Some of the oldest museums in the world are still going strong. From papal art collections to exhibits on prehistoric beasts, these houses of culture are prime for exploring.
Museums have long been champions of cultural, religious, and historic preservation. They celebrate and document human achievement and help to tell the stories of our successes (as well as a pretty extensive list of failures). In more recent times, they’ve also evolved into ideal spots to get killer Instagram shots and scoff down overpriced slices of cake.
Whether you’re looking to soak up the oldest of the old on your next trip, or just want to add to your cultural vocabulary, read on to learn about some of the world’s oldest museums.
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1) The Capitoline Museums, Rome
The oldest museum in the world – now that’s an impressive title. Maybe in 5,000 years, New York’s Museum of Ice Cream will be the last cultural institution standing; its exhibits perfectly suited to survive an apocalyptic ice age. For now, at least, the historic title of the World’s Oldest Museum belongs to Rome’s Capitoline Museums, aka Musei Capitolini.
Why are the Capitoline Museums important? Well, of all the cultural halls on Earth providing protection and a platform for antique paintings and delicate artifacts, it’s Rome’s now-enormous collection of art that set the precedent for famous institutions we know of today.
Going right back to the beginning, the museum was made possible by Pope Sixtus IV. When he wasn’t masterminding the Sistine Chapel, founding the Vatican Archives, and finding cushy political jobs for family members, he carved out time to curate a collection of bronze sculptures and dedicate it to the good people of Rome.
This collection includes the Capitoline She-Wolf – a rendering of Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus suckling on a mother wolf that would become a symbol of the city – and the Colossal Head of Constantine. Both of these ancient pieces can still be found at the museum today.
Since Pope Sixtus’ act of charity in 1471, the collection has swelled, as has the museum’s importance to the preservation of Rome’s history. Set across two historic buildings, the Capitoline Museums encapsulates classic elegance and draws millions to Rome every year.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
Officially opened to the public in 1734 by Pope Clement XII (who almost certainly marked the occasion by cutting a ribbon with a giant pair of scissors), entry to the Capitoline Museums is via the grand Palazzo dei Conservatori: a 16th-century mansion which would later undergo a makeover from Michelangelo.
The museum is home to various limbs of colossal statues which are strewn here and there; powerful yet forlorn fragments, dismembered from their giant bodies at various points over the last 2,000 years. There are enormous tapestries and frescoes, as well as a bust of Medusa – mythical gorgon, and enemy of all hairdressers.
Many of the museum’s most important sculptural treasures can be found inside the Palazzo dei Conservatori, including that original set bequeathed by our old pal Sixtus. That original cast-bronze Capitoline She-Wolf is one of the most popular attractions. But, there are chiseled wonders at every turn.
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, which now decorates the Italian euro’s 50 cent coin, stands triumphantly beneath the glass ceiling of Marco Aurelio Hall.
This towering sculpture of Rome’s former emperor on horseback, which is slowly approaching its 2,000th birthday, once welcomed visitors to Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill, until a replica took its place out in the elements.
The Conservatory also boasts delicately painted masterpieces by famous men of brushes, which are found inside the Capitoline Art Gallery. That troublesome twosome, Romulus and Remus, makes another appearance in Rubens’ famous 17th-century depiction of the wolf-raised Romans. The first version of Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller, in which a mesmerized young man is sneakily relieved of an expensive piece of jewelry by a charming gypsy seer, is also displayed. Art aficionados might have seen a slightly later version of the same painting at Paris’ Musee du Louvre.
Although separated by Piazza del Campidoglio, the two buildings of the Capitoline Museums are connected via a handy underground tunnel that passes beneath the square.
Palazzo Nuovo is devoted to statues, sculptures, and busts. This area of the world’s oldest museum looks much the same as it would have done as far back as the 18th century. These marble effigies, mostly replicas of long-lost Greek statues, were often commissioned by key church figures and by noble Roman families wishing to add to their already bulging private collections.
On arrival in the courtyard, visitors are met by an ornate water feature, watched over by a sprawling recumbent statue of the bearded Oceanus, a fabled river god. Inside are various decadent rooms and galleries, as well as two of the Capitoline Museums’ most important sculptures.
An impeccable version of the Capitoline Venus, based on Praxiteles’ original Cnidian Aphrodite, stands contemplatively on a plinth inside its own private rotunda. As well as striking a pose reminiscent of every person who has ever been walked in on in the shower, this image of the nude Venus is regarded as a masterpiece of the human form. It’s an iconic piece, befitting its place at the oldest museum in the world.
Another of the Capitoline Museums’ marble marvels is the Dying Gaul, also known as the Dying Galatian or Dying Gladiator. This sculpture of a defeated, fatally wounded Galatian, thought to have been made in the 3rd-century AD, is renowned for its realism, and pays tribute to the dignity and honor of a fallen warrior.
