1YoT: Best Art and Museum Pieces

In addition to food, nature, sightseeing, and so on, Inna and I are also art and culture lovers. As such, we visited numerous museums and other art/culture destinations on our trip, and in this post we will describe the best pieces we saw.

Before we begin, we should mention the museums we visited and did not visit. We mostly visited free/inexpensive museums, the exceptions being the ones in New York City, as they were musts in our book. In total, we visited:

  • The Smithsonian, the Met, MoMA, the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, the 9/11 Museum, Flight 93 Memorial, Indian Museum of North America, Museum of Flight, and Fenway’s season ticket-holder clubhouse in the US
  • Versailles, Mont Saint-Michel, and the American Cemetery in France
  • The Uffizi, Accademia, and Duomo Museum in Italy
  • The Hunt Museum, Famine Village, and Cork City Gaol in Ireland
  • The Secret Annex and Dutch Design Week in the Netherlands
  • Prague Castle, Cesky Krumlov Castle, and Sedlec Ossuary in Czechia
  • A book exhibit in Slovenia
  • Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia
  • Museum of Terror in Hungary
  • Rynek Underground Exhibit and Old Synagogue in Poland
  • Babi Yar, National Museum of the History of Ukraine During the Second World War, Pharmacy Museum, and Glass Museum in Ukraine
  • Elephanta Caves, Udaipur City Palace, Mehrangarh Fort, Umaid Bhawan Palace, Amber Fort, Jantar Mantar, Jaipur City Palace, and Agra Fort in India
  • Wat Phra Kaew in Thailand
  • War Remnants Museum, Cu Chi Tunnels, My Lai Memorial and Museum, Hue Imperial City and the Museum of Royal Antiquities, Vietnamese Military History Museum, Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison, and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Vietnam (wow, so many here!)
  • KL Butterfly Park and the Batu Caves in Malaysia
  • Yogyakarta Palace in Indonesia
  • The National Gallery of Victoria, Sculpture by the Sea, the National Opal Collection, and a book exhibit at the State Library of Victoria in Australia
  • The Canterbury Museum in New Zealand

Wow! Sixty! So many! Unfortunately, despite all we visited above, we did miss the following spectacular museums from cities we visited:

  • Every museum in the Seattle Center (too expensive)
  • The Art Institute of Chicago (we thought it was a school, otherwise we would have gone)
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (arrived too close to closing)
  • Some of the Smithsonian buildings (not enough time)
  • The Guggenheim (too expensive and not enough time)
  • The Louvre and Orsay (too expensive and we’ve visited them before)
  • Milan’s Santa Maria del Grazie (too expensive)
  • Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum (too expensive)
  • Schonbrunn Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum, and Albertina in Vienna (too expensive)
  • Auschwitz (visited before)
  • Te Papa in Wellington (closed due to the Kaikoura earthquake)
  • A temporary Banksy exhibit in Melbourne (too expensive)

Obviously, had we visited the above museums, some of their works would be listed below (Mona Lisa, Last Supper, Venus de Milo, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande, American Gothic, Nighthawks, and that’s just from three of the museums above). But we didn’t so they aren’t, and so, without further ado, here are the top art and museum pieces we saw on our year of travel:

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Crazy Horse, Korczak Ziolkowski, USA

Crazy Horse was so inspiring, it is incredible. Basically, a renowned sculptor was asked to carve a tribute to Native Americans, but upon reviewing the mountain, the sculptor realized he couldn’t create a proper tribute unless he carved the whole mountain. He started with no money and minimal resources, but 50 years later, the project is still going strong.

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The Wright Flyer, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, USA

We knew the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum had some incredible pieces (Spirit of St. Louis, Bell X1, Apollo 11 capsule, SpaceShipOne, and so on) but we didn’t know they had the actual plane the Wright Brothers flew their first flight in. I’m amazed that this plane even still exists, let alone that it is in such good condition! 

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The Star-Spangled Banner Flag, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, USA

The Smithsonian’s American history museum was very lackluster, minus one exhibit: the flag that inspired the star-spangled banner. Seeing this War of 1812 flag, you can definitely tell where “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there” came from. It was an incredibly powerful sight.

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The Statue of Liberty, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, USA

When Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty, his goal was to create the greatest work of art in the world. He did this for US’s centennial, celebrating one hundred years of American liberty while also calling out the lack of it in France. And with the help of some others (namely Gustav Eiffel, the same guy who built the Eiffel Tower), he surpassed all expectations. The Statue of Liberty is spectacular, an incredibly moving and powerful piece, not just for its size but for what it represents: freedom, liberty, welcomeness, opportunity. All the values that the US was founded on; all the values that made it what it is today. 

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Washington Crossing The Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA

Here’s another great American history piece, this one a little propagandistic but who cares. This painting depicts one of the greatest moments in America’s founding, and clearly shows not only why the US won the revolution, but also why it deserved to.

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Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, Museum of Modern Art, USA

This is probably the most famous modern art piece in the world. It is also my personal favorite, so I knew we had to see it. And the painting did not disappoint. The only disappointing aspect was how crowded it was, we visited during MoMA’s free Thursday evening and the museum was packed, with more people surrounding this painting than any other piece. 

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Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, Museum of Modern Art, USA

What is the point of art? Why does it exist? Why are soup can paintings worth millions despite their complete lack of utility, while an actual soup can, one that is almost worthless, contains utility so valuable (food) it could save your life. These are the questions Warhol asks with these paintings, questions that make what would otherwise be dull works fascinating. 

