American Museum of Natural History, New York City
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This magical institution is across the road from Central Park on the Upper West Side. It comprises 28 buildings and more than 33 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, human remains and cultural artefacts. You may remember it from Friends (it was nerdy Ross Geller’s workplace), Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum films or even the video game Grand Theft Auto.
9/11 Memorial & Museum, New York City
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Two enormous reflecting pools sit where the foundations of the twin towers once were, marking the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. This memorial and museum honours the victims and documents the event that changed New York City’s skyline and the entire world with films, photographs, artefacts, artworks and moving oral histories.
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
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The young diarist, Anne Frank, hid from the Nazis in secret rooms at the rear of the 17th-century canal house that now holds a permanent exhibition documenting her life and times. Along with her mother, father and sister, she shared the space with four other Jewish people for two years before they were betrayed by persons unknown and arrested by Nazi soldiers. There are items on display retrieved by Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, who helped hide the family.
Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul
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A church, a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia comprises a stunning series of domes with an interior spangled with more than 30 million golden tiles. Dating back to the sixth century, it served as a cathedral until 1453, when it was converted into an Ottoman mosque. It opened as a museum in 1935 and now visitors can see its frescoes, mosaics and relics.
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
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The largest museum in Mexico contains amazing artefacts dating from pre-Columbian times, tracing Mesoamerican cultures including Aztec, Mayan and Olmec. The collection includes wonders such as the 3.7-metre Aztec Sun Stone (the Aztec calendar); a reconstructed eighth-century Mayan tomb, complete with preserved skeleton; and a model of Templo Mayor, the incredible temple complex that was once in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City (the Spanish destroyed the temple in 1521 to build a cathedral).
National Museum of China, Beijing
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China has the largest population in the world and a storied history to match. The tale of Chinese people is told in this enormous building on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. Covering almost 200,000 square metres, the museum documents the history of China from the Yuanmou Man 1.7 million years ago to the end of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1912 and into modern times.
Acropolis Museum, Athens
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The Acropolis Museum displays ancient items discovered at the archaeological site of the Acropolis in Athens. Among the more than 4000 pieces are marbles (though not the Elgin Marbles), statues of gods and goddesses and busts of ancient rulers. Visitors can view the archaeological site below the main entrance to the museum and it can be seen through glass throughout much of the modern building.
Pergamon Museum, Berlin
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Pergamon resides on Museum Island in Central Berlin’s Spree River. It’s dedicated to Middle Eastern history and houses fully reconstructed monuments from parts of Turkey including the Market Gate of Miletus (built in the second century AD in Miletus, modern-day Balat) and the Pergamon Alter (built in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon in what is now Anatolia). The museum is divided into three parts: antiquities, the Middle East Museum and a section dedicated to Islamic art.
Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
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Te Papa is the official museum of New Zealand, representing the nation’s people, history and culture with art, photography, historical documents, textiles and other objects.
Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses of Qinshihuang, Xi'an
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In 1974, local farmers found some pottery while digging for a well. Soon, archaeologists had uncovered pits containing thousands of life-size terracotta figures of warriors, horses and wooden chariots, which date back to the Qin Dynasty (211-206BC). They were buried with Emperor Qinshihuang to protect him in the afterlife. The museum has been built at the site and covers an area of 16,300 square metres; archaeological work there is ongoing.
The British Museum, London
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Since it opened to the public in 1753, The British Museum has amassed a mind-blowing collection of objects. Exhibits include the Rosetta Stone, the earliest-known image of Jesus and controversially, the Elgin Marbles, which Greece would rather like to have back. There are also Egyptian mummies, 12th-century chess pieces and a growing collection of contemporary artefacts, such as Navajo silver and turquoise jewellery.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo
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It’s not just wall-to-wall mummies at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, generally known as the Egyptian Museum. There are about 160,000 items from ancient Egypt, including the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities. The golden mask of the teenage king Tutankhamun, a bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten with his aquiline nose and impressive headgear and items from the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut can all be seen here.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
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“The Met”, as locals know it, is a New York institution that must be seen to be believed. Its collection spans more than 5000 years and it’s the largest art museum in the United States. It has holdings of African, Asian, Byzantine, Indian, Oceanic and Islamic pieces, as well as works by European masters and American artists, plus ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art.
The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
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This place is huge – it’s the world’s largest research and museum complex with 19 museums and galleries, containing artefacts from space travel to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film. There are more than 137 million objects housed here so make a beeline for the ones you most want to see. Don’t miss Julia Child’s kitchen (in the National Museum of American History), complete with extra-high benches built for the 188-centimetre tall cookbook author; the world’s largest deep-blue diamond, The Hope Diamond (in the National Museum of Natural History); and a rock from the moon (in the National Air and Space Museum).
Vatican Museums, Vatican City
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Catholic or not, you’ve got to admire the priceless collection of art amassed by the popes throughout the centuries. Wander through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, explore the 54 galleries featuring religious works by Caravaggio, Raphael and da Vinci and admire the frescoes in the Borgia Apartment, built for Pope Alexander VI in 1492.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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The “V&A” is a treasure-trove of beautiful objects, with elaborate dresses and tiny, delicate shoes from the 18th century; books and printing paraphernalia; and a 10th-century rock-crystal jug. The museum is dedicated to showcasing decorative art and design and its collection has more than 4.5 million objects.
Vasa Museum, Stockholm
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This maritime museum houses the world’s only existing 17th-century warship, Vasa. It sank in Stockholm in 1628 on her maiden voyage and was salvaged from its water grave almost fully intact 333 years later. The 64-gun warship was supposed to be home to 450 men but they were aboard mere minutes before she sank. The museum explores the ship, the inquest after it sank and the lives of sailors at the time.
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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Museums and memorials all over the world document the horrors of the Holocaust but Yad Vashem is Israel’s official one. Its Hall of Names contains photographs and information about Jewish people who were killed. The moving museum seeks to educate, document and commemorate and pays tribute to gentiles who risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbours and friends. Image: Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem
Tenement Museum, New York City
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Located in an old tenement apartment building on the Lower East Side, this museum documents the history of Manhattan via its various tenants over the years. The apartments at 97 Orchard Street have been restored to resemble the homes of the families that lived in them. There’s that of the Irish Moores, which lived there in 1869; the 1878 apartment of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family; and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family’s home, where they lived during the Great Depression. Image: The Tenement Museum, New York
Gold Museum, Bogotá
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El Museo del Oro, as it’s known in Spanish, is literally a goldmine. Gold was sacred to the indigenous cultures of what is now Colombia and the land was rich in the precious metal. The people created elaborate jewellery, masks and figurines from gold and it was used in rituals. The most incredible display is perhaps the Muisca Raft, a sculpture portraying a raft with a tribal chieftain accompanied by priests and oarsmen – it’s about 19.5 centimetres long. Image: Gold Museum - Banco de la República