Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows well that I love a good museum. Each vacation I take, I pack in as many different museums as possible. The best museums transport me to different times and places. Sometimes, just a single room or even display in a museum is all I need to get my museum “fix.” Indeed, here are some of my favorite museum rooms: I would be entirely happy visiting this museum if I were limited to seeing just this one room.
Best Domestic Museum Rooms
The La Brea Tar Pits: Dire Wolf Skulls
My younger daughter, Rose, had a prolonged “dinosaur phase” in which she was obsessed with prehistoric life. We spent many hours at natural history museums trying to satiate her dinosaur desire. Given how close we lived to the Tar Pits, we took Rose there more than almost any other natural history museum. We even celebrated her fourth and sixth birthdays there.
In this relatively small museum, there is one wall that stops me dead in my tracks every time: yellow/orange illuminated wall punctuated by several hundred dire wolf skulls researchers have found in the tar on site. The skulls are deep, dark black against the glowing orange of the wall behind. You can walk right up to them, inspect all the ways they look exactly the same and the ways they all look different. Lined up perfectly in their columns and rows, from the floor to the 15-foot ceilings, the skulls feel as if they keep going on like that in perpetuity.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art: Fraktur
I love American folk art. I’m drawn to the stories the pieces carry, the bright colors, the physical history of our country. The PMA has a fantastic collection of Pennsylvania Dutch and German Folk art that Karen and I visit as often as we can (I also love the Rockefeller Folk Art museum in Colonial Williamsburg).
In particular, the PMA has a room filled with fraktur: hand drawn lettering and pictures that adorn baptism certificates, diplomas, apprenticeship papers, and other documents. The pieces feel intensely personal; the style is much less perfect than say, your Renaissance masters. But in the absence of perfection, you see much more humanity: the shaking of the quill ever so slightly while drawing a straight line, the near (not perfect) symmetry of two opposing figures, the shrinking of letters as the writer realized that they couldn’t fit the whole word on the line. The room where these delicate pieces of antique papers are displayed feels warmer, lighter than so much of the rest of the museum. The lights reflect the unreal color of the aged pages as if time cannot dim those hues, much less the emotions the artists imbued into them.
Huntington Library & Gardens: Portrait Gallery
In Pasadena, the Huntington Library and Gardens is a favorite. I love to wander the gardens and walk through the galleries of the library. But in the main house, I’ve always been a big fan of the portrait gallery. The Huntington gets its two mascots —Blue Boy and Pinky—from these walls. Pinky is a young girl dressed in palest pink. She once held a spot on a short wall of one of the longest, largest galleries full of regal English full-length portraits of nobility, opposing Blue Boy. The pair have become ubiquitous at the Huntington; during the holidays, the gift store even sells Christmas tree ornaments of the two.
But in recent years, the portrait gallery at the Huntington has gotten a contemporary addition. Kehinde Wiley – the artist who painted President Obama’s official presidential portrait that hangs in the National Gallery —reimagined Blue Boy as a contemporary, young black man. Wiley’s portrait obviously stands out in the room of exclusively white, antique paintings, but it brings a much deeper throughline to the room as well: the ways we display wealth, the people we consider worth documenting. The portrait is a masterpiece in its own right. The William Morris patterns Wiley uses as background are fascinating, the colors are vibrant, the subject at ease yet on display. Highly recommended.
Best Foreign Museum Rooms
The Musée Marmottean-Monet: Waterlilies
In recollecting this museum, I actually find it hard to put into words. The experience of sitting in this particular room is to be completely at a loss for words. The museum is an old house in a suburb of Paris, the rooms are decorated as they were in the late 19th century. It is all gold, embroidery, and porcelain. It’s breath-taking and it’s personal: to be in the home of another family, surrounded by their lovingly maintained finery.
Since the family has moved and the house been turned to a museum, a massive basement complex has been built out to house the largest pieces of the collection. Oh – and I forgot to mention: back in their hey-day, the family were avid collectors of a new, local artist, Claude Monet. In fact, the Marmottan family collection is one of the largest collections of Monet on earth today.
Descending into the basement, you leave the opulence and gold of the sitting rooms and salons and enter what feels more like a traditional, modern museum with grey walls, hardwood floors, minimal accessories, and sleek benches. But the walls are adorned with massive paintings of technicolor waterlilies. You feel as if you’ve fallen straight into the ponds of Giverny. I’ve had the fortune to make it out to this museum a handful of times and I’ve never gotten away from even one of the landscapes in under an hour. You can stand so close, you can see individual brushstrokes and the occasional whirls of a fingerprint of a long-dead master painter.
The Berlin Museum of Natural History: Formaldehyde specimen jars
Several years ago, while in Berlin with my family, I took Rose to this collection of animals and plants (and relics thereof). She and I had grown tired of the incredible art collections we had been browsing on the trip, so we let Karen and my older daughter, Sophie, continue to the next art museum while we got a bit of a breather.
We spent a few hours rummaging through the fossils, as this daughter insists we do (the dinosaur phase may in fact, not be past us). We browsed some incredibly tasteful taxidermy, some shells, etc. And then we came upon the specimen jar room. I’ve often heard it said that no museum displays the full extent of their collection; that they have rooms and rooms of shelves and boxes with the rest of their treasures. But this museum took their formaldehyde specimen jar collection and displayed them for us. We walked down a short stair case into a dark room, the only light coming from the massive rectangle before us. About 30-feet tall, and 15-feet all around, stood a huge shelf, light from within and adorned with liquid-filled jars. Each contained a once living animal with fogged over eyeballs. The effect of the room was fascinating: the detail of the animals up close just barely this side of nauseating. But my daughter is a biologist by study, hobby, and trade, so she pressed her nose straight to the glass and rattled off the names of everything she could see.
The Louvre: The Coronation of Napoleon
It can be difficult to remember everything that the Louvre houses since it’s so massive. I think there’s two specific views of the Louvre that come to mind when people think of this museum: the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged victory. But for me, those two can’t hold a candle to the Coronation of Napoleon. This huge masterpiece adorns one wall of a gallery room within the Louvre. The scene is crowded with gold embroidered courtesans and priests as, in the center and cloaked in rays of sunlight, Josephine kneels before Napoleon who bestows on her a crown. Nearly all the figures are on a real-life scale, the on-lookers peaking through curtains are meeting you right at your eyeline. The painting consumes the room it hangs within; you feel that you genuinely could step right over the frame and enter 19th century France. It’s an intoxicating painting that transforms space and time. Exactly what I go to museums for!
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January 24, 2024