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International Museum of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

While I might like to pretend that this instalment of my annual awards serves to highlight some museums you may want to look out for when on your travels, it is actually invented purely to allow me to show off where I’ve been on holiday in the last 12 months.

There were two runners up…

KGB Museum, Vilnius (Lithuania)
Housed in the former home of the KGB in Lithuania, this building has an ominous presence in the centre of Vilnius. The displays present a balanced (well, as balanced as you can get in a country occupied so many times) view of the nation’s experience of the Second World War and the political aftermath for eastern Europe. And the text is in English, which is great! There are some great objects from the Soviet era.

But perhaps most impressive – and certainly most chilling – are the basement cells where inmates were imprisoned, tortured and executed. If you’ve been to the House of Terror in Budapest, this is the next on the list for you.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Minsk (Belarus)
Minsk itself is a new experience for many people in so many ways – a Stalinist ideal of what a city looks like. Minsk has been described by various people as ‘where communist architecture works’ and you get a sense of this walking around the city. And this museum is no exception.

Inside the interpretation is all in Russian or Belorussian, so the interpretive layering of information was almost lost on me. But with some basic knowledge we managed to find our way around pretty well. There are some rather exciting dioramas and some great set pieces. Perhaps my favourite part is the orange stained glass window in – pure socialist-realist iconography at work.
It’s a little confusing, but well worth visiting if you’re in the city.

And when you’re done, get a hot (or boozy) drink at Моя английская бабушка (My English Granny) nearby, opposite the British Embassy.

And the winner is

Neues Museum, Berlin (Germany)
Wow, just wow.

I’ve seen some museum buildings in my time, and I’ve visited plenty of cultural institutions which have had architectural interventions breathe life into them (think British Museum, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Royal Academy) but the renovations to the Neues Museum really are enormously impressive. I’m a good 6ft2in, but I felt utterly swamped by this building – like a tiny ant crawling up the side of a rock.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who’s thinking of visiting, but the structural interventions into this historic building have been done with care and sensitivity. And the way the building has been thought out makes the objects it contains make sense.
I was working on a project about Amarna Egypt at the time I visited in October 2011, so I was pleased to see the objects relating to that period, but surely the star of the show has to be Nefertiti herself, presiding over a whole wing of the museum on one of the upper floors.

We didn’t really have enough time when we visited, so I’d say allow a good couple of hours if you want to take in both the amazing building and the world-class collection of Egyptian, classical antiquities and prehistoric German material.

Next year’s award in this category is likely to be even more exotic as I’ve just booked an incredibly exciting and geeky holiday, which makes our trip to Lithuania and Belarus look like a weekend in the Cotswolds! Come back in December 2012 for an update.

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