Exclusive invite to the world’s best and most bizarre museums

Travelling Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 18 May 2020

Can’t travel? Here’s how you can still step inside the world’s most fascinating museums.

Always wanted to visit the Guggenheim in New York or to wander through London's Victoria and Albert Museum? Just because travel plans have been put on hold, it doesn't mean you can't tick some galleries off your global bucket list.

The world’s great museums have dusted off their treasures to showcase them online in new and innovative ways, from digital 3-D collections to virtual tours. And it’s not just conventional institutions getting visitors through their online doors.

From artistic masterpieces, to toilets, spies and shoes, here’s our guide to some of the magnificent and obscure virtual visits on offer.

Uffizi gallery courtyard

Escape to the Uffizi Gallery from your couch.

11 of the world's best museums to visit virtually

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, United States

See a skeleton of a woolly mammoth, Komodo dragon or the tooth of a prehistoric megatooth shark as you’ve never seen them before with the Smithsonian’s 3-D digitisations, which allow you to explore these creatures from all angles – even from inside. There’s something Jules Verne-esque about going deep inside the tunnel-like spaces inside the vertebrae of a Komodo dragon, and it’s only by flipping the image of a tooth from the Carcharocles megalodon upside down that you’d ever know this prehistoric shark that swam the oceans up to 23 million years ago had a tooth cavity. You’d never be able to see it in a static display. 

To make things easier for at-home researchers, the Smithsonian has an excellent guide to using its online resources, including how to access its 2.8 million images of natural history artefacts and specimens or how to use its ocean portal to discover the anatomy of marine creatures. 

Ever fancied yourself following in the footsteps of TV’s forensic anthropologist Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan? The Written in Bone section helps you analyse human bones by showing cases where scientists answer questions about life and death using skeletons from colonial burials as the clues.

There are numerous virtual tours, including an exhibition on the 2010 Chilean mining accident in which 33 miners were trapped underground for 69 days. The tours provide a helpful ‘?’ button, as well as directional pointers. These tours are less clunky than many on offer but the lack of visitors in spaces normally populated by crowds is a little eerie. Visit: naturalhistory.si.edu.

Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia, and Los Angeles, United States

When love breaks down, even the most banal objects can take on poignant meaning. That’s the premise of this fascinating museum founded in Croatia in 2006 by Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic in the aftermath of their own painful breakup. The crowd-sourced museum showcases thousands of everyday objects and bitter, sweet and often hilarious stories of love gone wrong across its museums in Zagreb and Los Angeles, and now you can indulge in a little breakup voyeurism from the comfort of home, through their online gallery. The Toaster of Vindication has a picture of a toaster with the commentary: “When I moved out … I took the toaster. That'll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?” Visit: brokenships.com.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, United States

New York City and its magnificent museums might be off the travel agenda for some time, but you can still explore one of the city’s most recognisable public institutions at home. Start with a photographic tour of the modernist Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building and listen to podcasts about the building’s history and its iconic spiral ramps. 

Then immerse yourself in the collection itself which includes works by the great artists of the past 150 years including such masters as Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas and Andy Warhol, and watch short videos featuring artists who have recently exhibited explaining their works and philosophies.

Online resources for families, teachers and the disabled include audio descriptions of works in its permanent collection for the visually impaired and videos with descriptions in sign language for the hearing impaired. Visit: guggenheim.org.

Statue of David at the Uffizi Gallery

Uffizi Gallery.

Dinosaur skeleton in foyer of Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum.

Elephant statue at Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum, Reykjavík, Iceland

It’s a must-see for visitors to Iceland, but now Reykjavik’s Penis Museum is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Its virtual offering includes a photographic gallery of more than 200 penises, belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals found in Iceland – including man. Four homo sapiens exhibits were gifted and there’s an option to leave your own legacy. 

For the curious, the online gallery of photographs catalogues the ancient scientific study of phallology, or penis studies, showing the private parts of everything from whales to polar bears.

The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, New South Wales

If, after weeks in tracksuit pants and Ugg boots you’re craving a little fashion inspiration, why not do a virtual tour of Powerhouse Museum’s Step into Paradise exhibition featuring the talents of Australian designer legends Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson?

