benc's blog

My ranking of museums

February 25, 2023 • ☕️☕️☕️ 15 min read

I love museums. The main reason my parents took me downtown (Chicago) as a kid was to go to museums and it was our default thing to do when visiting cities. I have a super vivid memory of my brother screaming "no more castles" at the Taj in Agra after spending half our time in London and Delhi (most of which's museums are castle-like buildings) because of the sheer quantity of them we visited. I've been made fun of by my exes several times for taking them to museums for dates and by friends for dragging them to a museum and then progressing too slowly: they're important to who I am!

As follows is my ranking of the museums that I've been to, in order. If it has an * near it, I've been to it but not recently enough to be confident in my ranking. I'm not counting aquariums but I'm counting planetariums or similar.

Museum of Anthropology - Mexico City, Mexico

It's hard to overstate how good this museum is. It does have the advantage of covering a subject that the West (sadly) mostly ignores but the sheer quantity of artifacts is staggering. It contains the Aztec Sunstone (yes, the one you're thinking of) as well as original burials from Tenochtitlan (the city that preceded CDMX before Cortés razed it). I deeply regret not reading this book before going but it was still an incredible experience.

It also has a cool-looking, Changi-style (or perhaps SIN is CDMX-Museum-of-Anthropology-style?) outdoor waterfall for some reason.

Come prepared with Google translate for the labels and to deal with irritating guards: they don't like Americans.

The Met - New York City, New York

The continent's other mega-city comes in strong here. Frankly, I feel misled by the recommendations for MoMA over The Met. I spent over 4 hours in here and I think covered about half the exhibits. The Egyptian exhibits were swoon-worthy (I spent at least 15 minutes just staring at the collection of scarabs steatite scarabs).

The sheer amount of space the Met has available is just unfair - they just fucking took a Frank Llyod Wright build and dropped it in the middle of Manhattan1. They also have plenty of open atriums that give the artifacts physical space to shine.

They had one exhibit - that seemed temporary - that paired an Egyptian artifact with another artifact from the continent that represented the same motif. I thought it was a brilliant way of bringing non-Egyptian African cultures to the fore by linking them to a culture that is universally admired. It doesn't hurt that the Met has access to some of the most incredible artifacts of Egypt.

Besides that, I quite enjoyed the exhibit on British art. We rarely get to examine English culture in a vacuum (because they insisted on pressing it onto... everywhere) but this did as good a job as you could. The teapots in particular were extremely pretty.

*British Museum - London, United Kingdom

I went here when I was ten and don't have a great memory of it. I remember being floored at the Rosetta Stone and mildly impressed with the Elgin Marbles but the overriding memory I have is of too much. That's probably a good signal that an adult would enjoy the museum and its reputation is self-recommending.

Field Museum - Chicago, Illinois

Field Museum is "the" Chicago museum - if a special exhibit comes to town, it's probably coming here.

It's titled as a natural history museum but its status as "the" museum means it inherently covers more - it has large exhibits on Meso-American and Egyptian civilizations that are as well-crafted (but perhaps not as extensive in terms of artifacts).

Perhaps the greatest endorsement of this museum is that they were willing to shift their iconic T-Rex, Sue (which is assuredly what you picture in your head when you think "T-Rex skeleton") out of the main hall as paleontology caught up to the reality that it probably was a poor representation of the overall taxonomic group that was dinosaurs. It's still weird to walk in and not see Sue though.

Textile Museum - Washington, DC

I'm very lucky that I was staying a short walk from here and stumbled upon it, otherwise I never would have known it existed. This museum will take you a short time - 90 minutes, tops - but it shines in terms of density of quality. The technology of fabric is criminally underrated - probably because it's traditionally associated with women (I recommend The Fabric of Civilization to learn more) - and their examples of different techniques across the world did a good job showing that. The highlights:

  • they had a toy loom that was definitely meant for kids but I was the only one there and got to see how much I would suck as a weaver
  • their special exhibit (till July 1, 2023) on Islamic carpets and shawls was a personal thrill for me. I also learned that a carpet salesman in New Delhi in 2007 probably scammed my family.
  • on their top floor, they had a floor-length display of suspended thin cords, at a density such that it was legitimately disorienting. If you must see a picture to persuade yourself to go, google "Anne Lindberg: what color is divine light?" but if you can take me at my word, I think you'll enjoy the display more without seeing a picture beforehand.
  • they had a quipu (the fabric-based recording method the Incas used to quite successfully maintain a state before the Eurasian technology of paper came to the new world)

Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum - Washington, DC

This is not the Air and Space Museum you are thinking of!