2) The Vatican Museums, Italy
Another of the oldest museums in the world is just a Vespa-ride away from the Capitoline Museums. On the other side of the Tiber, the Vatican Museums are choc-a-bloc with art amassed over the centuries by totally minimalist and not-at-all indulgent pontiffs.
If you were into the antiquated vibe at the Capitoline Museums, then the Vatican’s vault of priceless art will be right up your aisle. If not… well, let’s just say there are plenty of other things to do in Rome next time you’re there.
The foundations for the Vatican Museums were laid when Pope Julius II purchased Laocoön and His Sons in 1506, a sculpted scene depicting a family’s struggles with a deadly sea serpent. This affecting depiction of human agony is still on display at the Vatican Museums today.
The museums are, as you probably already know, most famous for a certain frescoed ceiling painted by a certain lauded genius already mentioned in this blog.
At peak times, around 25,000 people visit the holy enclave every day, and a good percentage of those visitors miss out on some of its most fascinating cultural offerings in an understandable clamor to gaze up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
As well as Michelangelo’s most famous fresco, and the walled wonder that is The Last Judgement, it is classical sculptures and Renaissance masterpieces that the Vatican Museums are best known for. Many visitors peruse these highlight exhibits but are blissfully unaware of the artifacts from the Amazon jungle and deserts of Australia located inside the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum.
Other often-missed highlights include Caravaggio’s Desposizione, a much-heralded oil painting depicting Christ’s burial, and various gems inside the Collection of Contemporary Art. This area includes a version of Rodin’s The Thinker, as well as Van Gogh’s Pietà, a scene of Christ’s burial/cunning self-portrait by the tangerine-hued Dutchman.
There’s so much to see here, it deserves its own blog; enjoy a full guide with tips and hidden gems for Visiting the Vatican.
3) The Prado Museum, Spain
Let’s leave Italy in search of some more of the oldest museums around the world, shall we?
The columns and archways of Spain’s Neoclassical Prado Museum have stood tall in central Madrid for coming-on 250 years. King Charles III had it in mind to use this palatial building as Spain’s Natural History Cabinet. Thankfully, his grandson, King Ferdinand VII, opted to fill the halls of the Museo Nacional del Prado with priceless art instead of questionable taxidermy. (Let’s assume Ferdy was a tree-hugging animal-rights activist, based on no evidence whatsoever.)
It was 1819 before the museum and some 300 paintings were made available to the people of Madrid. The art exhibited, at what was known then as the Royal Museum of Painting, had been purchased, borrowed, and forcefully acquired across the centuries by Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs, forming the Spanish Royal Collection. Nowadays, the museum is one of some of many bonafide Madrid highlights, and for culture hunters in the Spanish capital, it should be near the top of the list. As well as being one of the oldest museums in the world, it’s also one of the largest. Its 102 rooms are identified by Roman numerals, so if things start getting a bit hazy around XL it’s worth brushing up.
The Prado Museum boasts the most comprehensive hoard of Spanish painting, which perhaps isn’t a huge surprise. But it’s also renowned for collections of Flemish and Italian artworks. Grande perros of Spanish art history, Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez are well represented. In fact, no other institution houses more of their work than the Prado.
Among their many preserved treasures are El Tres de Mayo 1808, Goya’s harrowing reminder of the cost attached to resistance and revolution, and the eternally analyzed Las Meninas, Velázquez’s mysterious, photo-like snapshot of life in the 17th-century royal court.
Courtesy of Habsburg rule over the Low Countries – Messrs Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – the museum also enjoys some of the finest works by Flemish painters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Bruegel.
For those who gravitate towards the gruesome and macabre, the latter’s gloriously grisly Triumph of Death has more skeletons than a Russian oligarch’s closet.
Representing Team Italia are canvas kings like Titian, of royal portrait notoriety, and Caravaggio, Carracci, et al. Don’t miss an early version of Caravaggio’s heralded ode to small man Syndrome, David with the Head of Goliath.
Got a taste for Spain’s oldest museum? Delve deeper with The Prado Museum: Highlights and Hidden Gems.
4) The Ashmolean Museum, UK
You can’t talk about the oldest museums in the world without discussing the UK’s contribution. No, it’s not the British Museum, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that London’s grand-old home for looted and plundered treasures was first to open its doors.
Around 50-miles west of Londinium across the Chiltern Hills, the Ashmolean Museum cites its beginnings in the 17th century, the legacy of lawyer, scholar, and all-round smarty-pants Elias Ashmole, who gifted a collection of treasures and oddities to Oxford University in 1677. Ashmole perhaps didn’t envision the museum in the modern sense of the word, but his wish to build an esteemed center for scientific research certainly encompassed the same values.