Two of Australian fashion’s original influencers, their friendship, garments, textiles and artworks span more than 40 years and helped define Aussie style. Take a quick virtual walk through this colourful exhibition, and then zero in on some of their stunning works in this photographic display, or read up about their history.

There are plenty more online treasures from the Powerhouse, also known as the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, from pompom-making tutorials with artist Rosie Deacon to videos profiling some of our most talented Indigenous artists. Visit: maas.museum.

The International Spy Museum, Washington DC, United States

This Washington DC attraction claiming to have the world’s largest collection of international espionage artefacts now offers a ‘spy on us from home’ program including virtual fieldtrips, such as a simulation of the Cuban missile crisis.

Get the kids involved with intriguing activities such as making invisible ink or cracking secret codes. For serious conspiracy theorists there’s a collection of real-life stories from former intelligence professionals as well as photographs of their tools, including a tobacco pipe pistol used during World War II.

Each week there’s a SpyCast podcast featuring interviews and programs with ex-spies, intelligence experts and espionage scholars. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

Often referred to as England’s attic for its eclectic collection of treasures, London’s  V&A portal is the place to head to satisfy those iso-inspired shoe-shopping cravings. With a trove of 2000 shoes spanning more than 2000 years, the museum’s photographic shoe collection features everything from a pair of 16th-century Venetian platform shoes to the 1993 Vivienne Westwood numbers they inspired. 

V&A boffins looked at the history of shoes chronologically, charting shoe height, heel shape and materials,  and found that everything old is new again. 

And for more fashion inspiration check out the photographic gallery of the museum’s collection of extraordinary creations by the late, great Alexander McQueen. 

Person wandering through gallery in Croatia

Museum of Broken Relationships.

Lipstick pistol

A lipstick pistol at the International Spy Museum.

Woman with face paint

Atong Atem's To Be Real at Melbourne's Immigration Museum.

American Research Center, Cairo, Egypt

Indiana Jones wannabes never had it so easy. Stay at home and virtually tour the last resting place of an ancient Egyptian official, Menna, whose tomb is in the Theban Necropolis in the Egyptian city of Luxor. You can zoom in on walls painted with scenes of Menna’s funeral procession. Pop-up information screens describe the paintings and their meanings while also presenting a mystery. Why was Menna’s face scratched out in every painting? Ancient Egyptians believed the soul inhabited a painted figure and defacing it ‘deactivated’ it, so who had Menna offended

You can also learn more about Egyptology and archaeology through a series of virtual expert lectures.  

Museums Victoria, three locations, Melbourne

The doors may be closed but Victoria’s three museums, the Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and Scienceworks, are open online.

If you want a glimpse into the leading design talents of tomorrow try Melbourne Museum’s Top Designs exhibit showcasing the top secondary-student designs in disciplines including photography, film, print, textiles, furnishing, systems engineering, theatre, creative digital media and visual communications.

You can also virtually tour the old Spotswood pumping station or delve into the Immigration Museum’s online collections.

Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Florence’s pre-eminent art museum has a social media network almost as impressive as its collections, with 500,000 Instagram followers, 50,000 Facebook followers, and it has now joined the video-sharing platform TikTok to attract a younger audience.

It has opened its virtual gallery with maps of its rooms so you can select which collection you want to see. 

Its Leonardo Room features works by Leonardo da Vinci such as the Annunciation where Archangel Gabriel kneels before the Virgin Mary offering a lily, as well as works by other artists from the 15th century. And of course, there’s arguably the museum’s greatest drawcard – Sandro Botticelli’s iconic The Birth of Venus commissioned by the powerful 16th-century Medici family. Zoom in on this work and admire her alabaster form.

Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, New Delhi, India

If the great toilet-roll hoarding frenzy that swept Australia as the COVID-19 crisis took hold started you thinking about the importance of the humble lavatory in daily life, you might be interested in checking out this Indian curiosity. Founded by Indian sociologist Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the International Museum of Toilets charts the evolution of lavatories and sanitation. The online portal has three virtual tours of its collection including golden thrones once used by Roman emperors. The virtual tours require Adobe Flash Player to view on your computer but there are many other online resources, such as a written history of the loo.

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