Museums began as “cabinets of curiosity” in wealthy people’s homes who could afford to collect items of rare historical or scientific value and share them with their friends. Then, universities and other research institutions began displaying some of their collections, often still only for private viewing by special appointment but also increasingly for the general public as time wore on. And slowly, other institutions opened for the general public to view and learn about their collections.
Originally, these museums for the general public had a specific goal: teach the general public about a specific topic that this institution was the expert on. You might call it a “white tower” institution of intellectuals or one in which its sole purpose was to “fill the empty vessel of the public with knowledge.” These museums focused solely on presenting information with often no interactive elements or space for the audience to share their views, presenting a one-sided, top-down approach.
However, in the past few decades, a change has been occurring in the museum world, with an ever-growing focus on community, interactivity, and cross-directional learning. Museums began allowing visitors to touch items inside their walls and interact with them to understand the concepts better. Museums started asking audiences to share their experiences and even leave them on display for other visitors. Today, museums serve as community gathering places with the goal of sharing knowledge on specific topics. There are different types of museums, each with its own areas of focus and its preferred way of presenting information to the public.
- Types of Museums
- Art Museums
- History Museums
- Science/Technology Museums
- Natural History Museums
- Children’s Museums
- General/Hybrid/Encyclopedic Museums
- Special Interest Museums
- Mobile/Pop-up Museums
- Most Popular Types Of Museums
Types of Museums
There are several different types of museums around the world today, each focusing on different topics and subtopics. In general, the different types of museums include the following:
These museums focus on art, sometimes of a particular style, medium, region, era, or another theme, but sometimes the focus is broad, including multiple styles and media. These may also be called galleries instead of museums. The most popular/ best art museums include:
1- The Louvre
The Louvre is the world’s most popular museum, with an average of over 9 million visitors yearly and over 500,000 pieces of art.
Featuring some of the most famous artworks in the world, including the “Venus de Milo” and, of course, the Mona Lisa, this museum is a must-see both for the amazing art and the building itself being a former castle and the iconic glass pyramid.
The Louvre is at Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France. It’s so busy that you’ll need to book a timed entrance ticket if you don’t want to stand in line for hours.
2- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met in New York City is one of the world’s finest art museums and it’s also the largest, with about 6 million visitors per year and more than 2 million works of art.
It’s one of those museums that has so much to see, you’ll need a guided tour to get your bearings.
The Met is at 1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY, 10028.
3- The Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A is the world’s largest design, applied arts and decorative arts museum, with over 2.3 million objects.
It draws about 3.3. million visitors per year and focuses on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s love and patronage of the arts and sciences.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is at Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, United Kingdom.
4- The Tate Modern
This museum features masterpieces of international modern art, including those by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
Drawing almost 5 million visitors annually, it’s one of the finest art museums in the world.
It has become such an icon of London that most river cruises include a mention of the Tate in their commentary.
The Tate Modern is at Bankside, London SE1 9TG, United Kingdom.
5- The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art draws over 4 million visitors per year who flock there to see more than 130,000 works focusing on the development of Western Art.
It houses the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, Ginevra de’ Benci. This is another art museum that has so much to take in that a guided tour will help.
The National Gallery of Art is on Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC 20565.
6- The National Gallery
The National Gallery in London focuses on Western European paintings with over 2,300 artworks, including da Vinci, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Monet.
It draws over 6 million visitors per year on average.
The National Gallery is at Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, United Kingdom.
Different types of museums around the world:
History museums focus on remembering and honouring the past, often with a specific focus on a particular time period, area, or even individuals.
These include historic houses and historical societies with exhibits open to the public.
Military and war museums, such as those relating to the World Wars, are also quite common.
Living history museums are a particularly interesting subsection in which live performers immerse visitors in historic experiences such as crafts, often in historical buildings.
The most popular history museums include:
7- The National Museum of American History
This iconic museum is part of the Smithsonian complex.
It features over 3 million artifacts from the history of America, including Lincoln’s top hat from the night of the assassination and the flag that Francis Scott Key drew inspiration from to write what became the national anthem.
Attracting almost 5 million visitors a year, it’s one of the world’s most popular history museums.
The National Museum of American History is at 1300 Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC 20560.
8- The Acropolis Museum
This Athens icon focuses on the archaeological findings of the Acropolis of Athens from the Greek Bronze Age, the Roman period, and Byzantine Greece.
It has a glass floor gallery that allows visitors to view the continuing excavation of the site.
The Acropolis Museum is at Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, Athens, Greece.
9- Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum
The mausoleum showcases the excavated terracotta warriors that Emperor Qin commissioned to accompany him in the afterlife, along with other historical artifacts.
Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum is in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, 710612.
Science museums are often broad, focusing on various subsections, including paleontology (dinosaurs), physics, biology, engineering, technology, meteorology, astronomy, aeronautics, and more.
Today, they are often known for being some of the most interactive museums with hands-on activities and discovery, though other types of museums have increased their interactive offerings as well.
These may also be called science or discovery centres instead of museums.
Zoos, aquaria, and other similar animal-based educational centres are sometimes grouped under the science museum banner.
The most popular/ best science and technology museums include:
10- The National Air and Space Museum
This museum is part of the Smithsonian complex and features historical and interactive experiences regarding human flight and spaceflight.
With about 7 million visitors annually, it regularly ranks as one of the world’s best and most popular museums.
It is at 600 Independence Avenue South West, Washington DC 20560.
11- The Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
Drawing about 3.5 million visitors a year since its relatively recent opening in 2001, it focuses on the popularization of science and the intersection of nature, humanity and technology.
The Shanghai Science and Technology Museum is at 2000 Shiji Boulevard, Pudong, Shanghai, China, 201204.
12- The China Science and Technology Museum
This museum features ancient Chinese technology, including astronomical devices, the compass, and bronze smelting, along with more modern technology, including the spacesuits of Yang Liwei, the first Chinese person to go to space.
The China Science and Technology Museum is at Bei Jing Shi, Chaoyang, 100101, China.
13- The Science Museum
The Science Museum was founded in 1857 and now attracts 3.3 million visitors each year.
It focuses on sharing and inspiring scientific, technological, and medical advancement.
The Science Museum is at Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD, United Kingdom.
Natural History Museums
Natural History Museums blend history and science, often focusing on paleontology, biology, and cultural history. For instance, you might find exhibits on ice age animals, the people who lived in this region during a specific time period and live animal exhibits.
Maritime museums could be listed under natural history or special interest as they focus on marine-based history, culture, or archaeology, such as a shipwreck museum.
The most popular/ best natural history museums include:
14- The National Museum of Natural History
This US museum draws an average of 8 million visitors a year with over 126 million specimens and cultural artifacts, including the Hope Diamond.
The National Museum of Natural History is at 10th Street & Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC 20560.
15- The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum in London opened in 1881 and focuses on telling the 4.5-billion-year history from the beginning of our solar system to today with 80 million artifacts.
Drawing 5.25 million visitors annually, the Natural History Museum is at Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD, United Kingdom.
16- The American Museum of Natural History
Across from Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History focuses on the intersection of human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.
It has over 33 million specimens, including fossils, plants, animals, and minerals as well as human remains and cultural artifacts.
The American Museum of Natural History is at 200 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024.
While many museums have children as their main audience, children’s museums focus entirely on creating exploratory interactive experiences for their youngest visitors.
There will often be areas that feature role-playing (like at the grocery store or different careers), sensory experiences (like water areas), art (like finger painting), animals, and engineering to help them learn through play.
The most popular/ best children’s museums include:
17- The Strong National Museum of Play
This museum features 100,000 square feet of play featuring exhibitions such as Sesame Street, a butterfly garden, and the Toy Hall of Fame.
The Strong is at 1 Manhattan Square Dr, Rochester, NY 14607.
18- The Papalote Museo Del Niño
This children’s museum utilizes science, technology, and art for children to learn and explore.
Featuring artwork by children on the walls and ceiling as well as an IMAX theatre and a build-your-own radio station, the museum creates an unforgettable experience for children.
The Papalote Museo Del Niño is located at Av Constituyentes 268, Bosque de Chapultepec II Secc, Miguel Hidalgo, 11840 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico.
19- The Musée Des Enfants
This museum in Brussels focuses on children’s exploration of the world without technology, focusing on “old-school” toys and real-person interactions.
The Musée Des Enfants is located at 3805 Bd du Curé-Labelle, Laval, QC H7P 0A5, Canada.
There are also many museums that feature wings of exhibits on different topics, such as natural history wings, art wings, and science wings.
These may be state/ city/ regional/ national museums that take advantage of the opportunity to build multiple museums in one essentially, or simply museums that wish to focus on various topics.
The most popular/ best general, hybrid, or encyclopedic museums include:
20- The National Museum of China
The National Museum of China focuses on educating the world about the arts and history of China.
It has consistently been in the top couple of museums worldwide in recent years, boasting about 7.5 million visitors yearly.
The National Museum of China is at 16 East Chang’an St, Dongcheng, China, 100051.
21- The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums feature art and historical artifacts relating to the papacy and Catholic history.
With about 5.5 million visitors per year, it attracts people around the world, primarily, but not exclusively of the Catholic faith, who yearn to understand this institution and its history.
