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Before museums existed, there were private collections, or “cabinets of curiosities,” displaying artifacts and wonders from near and far for others to inspect and admire. The oldest such collection we know of was discovered in 1925 in a former palace in modern-day Iraq, and dates back to Babylonians who lived 2,500 years ago. Beginning in Renaissance Italy, museums have since popped up all around the globe, offering the general public rich glimpses into the history, cultures, arts, crafts, anthropology, and evolution of ages past. Here are 11 of the world’s oldest museums still welcoming visitors today.
Prado Museum (Madrid, Spain)
This ornate art institution was founded in 1785 by King Charles III of Spain, and then opened to the public in 1819. The Prado is renowned for its vast collection of spectacular, large-scale, painted European masterpieces by El Greco, Raphael, Tintoretto, Velázquez, and Goya, among others.
Charleston Museum (Charleston, South Carolina)
Established in 1773 and widely regarded as the oldest museum in America, this institution offers a comprehensive look at the colorful, complex history of the American South, including megafauna from ages past, Native American treasures, and slavery. In recent decades, the museum has purchased historic houses nearby, such as the Joseph Manigault House and the Huguenot House, to showcase the way locals lived centuries ago.
Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation (Riga, Latvia)
The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is the oldest museum in the Baltics, and was founded in 1773 based on the notable art and natural science collections of a local doctor. Here, you’ll find more than 500,000 artifacts grouped into 75 different collections, including unique and fascinating maritime items. The museum is located in Old Riga, in an architectural monument of the 13th through the 20th centuries, and today also includes a separate branch, the Museum of Ainazi Naval School which was founded in 1969.
Louvre Museum (Paris, France)
Another massive former royal palace, this world-renowned attraction first became an art institution in the late 1700s. An iconic landmark of Paris, the Louvre structure is a wonder all its own, designed and built by innovative architects over multiple centuries between the years A.D. 1200 and 2100. The astounding 35,000 objects of art housed here date from prehistoric times to the 19th century, and are displayed within almost 700,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Louvre also opened an outpost in the United Arab Emirates in 2014, called the Louvre Abudhabi Museum.
The Belvedere (Vienna, Austria)
The Belvedere Palace originally housed the Habsburg monarchs of Vienna before welcoming the public to admire and explore its stunning architecture and collections beginning in 1781. Today, this palatial museum includes two magnificent homes, the Upper and Lower Belvedere, and retains the greatest collection of Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present day.
Kunstkamera (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Also called the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, this remarkable foundation has been inspiring and captivating visitors with a unique combination of art collections and scientific research since its inception in 1727. Housed in the Old St. Petersburg Academy of Science Building, Kunstkamera is the oldest museum in Russia, as well as one of the oldest of its kind in the world.
Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology of Besançon (Besançon, France)
Founded in 1694 when a local abbot donated his significant personal art collection to the city of Besançon to open a museum, this institution is notable for its Egyptian archaeology displays, paintings, and thousands of drawings by European artists.
Kunstmuseum (Basel, Switzerland)
In 1671, the city of Basel, Switzerland, acquired the Amerbach Cabinet, a prominent local citizen’s private art collection, and displayed it to the public as part of what would later become the Basel Kunstmuseum. The museum is now made up of three different buildings showcasing an enormous range of exhibits, from medieval and Renaissance art to European postwar modern and contemporary art.
Royal Armouries of the Tower of London (London, England)
The Royal Armouries of the Tower of London is Britain’s oldest museum and one of the oldest in the world. Displaying handcrafted battle armor and exhibits on the history of kings and queens, this regal attraction first lured wealthy paying visitors in the late 1500s before opening to the public in the 1660s.
The Vatican Museums (Vatican City)
The Vatican Museums include collections first donated by Pope Julius II in 1506. These venerable institutions showcase the monumental art collection amassed over the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, which boasts both impressive sculptures and some of the most acclaimed Renaissance masterpieces in existence, including the famous frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Capitoline Museums (Rome, Italy)
In 1471, Pope Sixtus IV donated several ancient bronze sculptures to the people of Rome, a generous gift that led to the opening of the Capitoline Museums — a group of art and archaeological museums located in the Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill. Today, visitors enjoy taking in displays of important medieval and Renaissance art, sculptures, jewelry collections, and many other exhibits related to the city of Rome itself.