Where do we look at visual art? In a book? On your computer screen? In a museum? On vacation? On the way to work? More importantly, what is the best way to look at a work of visual art? You can find high-quality reproductions of every great painting, sculpture or other work of visual art in books or on your smart phone or computer screen, but looking at a 3-, 11-, 14- or 17-inch digitized reproduction of a painting measuring 10 X 12 feet or a life-sized statue cannot really come close to the experience of encountering the original directly. The urban centers that most people in the Western hemisphere live in or near generally offer lots of opportunities to see public sculptures and also diverse examples of the type of visual art we see the most – architecture (although we rarely think of the many buildings we encounter on a daily basis as works of art). Other works of art require long treks into distant lands to see them in person. For someone in the U.S., this might include the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the ruins of Petra in Jordan, Persepolis in Iran or Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Turkey; and the frescoes adorning the Christian churches of Italy.
And then there are museums. I would guess that many of us have had most of our direct exposure to original works of visual art (other than architectural creations) in an art museum. Such museums range from the tiny to the big to the immense; they may choose to present the work of one artist or many, a specific time period or all human history, a smattering of works from a great many artists, a comprehensive collection of a much more limited set of artists, or a combination of the two approaches. Some museums only present temporary exhibits but most combine their own special exhibitions and traveling shows with displays from their permanent collections. Museums have worked hard to provide an experience that appeals to the uninitiated as well as the sophisticated – this attempt to please everyone can disappoint those at either end of the spectrum, I suppose, but it is difficult to imagine what other approach the museums could take. The larger institutions have libraries and research facilities for the experts, and more and more museums are daring to put on special exhibits that are designed to appeal to someone who would not ordinarily visit.
Museums have their critics. Some believe they are elitist bastions of the wealthy and highly educated and that their imposing facades and unspoken assumptions about who ‘belongs’ inside intimidate the diverse masses who were not born into privilege, convincing them to stay away. Others feel that the sanctuary-like atmosphere of a museum is the worst place to look at a work of art. Art should be integrated into our daily lives, not sequestered in museums that too often become mausoleums for the works of dead white men. Others worry that the presence of an artwork in a museum tells us that experts have already anointed this an “important” or “high quality” piece – leaving us with a Hobson’s choice: either agree and feel like mindless sheep following the leader or disagree and feel like we’re either too stupid to get it or that the so-called experts are full of it and the whole system is phony.
Before the building of the great museums in Europe beginning around the time of the French Revolution, most non-architectural art was found in one of three places: religious sites and buildings, public spaces and buildings, or in the homes of the rich and famous, where only other rich and famous people (and their servants) could see them. Even today, many masterpieces are hidden from the public eye because they reside in the private collections of wealthy collectors who may only occasionally loan them to museums. Some museums have tried to recreate this earlier style of art appreciation by creating galleries where period furniture and other decorative art accompany the paintings and sculptures. Others, like the Frick Collection in New York City, display the art inside the mansion of the collector himself, with many of his furnishings still intact. Is this a better way to look at the art than the standard museum paradigm: paintings hung on bare walls in sparsely-decorated rooms, sculptures resting on pedestals a safe distance from each other?
Perhaps the most common criticism of museums, especially the behemoths that top the list of ‘Most Attended’ each year, is the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by looking at so many works of art during a typical visit. Most of us are not used to taking the time to stare intently at one object, not to mention doing it over and over for many different objects in many different rooms with few breaks and a drive to see everything you came to see – or at least all the famous pieces. The effort involved in truly seeing what we’re looking at eventually induces a combination of annoyed agitation and zombie-like lethargy, often accompanied by a headache, known to travelers as ‘museum fatigue’ or ‘museumitis.’ I have learned from personal experience that the urge to see ‘just one more masterpiece’ must often succumb to the need for a nap and that two hours is usually my limit, no matter how much there is left to see.