The Vatican Museums are located at 00120 Vatican City in Italy and are usually visited along with the Sistine Chapel.
22- The British Museum
This famous museum draws an average of 6.7 million visitors a year.
It was the world’s first national public museum, founded in 1753 and is home to historical and artistic artifacts from around the world, including the Rosetta Stone.
The British Museum is located at Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, United Kingdom.
23- The National Palace Museum
Taipei’s National Palace Museum features Chinese art, and historical and religious objects.
It is sometimes confused with the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, Beijing, which makes sense since they used to be combined.
The National Palace Museum averages 4.4 million visitors annually and is at No. 221, Sec 2, Zhi Shan Rd, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111.
Special Interest Museums
While often not considered an official type of museum, these museums focus on one very specific idea that doesn’t quite fit into the other categories or a museum of a particular company.
While they could be considered historical or hybrid museums of a very niche topic, some consider them a category of their own.
Some examples of popular special interest museums include:
24- The International Spy Museum
This museum tells the history of espionage, how it’s been enacted, and its role in today’s world.
It is a relatively new museum, opening in 2002, and welcomes about 600,000 visitors a year.
The International Spy Museum is at 700 L’Enfant Plaza South West, Washington, DC 20024.
25- The Corning Museum of Glass
This specialist museum tells the story of the art, history and science of glass.
Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated) opened the museum in 1951 to show glass in a new light.
While there is much about the history and science behind the company, the museum focuses on glass throughout history, art, and science, providing a unique experience for visitors, even allowing them to make their own glass pieces and see master glassmakers at work.
The Corning Museum of Glass is at 1 Museum Way, Corning, New York, 14830.
26- The Heineken Experience
This popular museum in Amsterdam tells the history of the brewing company Heineken and is very popular, bringing in about 1.2 million visitors a year from 2016 to 2019.
The pandemic has impacted numbers since then, but it is on the mend again.
The Heineken Experience is at Stadhouderskade 78, 1072 AE Amsterdam, Netherlands.
These are nontraditional, relatively new museum experiences with no permanent location.
This type of museum may be housed in a vehicle that can travel to different prescribed locations or a collection of items that travel from one temporary space to another.
They have become very popular in today’s culture and many cities, especially the big ones, have pop-up or mobile museums that can easily be found on the Internet.
The most popular/ best mobile or pop-up museums include:
27- The Museum of Ice Cream
It opened in July 2016 as an interactive art exhibition on ice cream and other sweets that asked the audience to think about food and colour in different ways and greatly harnessed the power of social media.
It opened in New York City (selling 30,000 tickets in the first five days), but since then has also travelled to other big cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco.
28- The Color Factory
It’s a pop-up interactive art exhibition themed around the concept of colour.
It opened in 2017 in San Francisco and ran for eight and a half months.
Currently, it is running in New York City, Chicago and Houston.
29- The Museum of Illusions
This popular museum focuses on the fun and lessons learned from carnival experiences like Fun House Mirrors and other illusions.
Started in 2015 in Croatia, it now has locations in more than 30 cities around the globe (including Orlando, Philadelphia and Miami) and is continuing to expand.
A type of museum that is a fantastical wonderland of candy, creating an ethereal sensory experience similar to that of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
They are currently located in New York and Houston.
31- Centre Pompidou Mobile Museum
The Centre Pompidou in Paris is one of the most famous art museums in the world with 3.75 million visitors a year.
The museum created a mobile museum consisting of only 6,996 square feet (650 square meters) to share different exhibitions with several cities throughout France and a new location in Southern Spain. Check it out here.
Most Popular Types Of Museums
Each type of museum can be very enjoyable and popular, particularly depending on the individual museum’s design, creativity, exhibits, and experiences. Art, history, science, and general museums are equally distributed among the top 10 to 20 most popular museums worldwide, implying that all subjects can be equally popular.
Many modern museums have become very creative in developing interactive experiences that astonish visitors, especially utilising new technology such as virtual reality or immersive experiences.
The more niche the museum, the harder it can often be to bring in a larger crowd each year. However, if it is the only museum of its type in the world, this can provide notoriety and, therefore, popularity.
For example, a shipwreck museum may struggle to bring in people, but the only museum dedicated to the Titanic may be very popular.
Science and Art museums are often most popular among families or other groups of a variety of ages.
Children’s museums are perhaps the most demographic-specific, popular with families but often excluding other age demographics if they do not have children.
At an estimated number of 55,000 around the world, museums provide a community space for sharing knowledge both from the experts at the museum to the public and between members of the public. They provide an opportunity to learn about different elements of history, art, and science as well as the human condition.