13 Great Museums for Book Lovers
Happy National Museums Week! Are you excited? I sure am: I love a good museum. It’s the perfect way to pass a damp April day.
Now, you may be thinking: ‘Museums are fantastic, but I’m not in the mood for paintings or artefacts today. What do you have for lovers of literature?’ And the answer is: loads. So, dust off those walking shoes (or your passport, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious) and check out some of these excellent museums for book lovers:
The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh
Tucked away in the romantically named Lady Stair’s Close just off the Lawnmarket is this wee gem dedicated to the lives of three giants of Scottish classical literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. If you’ve ever wanted an opportunity to see Burns’s writing desk, Scott’s childhood rocking horse, or a ring gifted to Stevenson by a Samoan chief, now’s your chance! Other highlights include first editions of Waverley and A Child’s Garden of Verses, Burns’s draft of 'Scots wha hae' (‘Bruce’s Address to his troops at Bannockburn’), as well as portraits, photographs and other personal items from all three authors. Bonus: Step outside and spend a little time in Makars’ Court, reading the inscribed flagstones that celebrate Scottish writers from the 14th century up to the present day.
The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Home to over 26 million items, you’re bound to find something here that takes your fancy! While you do have to reserve items to read ahead of time, there are also free exhibitions you can drop in to see. On now is The International Style of Muriel Spark, celebrating one of Scotland’s greatest novelists on the centenary of her birth (through 13 May). You can also have a look at the library’s current treasures display: Illustrating Scottish Poems, which features illustrated 18th century editions from the rare books collection. If you feel inspired to pick up a new book to read, Central Library is just across the street.
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York
The American Writers’ Museum, Chicago, Illinois
If you’re stateside anyway, you may as well head to Chicago to check out the first museum entirely dedicated to American writers, past and present. Permanent exhibits cover the evolution of American literature from the 1600s to today; various forms of writing, from novels to song lyrics to advertising taglines; a deep dive into how writers think and create (including an interactive exhibit where you can contribute to a daily story, rewriting an American classic!); and children’s literature. The museum also features temporary exhibits, as well as numerous events and programmes with award-winning and bestselling authors that are well worth the price of admission.
The Shrine of the Book Complex, Jerusalem
The Shrine of the Book offers a fascinating journey through the Hebrew Bible, from the oldest extant manuscripts to more modern day efforts to apply biblical ideals to everyday life. Even if you’re not a biblical scholar, it’s worth a visit to have a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the most important writing in world history.
The Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
When you have a special warrant that grants you a copy of every book published in England, you’re bound to wind up with more than a few treasures. And the Bodleian doesn’t disappoint! In fact, it has such a remarkable collection it started up Marks of Genius, an exhibition where you can view just a few of its more interesting items, like an original dust-jacket design for The Hobbit, a Shakespeare first folio, a map dating back to the 13th or 14th century, and pages from the original draft of Frankenstein. Work up a thirst here, and quench it at The Eagle and Child Pub, where Tolkien and C S Lewis used to gather with their friends for what must have been an incredible writers’ group.
Franz Kafka Museum, Prague
If you really want to get to know Kafka, this is the place to go. The museum is not only dedicated to his life and works (via letters, diaries, first editions, and drawings by the author himself), it’s also an opportunity to explore and better understand the insane world he envisioned. Prepare to be somewhat discombobulated (but at least you won’t emerge as a giant insect!)
The British Library, London
As with the National Library of Scotland, you can come here to dip directly into rare tomes to help with your latest research project. Or, you can stop by the Treasures exhibit to ogle the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s notebooks, the Magna Carta, some of Da Vinci’s notebooks, a letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage that sets out the principles of computer programming (in the mid-19th century!), and original song lyrics by The Beatles, to name just a few of the remarkable items on display. The Library also has temporary exhibits. On through 29 April is African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia, and starting 27 April and running through 28 August is James Cook: The Voyages. If you can’t swing a trip to London just now, the Library also boasts a significant archive of digitised manuscripts.
The National Museum, New Delhi
Home to nearly 14,000 manuscripts covering a period of about 13-1400 years, this is one of the greatest collections of Asian and Arabic texts in the world. Included is every classic of the Indian canon, as well as Chinese and Persian texts, Holy Buddhist writings pressed on copper, a 12th century Sanskrit poem on a palm leaf, Arabic calligraphy, and the autobiography of Munghal Emperor Babur. And the amazing thing is: the manuscripts only comprise one section of the Museum, which also houses collections on archaeology, arms and armour, jewellery and decorative arts, and pre-history, to name just a few.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts
The Dr Seuss Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts
Massachusetts seems to have been a popular place for author/illustrators! Even if you don’t have little ones, you’ll have a blast in a museum devoted to Seuss’s whimsy. Have a seat on a seven-hump wump, consult with the Lorax, pose with the Cat in the Hat, check out Seuss’s drafting table and models he used for his illustrations or, if it’s a nice day, just have a stroll through the sculpture garden inspired by his works.
The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, St Helena, California
Although born and raised in Edinburgh, Stevenson spent a fair bit of time out in the Napa Valley (and met his wife there), so it’s not completely out of left field that there should be a museum there dedicated to his life and work. In the main gallery, you can follow the course of his life, laid out through many of his own possessions, such as childhood toys, his drawings and his wedding ring. There’s also an impressive archive of original manuscripts, letters and notes from Stevenson, his family and friends, including original pages from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, diary entries from his time in the South Seas, and poems and manuscripts for several articles. As a special bonus, the museum library houses thousands of rare books and periodicals dating back as far as the 17th century, some of which belonged to Stevenson and include his annotations.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, Ayr
Immerse yourself in the world of one of Scotland’s greatest poets! Listen to his words, handle objects connected to him, examine his manuscripts and books and play games that unravel his mysteries. You can also explore the tiny cottage where Burns grew up, wander the gardens with their 70-foot Grecian-style temple built to commemorate the poet’s life, and stroll over the bridge made famous by Tam o’Shanter
Teaser Image: The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Writers' Museum Image by Lisa. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0
British Library Image by Senra (John McCullough). License: CC-BY-3.0
Eric Carle Museum Image by Massachusetts Office of Tourism. License: CC-BY-ND 2.0