Despite all the criticisms, art museums offer an opportunity for the public to see many works of art in safe, clean, climate-controlled environments, where curator-produced writings and audio guides can provide useful and intelligent interpretation, context and background. Those museums with permanent collections on display provide the chance for folks who live nearby to encounter the same works of art multiple times, allowing them to reveal themselves layer by layer. Those that present temporary exhibits give us a chance to see works on loan from around the world, explore a subject or artist in depth, or investigate the edges of the world of art, or its intersection with other fields.
Given that there are some good reasons to see art in museums, another set of questions arises: What makes a great art museum? and Which are the best art museums? In doing some research on these questions, I was surprised to discover that museums are often rated by size and popularity (measured by annual attendance figures). This seems unfair to me, since visiting a small, well-curated museum can be a transcendent experience, while some of the larger museums can get so crowded that the average attendee ends up feeling hassled, claustrophobic, and stressed out. On the other hand, the larger museums tend to be wealthier and more able to acquire highly-sought-after artworks and put on the most impressive temporary exhibits. In making my meta-list of “Best Art Museums” (see below), I tried to avoid lists that were based on annual attendance alone, but looked instead for lists that focused on the quality of the art in the permanent collection and the quality of the permanent and temporary exhibits. Notwithstanding my attempt to focus on quality over size, the final result, a meta-list combining 25 separate lists of ‘Best Museums” and “Best Art Museums”, appears to confirm that bigger is also better.
BEST ART MUSEUMS OF ALL TIME – The Experts’ Picks
Vatican Museums. Vatican City (established 1506)
Musée du Louvre. Paris, France (est. 1792)
Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, US (est. 1870)
British Museum. London, UK (est. 1753)
Museo del Prado. Madrid, Spain (est. 1819)
State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia (est. 1764)
Uffizi Gallery. Florence, Italy (est. 1581)
Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, The Netherlands (est. 1800)
Tate Modern. London, UK (est. 2000)
National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., US (est. 1937)
Museum of Modern Art. New York City, US (est. 1929)
Musée d’Orsay. Paris, France (est. 1986)
National Gallery. London, UK (est. 1824)
National Palace Museum. Taipei, Taiwan (est. 1965)
Tate Britain. London, UK (est. 1897)
Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France (est. 1947)
Victoria and Albert Museum. London, UK (est. 1852)
Smithsonian Institution (multiple museums). Washington D.C., US (est. c. 1855)
Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois, US (est. 1879)
J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty Center, Los Angeles, California, US (est. 1974)
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Cairo, Egypt (est. 1835)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York City, US (est. 1939)
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain (est. 1997)
Acropolis Museum. Athens, Greece (est. 2009)
This focus on museums is prelude to the unveiling of three new lists. I have taken every painting, sculpture and work of architecture from the other visual arts lists (except those in private collections) and organized them by geographic location. Most of the paintings are located in museums, although a fair number can be found in churches and other religious sites and a few in government buildings. Although museums house most of the sculptures, a fair number are located in public places, where people can see them without paying admission. Architectural works, by their nature, are also found outside museum walls, although the general public does not have access to many of them. Due to the Western bias of so many of the original lists and the acquisitive nature of many former colonial empires, the majority of the works of art are located in Western Europe and the United States. Despite this imbalance, the lists include significant art works from nearly every region of the world.
These three new lists expand upon and replace a prior geography-based list that contained many fewer works of art and no works of architecture. The primary goal of the list is to let people know where they can see the works of art from the lists, but I have also decided to identify the former locations of artworks you cannot see, because they were destroyed, lost or removed. One caveat: although a work of art may be in the collection of a particular museum, that is no guarantee that the artwork will be on display when you visit. In fact, I left most photographs off the list because most art museums have very few photos on display, even if they have huge numbers of them in their collections, so the chances you’ll be able to see any particular photograph from the museum’s collection on your visit may be very small.
Here, then, are the new lists. I’ve organized the artworks by location and illustrated the list with lotss of pictures of the artwork in context, including interior photos of exhibit halls in the museums from the “Best Museums” list above. Finally, I added maps with virtual stick pins for each of the three Geographic Location lists, thanks to the templates provided by ZeeMaps.com.
Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location I: Africa, Asia & Australia
Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location II: North & South America
Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location III: Europe