America is very lucky that Mr. Udvar-Hazy decided to leave Hungary and come here. The first Air and Space museum on the National Mall is already a goddamn delight (it's not ranked because I don't remember specifics, just good vibes) and this is just more of that. It's less curated than the original because its selling point is quantity. Aircraft of every vintage you can think of, from every war (including an example of balloon tech from the civil war) you can think of, and from other countries too: they have several unique examples of Japanese and German aircraft. It's interesting to look at them and see where they diverged from American designs but also where the laws of physics forced convergence.

My highlights:

  • the entrance of the main hall has a Predator drone staring straight at it which is vaguely disconcerting
  • The Enola Gay - the B-2 that dropped The Bomb on Hiroshima - is there. I don't quite know how to describe how I felt looking at it.
  • The Discovery space shuttle is there which extended my guilt of owning the LEGO set for many months and having not started it.

Many people there seemed to enjoy looking at the Boeing 707 (well, a 707 prototype). The Museum of Science and Industry has one you can walk into so it didn't excite me as much.

The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) - Chicago, Illinois

The Field Museum is objectively better but I have a soft spot for this place. As a child it drove my interest in math and science and the demonstrations are no less cool as an adult.

If you can, go around Christmas - they have a big ass tree that's very pretty.

Pay to go inside the U-505. It is highly unlikely you will enter a submarine of any type during your lifetime and to go inside one that was in service is a rare opportunity. The exhibit surrounding it is free so no need to pay to go a second time but going once is a must.

Tokyo National Museum - Tokyo, Japan

There is zero excuse for this museum to not be in the top three. Japan has been conquered by culturally extractive Europeans exactly zero times and therefore the country has retained its artifacts. There are legitimately stunning pieces in here, including evidence of very old trade with China and so. many. statues. of. Buddha. However, it's all presented in a rather boring and uncreative way. The best presented exhibit here was the visiting exhibit from the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology (see above) and, given the rest of the museum, I wholly credit the Mexicans for that. Frankly, based on Japan and India, I'm beginning to think that museum curation is a mostly Western skill.

All that said, the underlying quality of the collection and the subject makes this a must-visit if you're in Tokyo.

Renwick Gallery - Washington, DC

I'm not sure if this counts as a sleeper pick or not? A few people recommended it to me but it didn't come across my radar at all on online searches.

This seems to be the Smithsonian's place to put contemporary art. It's quite small - no more than 10 galleries across two floors - but that makes the curation shine all the more. My friend and I spent a decent amount of time trying to figure out how a few of the wooden things were made. The room-size display by Janet Echelman was the obvious highlight but everything was great.

Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya - Mumbai, India

This was Gandhi's Mumbai headquarters. It has many of his personal possessions and there are scholars visibly working in it. Well worth the time and nominal fee.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) - New York City, New York

I am not the best at appreciating art so this probably should be ranked higher.

I enjoyed many of the contemporary artists they had on display and had a confused indifference to the rest (plus or minus a few famous pieces, Starry Night is Starry Night no matter how ignorant you are) that I unfortunately usually do with art.

As a result of this visit, I will probably acquire a print of Ellsworth Kelly and I would like to acquire a clip of Refik Anadol's AI hallucinations but they do not seem to be publicly available.

Their design store is fine but overhyped. Probably had more value pre-internet when it was harder to find pretty and cool objects.

Museum of Natural History - Washington, DC

Dinosaurs are cool, the Hope Diamond is worth seeing, everything else is pretty meh. I was hoping the exhibit on Africa would be interesting but it was not. Even the dinosaurs were presented worse than I would have liked.

The ranking of this below Field Museum is mostly driven by the ways in which the Field Museum isn't a natural history museum, specifically the Egyptian and African exhibits. As a natural history museum, the Museum of Natural History is better.

The Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington

One of the best air and space museums in the country (the Smithsonians' are widely regarded as better), the proximity to Boeing makes this place incredible. Most anything Boeing has built, they have one. Highlights include a space shuttle and a 747.

Great place to take WW2 buffs/men.

