitors will find themselves face to face with objects from the ancient Near-East, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Within this wing, guests can admire the Colonnade of Apamea, various Syrian mosaics and even explore Egyptian tombs and a ‘Mummy hall’. The Art and History Museum is one of the biggest museums in Europe. And it goes without saying that it is one of the best museums in Brussels.
museums of europe: Rome
People commonly refer to Rome as an open-air museum. An apposite description given the city’s offering of ancient ruins, Baroque architecture and Renaissance churches. History whinnies and quivers through the streets of Rome, and the city’s many museums and galleries work to immortalise it.
The Vatican Museums play host to the art collections of the popes since the early 15th century. These collections are housed in the papal palaces and various other buildings in the Vatican. The Pio-Clementino Museum was founded in the 1700s by Pope Clement XIV, and subsequently added to by Pope Pius VI. This museum showcases the papal collection of ancient sculpture that began with the collection of Pope Julius II. In the 19th century, Pope Pius VII would found the Chiaramonti Sculpture Gallery. A gallery also devoted to ancient sculpture and designed by the sculptor Antonio Canova. It has three sections: the museum, the New Wing, and the Gallery of Inscriptions.
The Gregorian Etruscan museum, founded in 1836 by Pope Gregory XVI, houses a collection of items from Etruscan excavations and objects from the Regolini-Galassi tomb. The Egyptian Museum, also founded by Gregory XVI, would open to the public in 1839. And finally, the Pinacoteca, founded by Pope Pius VI in 1797, has been kept in its present gallery since 1932. The historic treasures on display at this collection of museums is simply bewildering. With an enormous range, from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary art pieces, visitors can easily consider the Vatican museums one of the greatest art museums Europe has to offer.
Borghese Gallery and Museum
Of all the European museums on offer, the Borghese Gallery and Museum is perhaps the grandest. Villa Borghese, in which the gallery rests, rose in the early 17th century on the Borghese family property. Other plots of land were added to this property until eventually it would constitute a monumental park. The fast rise of the Borghese family in Rome would culminate with the election of Camillo as Pope, a man who gave himself the name Paul V. He began the era of urban works and impressive art collecting. The unquestionable protagonist in these undertakings was the pope’s favourite nephew, Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese. After the ascension to the head of the papacy of Paul V Borghese, Cardinal Borghese began to commission architecture and simultaneously acquire works of art that would make his collection one of the largest of his time.
The Borghese Gallery is the only museum in the world to have made a public gallery from its storerooms. A generous donation by Credit Suisse in 2005 means that a ‘second Pinacoteca’ was able to be made on the third floor. Roughly 260 works of art are on show in the large storage area. These include large canvases painted by Raphael’s followers, among them Madonna with Child by Scipione Pulzone. As well as Venus on a black background by Baldassarre Peruzzi. For its sheer grandiosity and drama, its fair to say that the Borghese Gallery is one of the most beautiful museums in the world.
The mausoleum of Hadrian, Castel Sant’Angelo has undergone numerous and various uses throughout its existence. Thus, it is necessary to consider it a monument, an archaeological zone and a museum. In addition to serving as a museum of itself, it also houses a plethora of collections from different historical eras. Only a few years after the Italian state acquired the castle as property, museum proposals were being made. In fact, in 1886, the idea to turn the castle into a Central Artillery Museum was gaining popularity. But nevertheless the idea did not come to fruition. Between 1890-1893 a series of excavations and earthworks took place outside and inside the castle. During which, several stones and ancient weapons were found. These finds actually went on to feature on the ground floor of the castle.
The structure is brimming with ancient masterpieces: the bust of emperor Hadrian, a statue of the archangel Michael, and Perin del Vaga’s The Return of Perseus. And many more. The castle/museum splits itself into seven levels. Of particular interest are the historical prisons on level 3, a series of underground rooms whose construction is likely due to Alexander VI Borgia. Steeped in history and wonder, Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the ultimate European museums to have on the culture radar.