Europe abounds with fascinating lesser-known museums and galleries focused on a particular era or cultural heritage, from small house museums like London’s Dennis Severs to Lola Till’s Paris gallery, La Maison de L’Ouzbékistan.
With tourism across Europe almost back to pre-pandemic levels, galleries and museums are once again thronged with people eager to see the masterpieces on offer.
For a different experience, it is well worth seeking out smaller, lesser-known galleries where you can generally avoid crowds and find some fascinating and quirky collections. The best of these have a definite personality and are often a labour of love by one or two dedicated and passionate curators.
As you gear up to travel again, here are five gallery and museum gems to choose from:
A new museum for fans of Italian cooking
Rome is not short of masterpieces of paintings, sculptures and architecture. But one of the Eternal City’s newest museums, dedicated to the history of Italian cooking, is well worth a visit. La Museo della Cucina opened in May 2022 on Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded. Its location on a site of such historical significance is appropriate, says the museum’s director, Matteo Ghirighini. “Cooking as a way of reading contemporary history has often been underrated. Cooking is a product of its time, and it can tell us a lot about customs, ways of thinking, and specific economic and political situations. So, a cookbook is often much more than it seems,” he said.
Food and cooking are central to the Italian way of life, and Italian cuisine is one of the most popular worldwide. The Museo della Cucina maps its evolution over centuries with a fascinating display of cooking artefacts, including Renaissance-era ice cream moulds and cookbooks such as the beautifully-illustrated Il Trinciante, dating from 1593, along with many lovely anecdotes on the role of food through the ages.
Lola Till’s Paris outpost for Central Asian crafts
Paris has a relatively new addition to its many cultural gems. On the famous Rue de Rivoli, visitors can enter a gallery boutique conceived as a ‘portal into the rich cultural heritage of Uzbekistan’. Opened in 2020 by Uzbek-born Lola Tillyaeva, La Maison de L’Ouzbékistan displays a carefully curated selection of ceramics, stoneware, silks, woodcarvings and furniture, all inspired by the decorative arts traditions of this fascinating country at the heart of the ancient Silk Road trade route. Each piece is accompanied by details of its cultural context in a beautifully decorated space that echoes Uzbekistan’s architectural and decorative traditions. Visitors also have the opportunity to purchase the items on display.
Gallery founder Lola Tillyaeva (Till), is an author, entrepreneur and humanitarian who is passionate about sharing her homeland Uzbekistan’s cultural heritage. During ten years as Uzbekistan’s delegate to UNESCO, Lola Till noticed how visitors were captivated by local arts and craftwork. She conceived of a gallery that would bring the work of gifted contemporary Uzbek craftspeople to a wider audience and serve as a bridge between Europe and Asia, just as the Silk Road did for many centuries.
Dennis Severs’ recreation of 18th century London life
London offers The Dennis Severs House Museum, described by the renowned contemporary artist David Hockney as “one of the world’s greatest experiences”. The passion project of Dennis Severs, the museum occupies a house built in 1724 in London’s historic Spitalfields district, where the famous market dates back to the 1100s.
In a richly atmospheric evocation of life in the 18th and 19th centuries, the museum tells the story of the house through generations of an imaginary family of Huguenots, the French Protestants who fled persecution in the 17th century, bringing their silk-weaving skills to help build a thriving industry in Spitalfields. It chronicles the changing fortunes of the house and this historic part of London as it moved inexorably from affluent merchants’ quarters to crowded and decaying slums.
Dennis Severs conceived the house as a ‘still-life drama’ and a ‘historical imagination’ of what life would have been like for that family in those times. It is, above all, an extraordinary, unforgettable sensory experience that truly gives the visitor the sensation of stepping back into another time.
Lisbon’s Decorative Arts treasure
Portugal is another country famed for its decorative arts, and Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts is dedicated to celebrating and conserving this aspect of Portuguese culture. The passionate individual behind this museum was Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva, a wealthy banker and patron of the arts, who in 1953 bequeathed to the state the 18th-century Azurara Palace and part of the collection he had accumulated from Portugal and around the world.
The atmospheric interior decorated with ornately-painted ceilings, gilded mirrors and tiled panels houses an extraordinary selection of pieces: Flemish tapestries and Indo-Portuguese furniture are juxtaposed with paintings, silver, and Chinese porcelain, giving visitors a feel for how wealthy Portuguese families lived in bygone ages. Visitors can book a visit to the workshop to see expert restorers using skills such as gilding, woodcarving and bookbinding. As part of its mission to keep traditional Portuguese crafts and skills alive, the museum also offers certified training in the decorative arts, including cabinetmaking, decorative painting, conservation and restoration.
Flamenco in the heart of Seville
Spain’s Museum of Flamenco Dance in Seville is another labour of love by one person eager to share their cultural heritage. Dancer and choreographer Cristina Hoyos founded the museum in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, one of the city’s most historic districts. Through interactive technology, it recounts the story of flamenco dance from its roots to the present day, where it is celebrated as an art form and recognised by UNESCO as part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The museum’s permanent collections on show include vintage flamenco costumes through the ages, while exhibitions display contemporary artworks inspired by flamenco. Flamenco dance performances are staged on the patio, surrounded by classic Andalusian Ecijan-style architecture creating a magical atmosphere. And for visitors willing to have a go, the museum also offers flamenco and percussion classes delivered by renowned choreographers and musicians.