Writers from Tim Winton to Ali Smith and Julian Barnes provide their personal tour of some of the world's best-loved museums in this new collection.
"Museums are the places in which we can discover the past, reflect on our understanding of the world and gain insights that will guide us into the future," writes Nicholas Serota, the outgoing director of London's Tate art galleries, in the foreword to Treasure Galleries.
Subtitled "Great Writers Visit Great Museums", this collection of short essays – edited by British writer Maggie Fergusson – brings this brilliantly simple idea to life through the talents of writers including Ali Smith, Julian Barnes, Margaret Drabble and Alan Hollinghurst.
The pieces were originally commissioned for a series in the UK's Intelligent Life magazine (published by the Economist and now known as 1843). Given these British origins, the choice of museums understandably focuses on Europe, although institutions in the US and even Afghanistan are included, along with Tim Winton's reflections on the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
For the traveller, one of the great pleasures of this book is stumbling on favourites from around the globe and seeing them through another's eyes – whether it's Frank Cottrell-Boyce on Oxford's enjoyably idiosyncratic Pitt Rivers Museum of anthropology, or Ann Oatchett on the glories of the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Massachusetts.
Then there are the essays that'll have you adding museums both large and small to your travel list, from Ann Wroe on Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in England's Lake District and Aminatta Forna on the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb in Croatia, to John Lanchester on the Prado in Madrid, Andrew O'Hagan on Kelvingrove in Glasgow and Don Paterson on the Frick Collection in New York. And then there are the museums that you may well never visit – notably the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, which features in a piece by Rory Stewart.
The real strength of Treasure Galleries, however, isn't just to catalogue the range of historic and artistic gems available to us, but to vividly illustrate what museums can mean to us on an individual level, from Allison Pearson recounting a youthful visit to the Musee Rodin in Paris to Roddy Doyle walking in the footsteps of an immigrant woman at New York City's Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Indeed, it's a timely reminder of the ways these places dedicated to history and art can, at their best, help to forge empathy and understanding across barriers of time and place.
Pictured at top: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View
- Treasure Palaces is published by Profile Books ($29.99).