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Audio stories, National September 11 Memorial & Museum, USA

Sometime after 9/11, audio recollections were collected by this museum. But instead of simply replaying them, the accounts were cut into stories: an observation from one, then an experience from another, and so on. The results were incredibly harrowing stories, ones that we could have spent all day listening to.

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Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France

Versailles is such an amazing place, the whole palace representative of the power of France. And without a doubt the most beautiful place in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors, the former and sometimes current hall for the state’s most important functions. For us however, France’s state functions don’t mean much; we were mostly struck by the grandeur of this place.

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David, Michelangelo, Galleria dell’Accademia, Italy

There are three replicas of Michelangelo’s David around Florence, including one that stands in the place this one originally stood. Seeing those statues, you wonder: how much more impressive can the actual David be? Infinitely more is the answer. There’s something special about this piece: it makes not just David seem powerful and great, but viewer as well. Whatever creates that effect is subtle and intangible, and it is also what made Michelangelo Michelangelo. 

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The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Italy

Here is another classic Renaissance piece, probably the greatest one that wasn’t made by Da Vinci or Michelangelo. Inna loves this painting, as do most women, probably because of the dreamlike and idealized yet also unsexualized (or as Inna puts it: sexualized but not sexualized) depiction of the women in it.

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Roman mosaics, unknown, Basilica de San Vitale, Italy

We had no idea Ravenna was known for mosaics, let alone that they had the greatest ones in the world. Seeing them gave us new appreciation for this art form, one that continued all across our journey around the world.

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Chandelier made out of human bone, Frantisek Rint, Sedlec Ossuary, Czechia

The Sedlec Ossuary is just plain weird, home to probably the most macabre works of art in the world. Most impressive was its centerpiece: a giant chandelier made solely out of human bone, just like everything else in this place. 

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Veit Stoss Altarpiece, Veit Stoss, St. Mary’s Basilica, Poland

This work, the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world, is a natural treasure of Poland and has been instrumental in helping the Polish retain their identity. “Retaining Polish identity” is actually more significant than it sounds, and not just because the Nazis tried to wipe the Polish off the earth, but even before that there was a good 120 years when Poland ceased to exist!

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Vrihat Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar, India

Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar was so cool, unlike any place I’ve ever been. The place was like a giant math and physics celebration, except that other than the sundials, everything here went way over my head. I at least understood the sundials, like the one pictured left, the largest sundial in the world. Using the shadows created by that construction, you can tell time to an accuracy of two seconds!

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Machines and weapons of the Vietnam War, Vietnam

Nowhere did we find more items for one event than Vietnam and the Vietnam War. Every city seemed to have tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, etc. on display, and in Hue they were even right out in the open! As for the museums, they were filled with guns, bombs, and other smaller war objects. Even Vietnam’s Military History Museum, founded in the 1950s, was 90+% the Vietnam War.

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S21, Cambodia

S21 was brutal, probably the most difficult place of anywhere we’ve visited. The most powerful aspects of this place were the paintings on display (created by a survivor of this camp) and our guide, who survived a camp just like this one. Others in our guide’s family did not, and at one point she got teary eyed, that’s how emotional this place was. 

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Insects of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park, Malaysia

To the left are Attacus Atlases, also known as snake headed moths. These moths, which are already crazy due to their size, feature a snake head on their wingtips, a pattern that helps them survive, as predators mistake them for snakes and stay away. The insect exhibit at Kuala Lumpur’s Butterfly Park was filled with cool stuff like this, although this one was the coolest.

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Bulgari jewelry, temporary exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

Of all the exhibits in all the museums all over the world, this one blew us away the most. These jewels were so gorgeous; looking at them was like viewing wonder in a tangible form. I was awestruck by the beauty of these jewels, and I’m pretty sure Inna had a spiritual experience. 

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Bird Hall, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

New Zealand is a bird paradise, and outside of spotting them in the wild (which we did plenty of on our roadtrip), the best place to view them is at the Bird Hall in the Canterbury Museum. I think I counted something like 160 different species in this exhibit, each one native to New Zealand!

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Street art around the world

The world is filled with great artists and thankfully their voices are loud and strong. Nowhere is this more obvious than with street art, which we found and enjoyed all over the world.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The original Boeing barn and the first plane built specifically for Air Force One duties (USA)
  • Mt Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum (USA)
  • Everything at the Smithsonian, especially in the Natural History and Air and Space Museums (USA)
  • Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cezanne, Metropolitan Museum of Art (USA)
  • Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, Museum of Modern Art (USA)
  • Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gardens, outside the Massachusetts State House (USA)
  • Baseballs signed by every World Series winning team, Fenway Park (USA)
  • One of the coins Judas was paid to betray Jesus, Hunt Museum (Ireland)
  • Everything in the Museum of Broken Relationships (Croatia)
  • Mother Motherland Statue, Yevgeny Vuchetich (Ukraine)
  • Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew (Thailand)
  • S21 paintings, S21 (Cambodia)
  • Public statues in Bali (Indonesia)
  • Tian Tan Buddha (Hong Kong)
  • Nessie, a pliosaur fossil that is ~50% opal, the National Opal Collection (Australia)
  • Triple Crown Special Bike and Winged Wheel, Canterbury Museum (New Zealand)
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