In any big metropolis worthy of being called a world capital a landmark museum or two is almost a prerequisite and while these institutions are definitely worth exploring for their priceless art or cultural treasures their sheer size and popularity can make shorter visits challenging so I’ll offer a shortlist of museums I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring in my travels and which while smaller in size offer intrepid visitors a more human scale and immersive historical experience.
The Cloisters is a branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and is located at Manhattan’s northern tip in Washington Heights Fort Tryon Park. Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased the land in 1917 and had it landscaped by the firm headed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., son of the designer of Central Park, before donating it to New York City in 1935. During this time remaining stones from five abbeys in France and Spain were purchased and shipped over stone-by-stone to be reconstructed and used with new buildings in medieval-style cloisters. The hilltop buildings are prominent in Winter from the Hudson River.
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The Pontaut Chapter House was my favorite space with it’s graceful arches and intimate size. Monks would gather daily for meetings in a chapter house and this 12th century example is from Pontaut in Aquitaine, France and when purchased in the 1930’s was being used to house farm animals.
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The Saint-Guilhem Cloister is the smallest cloister and incorporates many 12th and 13th century capitals from the abbey near Montpellier, France which was a stop on the pilgrims trail to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Note the incorporation of the historic stones with new ones in the arches and cloister walls quarried in New York State.
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The Fuentiduena Chapel features more than 3,000 stones that make up the 12th century half-dome apse from the church of San Martin in Fuentiduena, Spain. Also in the chapel are a painted Spanish medieval crucifix and 11th century Tuscan doorway on the right of the photo.
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Note that admission to The Cloisters includes same-day entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art meaning if you were so inclined a morning visit to The Cloisters could be followed with an afternoon wandering through “The Met” until closing time. There is a good Cloisters museum map to give an overview of the site.
The Churchill War Rooms is one of five branches of Britain’s Imperial War Museums and is tucked away below street level in the middle of the central London in the Westminster neighborhood of Whitehall.
Construction of the Cabinet War Rooms began in earnest in 1938 with war clouds gathering and was completed weeks before the outbreak of hostilities in August 1938 and were in use throughout the war sheltering Winston Churchill and his war cabinet from the German bombs and rockets that rained down on the city. After the surrender of Japan to close World War II the historical value of the facility was realised and it was preserved intact for decades before being opened to the public in early 1984. The entrance was redesigned and modernized in 2012 but this is how it was when I visited in 1997.
Churchill Warrooms by IxK85 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
The tangible link to such momentous moments in history is visible to the visitor often is small ways such as the scratches in the arm of Churchill’s wooden chair where nervous energy and a ring left telling marks as to the strain he must have felt in the darkest hours of the Blitzkrieg.
Churchill War Rooms in London by Heather Cowper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The bed Churchill frequently occupied along with his desk from which he broadcast many stirring speeches are preserved just as he left them.
This work by Ealasaid is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny (National Museum of the Middle Ages – Cluny thermal baths and mansion) is nestled in a quiet corner of Paris’ Latin Quarter just off Boulevard Saint-Germain and is quite literally history built upon history with the 12th century townhouse or hôtel of the abbots of Cluny built on the 3rd century Gallo-Roman baths, known as the Thermes de Cluny.
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The museum itself is divided into two halves: the Gallo-Roman thermal baths and the medieval mansion, the Hôtel de Cluny.
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The baths were an important part of the Roman city of Lutetia and include the frigidarium which is as the Latin name suggests is a cool space that isn’t hard to image being used as a 3rd century spa.
The riches of the Roman ruins are matched however by the other half of the museum as the Hôtel de Cluny houses the 15th century tapestry collection known as “The Lady and the Unicorn“.
Lady and the Unicorn by Atlant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License.
The Musée de Cluny- National Museum of the Middle Ages is easy to combine with nearby sights such as the Pantheon, Luxembourg Palace and Luxembourg Gardens or the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame which is only a few hundred metres away.
Glasgow has preserved a unique part of its history as the Tenement House affords visitors a look at what life was like for the first half of the 20th century for one family. Agnes Toward moved into this 19th century tenement building as a child in 1911 and lived in it until her passing in 1975 and it was only then that the potential historical importance of the flat was realised as Toward had kept everything virtually unchanged as it had been in the first part of the 20th century.
While technically not a museum the tenement is administered by the National Trust for Scotland as a preserved slice of one Glaswegian’s life from a bygone era.
Tenement House, 145 Buccleuch Street, Glasgow, Scotland by Glen Bowman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Along the same lines is the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side but instead of telling the story of one occupant and their family it follows the life stories of several different families from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Amsterdam’s Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House) is where this Dutch master lived and worked for 20 years in the early 17th century on some of his most famous painting including the famous ‘Night Watch’ now on display a short walk away in the Rijksmuseum. Visitors are able to walk through the house and get a sense of how Rembrandt lived and worked and see a number of his etchings.
Rembrandthuis by Michiel1972 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Despite being a well established artist by 1656 Rembrandt was unable to pay his debts and so was forced to declare bankruptcy but his misfortune would help later generations as a detailed inventory of furnishings and possessions was taken in preparation for the property’s sale and it was this list which helped in restoring the interior when the building was opened as a museum in 1911.
Rembrandt House by Ana Paula Hirama is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported License.
Another excellent small Amsterdam museum within blocks of the Rembrandt House is the Jewish Historical Museum so seeing both in a leisurely morning is possible and highly recommended.
Some of the smaller museums on my list are included in the city sightseeing cards such as the Churchill War Rooms with the London Pass or Rembrandt House as part of the I Amsterdam City Card further adding to their value for travellers who hold these passes but all are great choices for visitors with limited time or for those who have already visited the large institutions.