What do the American Pilgrims, globes, and communism have in common? They’re each the single focus of specialized museums in Europe: Leiden, the Netherlands; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic.

One of my goals for the trip was to visit the national museum in each capital city we visit. (I’m 1 for 3 so far—the underwhelming Monarchy exhibition at Národní muzeum in Prague). National museums tend to display a range of topics using a few examples, with one or more current exhibitions thrown in. Specialized museums do only one thing: provide an in-depth look at their chosen topic. In addition to learning more about issues I am interested in, I’ve found specialized museums particularly useful for topics of marginal interest. Finally, where national museums can take hours, if not days, to explore in full, a visit to a single-focus museum can take as little as an hour. An hour to delve into a topic on the edges of my interest is a great deal. I have a new goal now: to visit at least one specialized museum in every city we visit.

These three single-focus museums have stood out so far.

Specialized museums in Europe: American Pilgrim Museum, Leiden, the Netherlands

“Why did the American Pilgrims not land on the West Coast?” “Because they would have had no reason to go East.”

I lived in Leiden, the Netherlands in 2002–2003 but I had to return to Leiden as an American citizen to seek out the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. The museum documents daily life of the group of English refugees who lived in Leiden between ca. 1609 and 1620 and then sailed to the New World to become the American Pilgrims.

Specialized museums in Europe

The entrance of the American Pilgrim Museum, Leiden, the Netherlands.

“Furnishings from Pilgrim times show aspects of daily life [including life and work], while events involving the Pilgrims themselves are illustrated with a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century maps and engravings by such artists as Gerard Mercator, Adrian van de Venne, and Jacques de Gheyn. The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum presents the reality behind the Pilgrim myth.” —Leiden American Pilgrim Museum

The tiny museum is housed in two ground-floor rooms of such an inconspicous building you can easily miss it. It makes sense: the University dominates Leiden and the Pilgrims’ contribution to the city corresponded to the length of their stay. The main room exhibits items from the early 17th century that the Pilgrims may have used, such as clothes, furnishings, utensils, and maps. You can touch everything, including my favorite items, 400-year old books. The room next door depicts life in the era the building was built, mid-14th century. Friendly, passionate staff greet visitors with wit (see joke above) and a depth of knowledge about the Pilgrims and their lives in Leiden.

“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners.” —Robert Cushman, 1622

Having left Leiden for America in 2003, I wanted to know why the Pilgrims left the place they found refuge and freedom to practice their religion. “Great labor and hard fare, with other inconveniences”, including strange food, made life hard and work even harder. They were getting old, and wars were threatening the Low Lands. More importantly, Leiden turned out to be too free: the immigrants’ children emulated the “loose behavior” of the Dutch children. They feared assimilation, particularly as they were failing to convert the locals. In other words, today’s self-styled bastion of liberty was born out of a desire to create an insular religious enclave.

If you go

  • Location: Beschuitsteeg 9, a corner building by the clock tower of the Hooglandse Kerk church. Keep your eyes peeled for modest signage.
  • Hours: Wednesday through Saturday (except holidays), 1:00 pm–5:00 pm
  • Entry: €4 ($5.32) no discounts
  • The museum is truly tiny: six people cram the main room, so you best visit it when no one else is there.

Specialized museums in Europe: Globe Museum, Vienna, Austria

Sometimes the spur-of-the-moment decision turns out the be the best one; we discovered and decided to visit the Globe Museum over an espresso off Graben. I’m tempted to say only that the Globe Museum got globes. But there’s more to it.

Specialized museums in Europe

Inside the Globe Museum, Vienna, Austria.

“The Globe Museum of the Austrian National Library in Palais Mollard is the world’s only institution in which terrestrial and celestial globes and globes of earth’s moon and various planets, as well as instruments linked with globes (armillary spheres) and instruments in which globes are an integral part (planetaria, telluria, lunaria) are acquired, researched, and presented to the public.” —Globe Museum

The Globe Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. More than 250 of 650 objects the museum owns are on display. “The main emphasis of the holdings is on terrestrial and celestial globes made before 1850.” Among the most fascinating for me were the early globes; terrestrial-celestial globe pairs; and pocket globes. A globetrotter’s treat: Gerardus Mercator‘s rare globes from mid-16th century.

The visit to the museum is both a fascinating tour of cartography through the last five centuries—tracing the change in the 1700’s of California from island to mainland entrances—and a series of trips around the world. I enjoyed the variety of forms globes have come in; Lindsay loved the depictions of constellations as celestial bestiaries.

You can’t touch any of the globes, encased as they sit behind glass. You are, therefore, denied the greatest pleasure globes provide: to spin them and trace your own journey around the planet they purport to represent. Nonetheless, if you are circling the world as we are, looking at hundreds of globes, especially when paired with a small exhibit on the universal language Esperanto downstairs, puts your journey into perspective.

If you go

  • Location: Palais Mollard, Herrengasse 9, in Hofburg castle area
  • Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday, 10 am–6 pm (10 am–9 pm on Thursdays)
  • Entry: an array of options, €7 ($9.32) per person or less

Specialized museums in Europe: Museum of Communism, Prague, Czech Republic

The posters are all over town: a matryoshka with large teeth; the Misha bear with a Kalashnikov. By contrast, the Museum of Communism hides on a busy shopping street behind the thicket of a cafe, a McDonald’s, and a casino.

“The Museum presents a vivid account of Communism focusing on Czechoslovakia in general and on Prague in particular. A variety of fields are represented including: daily life, politics, history, sport, economics, education, “the arts”, media propaganda, the Peoples’ Militias, the secret police, censorship, judiciary and coercive institutions (including the Stalinist show-trials), and political labor camps. It is the first and only museum in Prague (since the Velvet Revolution) exclusively devoted to a system established in the sphere of the former Soviet Union.” —Museum of Communism

The reality beneath the marketing veneer is a mess. Conceptually the museum revolves around a three-act story of Dream, Reality, and Nightmare. Topical displays about life in ‘communism’ accompany panels carrying the historical narrative in 6 languages.

Specialized museums in Europe

Inside the Museum of Communism, Prague, Czech Republic.

While the attempt to present life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist Party rule is obvious and admirable, authentic objects used in support of the narrative come across as a jumble of artefacts collected from attics and flea markets and thrown together to create something out of nothing (as the communists were wont to do).

Still, it’s worth a visit. Not to learn about communism, which is anyway an incorrect label for the regime that ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989, but to learn about the Czech Republic today. The story of a totalitarian regime in former Czechoslovakia as told by the American founder/owner is tucked away beyond a thicket of imported consumerism. ‘Communism’ as a shallow collection of antiquated paraphernalia, a product sold to tourists by a clever commercial venture (in a review Boris Buden called it a “fast-culture shop”), entertainment that evaporates from memory like a summer blockbuster. You won’t find any Czechs inside but this Slovak recommends you go to make up your own mind (I’m available for any questions you may have afterwards).

If you go

What’s your favorite specialized museum?

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