Portland Art Museum - Portland, Oregon

This museum is considerably better than its counterpart north in Seattle. Their contemporary art is the good type instead of the insane type (the coolest: a picture that looks different to the naked eye versus a camera) but the absolute highlight is the collection of Japanese landscape paintings including a print of the Great Wave. I spent so much time in that room and later used Midjourney to create a version depicting Chicago:

 in the style of utagawa hiroshige, a quiet snowy night in Chicago with a dark blue sky

Cahokia Museum - Collinsville, IL (next to St. Louis)

Cahokia is criminally underhyped - there are not many places you will see evidence pre-Colombian North American urbanism. I desperately wish the Americas had developed a useful corn and agriculture earlier than they did - it would have been interesting to see what a culture totally foreign to Eurasia but just as advanced would have looked like.

Nezu Museum - Tokyo, Japan

This is a rather small museum in the Aoyama neighborhood. Unlike the Tokyo National Museum, the curation here is average, not actively bad. I wouldn't call this a must-do based on the artifacts but they are interesting and in-depth: this museum has a large collection of artifacts in specific subjects (like Japanese Koh masks) rather than a collection that spans many subjects. Half the museum property is also a lovely contemplative garden with some Buddhist statues dispersed throughout. By no means a must-do but a good place to relax for a bit.

Seattle Asian Art Museum - Seattle, Washington

Per the name, this museum mostly focuses on East Asian art but it does not temporally limit itself. Their contemporary art is the standout in my opinion. Don't miss the Yang Yongliang exhibit: he blends traditional Chinese landscape paintings with contemporary cityscapes in a way that quite appeals to my taste.

The few South Asian artifacts they have are lovely.

Museum of American History - Washington, DC

Overrated for adults. The Star-Spangled Banner is great - and something most Americans should strive to see - as is the exhibit around it. A few other exhibits I enjoyed:

  • A display of a bunch of currency (mostly American, some foreign). I enjoyed this more than I would have because I've seen a similar exhibit in Mumbai and it was fun to contrast.
  • An exhibit of electricity and other heavy-industry tools. It was elucidating to see the development of them, how American-driven that was, and then despair that China entirely dominates this sort of industry today.

Keralam - Museum of History and Heritage - Thiruvananthapuram, India

You have to be interested in the subject matter to enjoy this museum (although what are you doing in Trivandrum if you're not interested in Kerala??) because the curation is the typically low quality of Indian museums. They have some cool stuff though and seem to be able to take advantage of the fact that the British didn't seem to care enough to steal their stuff.

(they also weirdly have some natural history stuff? If you've been to any Western natural history museum, it's eons ahead, don't bother with those exhibits)

USS Midway - San Diego, California

I might be stretching calling this a museum but it has plenty of exhibit-like rooms. Aircraft carriers are cool.

Nordic Museum - Seattle, Washington

It's hard to not enjoy a place so clearly obsessed with its subject material. It exaggerates in places but... come on, you're not going to ever find another museum that goes so into Nordic-Americans and their history. Check their special exhibit, you might get lucky - my friend got in during an IKEA exhibit, on my first visit I got in during a loan from Sweden's Nationalmuseum, and for my second visit I got in on a special exhibit from the lead of Sigur Rós that was basically a sound bath.

*Adler Planetarium - Chicago, Illinois

Maybe I'm being unfair but I don't recall this having anything you couldn't easily experience online. The value here is in being put into a space-mood, not really in the exhibits.

Toshugu Museum - Nikko, Japan

If you're at this museum, you've also done the shrine which is awesome. The museum is very cheap and very fast and it has a few artifacts from Tokugawa himself, including his armor. It also includes a hilarious anime that glosses over him murdering an 8 year old but, you know.

Prince of Wales Museum - Mumbai, India

As with many things in Mumbai, nationalistic local governments have officially named it after some Marathi ruler that no one except them cares about instead of retaining the original British name that everyone uses anyways. The actual name is Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Sangrahalaya means museum) so congratulations to you if you remember that.

This place is not great, at least in comparison to expectations. The curation is bad, the artifacts are boring, and the guards will probably try to scam you on the ticket price. I will very reluctantly say it is worth the hour or two it will take you (the top museum is the #2 city in a place as big and old as India should take you considerably longer but here we are!) but... ugh. Mumbai is a great city to visit but it does not have the best tourist attractions.

The highlights for me were the (I think temporary?) exhibit on Indian textiles (which are usually underrepresented, probably due to their usually-feminine origins) and the history of Indian currency.

Seattle Art Museum - Seattle, Washington

Very underwhelming. The contemporary art here is the crazy type (there was an exhibit that asked people to just scream which was oh-so-joyful to hear while looking at art). The Asian art there was cool (note this is the same organization as the Seattle Asian Art Museum so they are splitting their collection) as was the Mesoamerican art.