The Ashmolean chronicles 9,000 years of civilization through a rather astonishing collection of art and archaeological finds from across the globe. Enjoy the treasures of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Bengal, Persia, and other fallen cultures courtesy of precious coins, jewels, pottery, sculpture, and more.
Even the most impudent of teenage field-trippers would struggle not to be seduced by something: an iron lantern belonging to the original pyromaniac, Guy Fawkes; an authentic Stradivari violin; drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo; the finely painted coffin of a 2,000-year-old mummy; a plastered Jerichoan skull decorated with seashells; a vibrant Japanese woodblock print; a delicately engraved Roman gemstone.
The list goes on – and on, and on, and on. What’s on the show is just a minuscule selection of over a million artifacts in the museum’s possession.
One of the world’s oldest museums – and the oldest in all of France – was founded in the eastern French city of Besançon, almost a hundred years before the opening of Musee du Louvre.
It is thanks to a philanthropic abbot of Saint Vincent, Jean-Baptiste Boisot, that the seeds of a now enormous collection were sewn. His life’s collection of books, art, and other precious items was donated to the Benedictine monks of the cit, who would preserve the artifacts for the benefit of the public. These religious types are just so selfless!
Should you find yourself near the border of France and Switzerland, pop into the musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon. It is home to a whole load of world-renowned paintings and archaeological relics. Bronzino sounds like it should be the name of a maverick Brazilian footballer. Alas, you don’t become a master of 16th-century art by kicking a ball about – especially when football wasn’t even invented yet. It is safe to assume Bronzino, aka Agnolo di Cosimo, probably wasn’t the sporty type. The Florentine painter is best known for his 1545 masterpiece Deposition of Christ, one of the points of pride of the museum.
Walking through the museum is a journey through art history, one that can be enjoyed without the unavoidable crowds drawn to the renowned museums of, say, Paris. From Rodin and Picasso to Renoir and Goya, plenty of the greats have earned wall space here. Add to that a few Egyptian mummies, Gallo-Roman mosaics, and medieval sculpture, and you’ve got yourself an institution worthy of its place on the list of the oldest museums in the world.
6) The Charleston Museum, USA
Since Christopher Columbus only ‘discovered’ America in 1492, it’s perhaps a little unfair to compare the oldest museums in the US to what Pope Sixtus was doing in Rome at around the same time.
In the context of the Land of the Free we know of today, South Carolina’s Charleston Museum is as old as it gets – and it has a history that makes it a prime candidate for this selective list of the world’s oldest museums.
Established in 1773, with earnest beginnings during the American Revolution, ‘America’s First Museum’ is an eclectic collection of historic treasures. In presenting a history of the American south, it also tells a story relevant to the entire country.
From the remains of extinct megafauna that stalked the area during the Cenozoic Era to relics of Native American history and stories of slavery, you’ll struggle to find many more comprehensive overviews of American history.
Highlights of the Bunting Natural History Gallery include a 40-foot-long shark and a sloth the size of two men. Presumably, they never met in an epic battle across land and sea (but there’s only so much carbon dating can tell you). There are also mounted skeletons of Pelagornis, the largest-known species of flying bird, whose wingspans were more than double that of the Great Albatross.
Elsewhere there’s an armory full of antique weaponry, George Washington’s christening cup, biological specimens preserved in rum, and even the remains of a two-headed snake (if it hasn’t already got a name, we suggest Donald might be an appropriate choice).
7) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany
There’s a great deal of debate around who owns the title of ‘Oldest Museum in Germany’. It’s an honor that has been attributed to Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum, Berlin’s Altes Museum, and Munich’s Deutsches Museum.
As far as we can tell, they’re all charlatans. The oldest museum in Germany is the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. Dating back to 1754, it is a library of cultural riches made possible by royal wealth, this time that of Charles I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
Apart from possessing an aardvarkian nose, Charles was also adept at sniffing out priceless art for his personal collection, which he was eventually persuaded to make available to the public. The permanent collections journeys through art and sculpture from across the world spanning the last 3,000 years. The big names of Northern European art are its biggest draw, with paintings by the likes of Cranach, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, and Vermeer being the museum’s highlights.
Rubens’ utterly terrifying Judith with the Head of Holofernes is renowned as a Baroque masterpiece, even if it should come with a parental guidance warning. Heroine or murderer? Maybe both? You decide, we can’t look at it anymore!
An off-the-wall highlight includes the museum’s Kunstkammer, a gallery of antique peculiarities modeled on the traditional cabinets, or wunderkammers, of the European aristocracy. See the tusk of a Narwhal (which was long-billed as a unicorn’s horn), a 17th-century prosthetic arm, ostrich eggs, and the obligatory collection of magical stones.