The highlight that is unfortunately not there anymore. It was a temporary exhibit on Ikat, a fabric dyeing technique. I suppose I can contingently recommend this museum if they have a good temporary exhibit.

Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) - Seattle, Washington

This place probably isn't for me but I was not super impressed. I guess learning about Nirvana and some old sci-fi movies was cool.

Burke Museum - Seattle, Washington

If there existed a pill that rendered a person temporarily illiterate, I would advise taking it before going into this museum. The curatorial impulses and the collection are good but the politics of the people who work at this place get in the way. There was a big sign in the lobby that recommended masks to "protect our young and vulnerable". The untruth2 that COVID affects the young isn't a huge deal in itself but it's a pretty bad signal when you go to a place to learn things and one of the first things you see is based on an untrue premise. There was also a sign declaring all museums as colonialist enterprises. That certainly has been the case with many - not all - museums but if you believe that... why do you work at a museum?

The indigenous artifacts they have are interesting - and I like how they stress the technology of indigenous peoples instead of portraying them as savages (as was/is often done in America) or as in-tune-with-nature-Pocahontas-types (as modern liberals often do). I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the boats that Pacific Islanders used to colonize the oceans, as well as the way they weaved the sails.

The natural history parts of the museum are fine and I don't think you'll find better in Seattle but that's more of a criticism of Seattle than praise of the Burke. I would have enjoyed them as a kid but tastes change. Personally, I find it sad to see stuffed animals.

This place is probably worth a couple hours of your time but go in with your expectations set. The cafe is great though - it serves Native American flatbread tacos (a food I haven't seen elsewhere) and is generally high quality.

Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) - Seattle, Washington

The Pacific Northwest became interesting in 1916 when Boeing was founde; most everything else is a prequel. MOHAI does not prioritize accordingly; more industry, less history please!

*Frist Art Museuem - Nashville, Tennessee

My experience here is coming as part of a university event as an 18-year-old, looking at some cool antique cars (special exhibit) and a few paintings and then trying to leave at which point I was not allowed to leave and was instead locked inside a building I did not want to be in for an additional hour. Go Commodores!

Museums I want to go to

(but like I'll go to most museums if I'm in their city long enough)

  • British Museum - London, United Kingdom (again, as an adult)
  • Museum of Islamic Art - Doha, Qatar (if I get over my allergy to funding middle eastern dictators)
  • Vatican Museums - Vatican City
  • Art Institute of Chicago - oops this is embarrassing
  • Museum of Contemporary Art - Chicago, Illinois
  • Chicago History Museum
  • National Palace Museum - Taipei, Taiwan (they stole all the best stuff from the CCP)
  • War Remnants Museum - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Museum of Anthropology at UBC - Vancouver, Canada
  • Museum of Egyptian Antiquities - Cairo, Egypt (reluctantly included because everything else I've heard of visiting Egypt is awful)
  • National Museum - New Delhi, India (Indian museums tend to have bad curation but I'm hoping the quality of the underlying topic bails them out)
  • Museo Textil de Oaxaca

Places that call themselves museums but come on

St. Louis (STL) City Museum

This is a children's museum for adults and it's incredibly fun. I barely have to recommend this because if you're visiting St. Louis, you'll definitely go.

Chicago Children's Museum

I have incredibly fond memories of my mom dealing with me and my brother misbehaving on the blue line to take us here only to deal with us misbehaving there. I hope to go back someday with children of my own.

The House on the Rock - Spring Green, Wisconsin

I don't even know what to call this place but it's fucking weird. Go develop an idea of what the STL City Museum is and then think that but on cocaine.

Pacific Science Center - Seattle, Washington

It's closer to a children's museum than a true museum which is fine but not for me. It's quite good for what it is. Their IMAX screen is true IMAX so recommended for Dune 2, Avatar 3 etc.

Cup Noodles Museum - Yokahama, Japan

I suppose this is technically a museum but come on, that's not a real subject. A ton of fun though, come prepared with the app so you can listen to the translation of the extremly over-the-top documentary where they absolutely gloss over the creator ruthlessly exploiting his patent for profit.

Unranked

I've been to these but have exactly zero memories so who knows

  • Smithsonian Air and Space
  • National Holocaust Museum
  • International Spy Museum
  • Newseum

  1. Admittedly, you can see plenty of better examples of his work if you're willing to road-trip the Midwest but you can't get to Taliesin on the subway.

  2. I hesitate to call it a lie because I don't want to ascribe intent but, honestly, for people as educated as working in a museum implies, they could have easily found the truth.