What's Your Favorite Museum Artifact?

Museums everywhere are jam-packed with so many artifacts, baubles, and items of interest that it’s usually somewhat overwhelming, and difficult to isolate and appreciate any one item. But every so often, a singular item hidden amongst a vast collection can hook our attention and become unforgettable objects of intrigue. What single item or display in a museum has always stuck with you or called you back again and again?

One of my favorite museum wonders is something I’ve never actually seen in person, but learned about on Atlas Obscura: Galileo’s Middle Finger. Held in an egg-shaped reliquary like some saint’s bones, Galileo’s middle finger has always struck me as an almost unbelievably rare and incredible artifact. Keeping someone’s entire middle finger as a relic not only seems like an archaic, odd practice, but it’s even more incredible to me that such an important item can actually be visited at the History of Science Museum in Florence, Italy. Just sitting there among all of the other displays, the whole finger of one of science’s most important figures. You could probably even miss it if you weren’t paying attention.

In the comments below, tell us about the one incredible museum artifact that you are most fascinated by, why you are so enthralled by it, and most importantly, where it can be found, so that others can go check it out themselves. If you have any terrific original images of your favorite items, please post those too! Your answer may be included in an upcoming round up on Atlas Obscura. Museums are nothing without the items they hold, so let’s help each other find out about the best!

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King Tut’s mask. I saw it as a young child and my reaction to it has stayed with me. On a more gruesome artifact was an amputated leg with elephantitis at the Walter Reed Medical Museum.

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The moon rock at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. You can touch a piece of another world.

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I recently visited Gen George Washington’s war tent at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia - it’s housed in its own exhibit inside a small theater, and the way it’s presented (literally, the technical way it’s presented) is fascinating and moving.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Yes the Walter Reed museum is one of those things.

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As far as my favourite museum item that is almost impossible for me to nail down. Been to so many museums over the years but there is one museum that always pops to the front, The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I remember the original moon rock display when it was touring before it became a permanent display. But then there is always the coal mine, or the sub, or the doll house. But the silly thing that gets me is this: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mold-a-rama-archive-retro-plastic-mold-a-matic
I love the mold-a-rama machines. They just happen to be a absolutely silly highlight of going to the Museum of Science and Industry.

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Each visit to D.C. as a kid meant I had to go see Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
And the terracotta army at Qin Shi Huang’s burial complex.

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I’m afraid I don’t remember exactly what it was, but at the Peabody Museum at Yale in the 80s there was an item in the Native American exhibit that belonged to Chief Bird All Over the Ground, which truly is the best name in history. We went there a lot when I was a kid and I always looked for Chief; I wish I could remember what the artifact was!

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The Obamas’ portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, particularly Michelle’s.

Just, DAMN, full of grace and beauty and badasesery.

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The National Funerary Museum in Houston has lots of good choices. Lincoln’s top hat and Kermit from the touring Smithsonian exhibit were memorable but I think I would have to say the Entire Neighborhood of Make Believe at the Heinz History Center.

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This is a brilliant question ! Honestly , I can’t pick a single one , there have been so many that have fascinated me , so I am going to write 6 of them which come to mind and then another 5 some other day.

  1. The disk of death of Teotihuacan. This artifact has fascinated me for many years , I first saw it when I was in my mid teens and visiting my grandparents in Mexico and I remember being profoundly moved by it , by how ferocious and morbid yet beautiful it was. I had been to Teotihuacan just prior to visiting the Museum so I guess this artifact was linked with my wonderment with Meso-American Archeology and the Prehispanic cosmovision. Eventually I ended up living in Mexico for many years and as I have always had a huge interest in history / anthr0pology I often visited the Anthropology Museum so got to see it at least once every couple of months.

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  1. This is a fragment from an Ancient Egyptian mural on display at the British Museum. It shows a courtly scene of some of the courtesans of a pharao playing flutes and nude dancing girls. I cant remember exactly but it might have been from a tomb, I just think its amazingly sensual and elegant and it has such a sense of movement that you can almost hear the music over the millenia.

Image from Swali-Africa Museum

  1. The Golden bat pendant , gold museum Colombia. I’ve never actually been to Colombia although I have been wanting to visit that country for years. I saw this artifact in Mexico in the “Museo nacional de las culturas” where it was part of a touring exhibition of ancient Colombian artifacts. Its from the Tairona culture and shows a shaman that is a anthromorphic hybrid of spectral bat and human being. I think its personal significance to me is my fascination for South America , its wildlife and culture and I just love its mysticism and that savage toothy grin of the shaman bat.

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Image from British Museum page

  1. This is a print called “Lovers in an upstairs tea room” by a 19th century artist called Kitigawa Utamaro. I absolutely love the tenderness and sensuality of this erotic scene and the beautiful colour. I saw this as part of the British Museum Japanese exhibition “Shunga” and ironically it stood out as the most sexy and lovely of all the prints even though it was not on any level as sexually explicit. I think it is actually part of the permanent collection of the museum but I’m not 100% sure.
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Image from BBC website

  1. The lion and the buffalo taxidermy at the Powell Cotton Museum. I first saw this artifact as a kid , I was maybe 10 years old when I first visited this museum with my father and sister. I dont remember much about that first trip except being completely spellbound by this piece of taxidermy , just how animated it was and how it seemed like a primeavel struggle of survival stuck in time. I’ve been to the museum a couple of times since and that same sense of wonder that I felt as a kid always resurges.
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Image from Geograph site and “Museum menagerie” blogspot

  1. The paleolithic Ice Age Bison statuette. I saw this artifact as part of the British Museum’s Ice Age art exhibition many years ago which without question was the best exhibition I have ever been to in my life. I think that the most moving thing about the exhibition and the art was that it was from the very beginings of human conciousness and culture. These people lived under such harsh environmental conditions yet they found the time and need to create art, I guess it shows how deep seated and ancient the need for art and creativity is in the human condition. I think the artist captured the animals movement and form perfectly and it is clear that he/ she possesed an intimate knowledge of the animals behaviour. There is also the aura of a kind of spiritual respect and awe of the power of nature that could only have come from a hunter-gatherer.


Image from Financial Times article and British Museum exhibition page

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My favorite museum exhibit is General Dan Sickles’ leg, at the National Museum of Medicine and Health. It’s got pretty much everything going for it. It’s historical, it’s biological, and it’s a bit gruesome.

https://www.medicalmuseum.mil/assets/images/exhibits/nationswounds/sickles_lg.jpg

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Of all the artifacts in any Smithsonian museums, my favourite is the model of La Minerve in the Early Flight exhibit space at the National Air and Space Museum. La Minerve is an imagined self-sufficient aerial community in the 19th century by Étienne-Gaspard Robert, aka Robertson - a Belgian physicist, illusionist and aerial balloon enthusiast who was also known for phantasmagoria.


Image from etc.usf.edu

I also absolutely adore Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science + Industry Chicago.


Image from the Museum of Science + Industry Chicago website

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So funny, because I was going to post about Galileo’s Middle Finger (which I have seen).

Do rooms count? I love just sitting in Tadao Ando’s Screen Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago:

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or going to the Gubbio Studiolo at the Met in NYC, with its astonishing trompe l’oeil intarsia:

Both lovely, quiet spaces away from the crowds.

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In the Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, there is a small glass vial almost hidden on the side wall. Inside the vial are presolar grains distilled from the Allende meteorite. These are tiny diamond crystals and other grains that were here when our Sun formed. They are older than the sun. Over 5 billion years old. I’d guess that 99% of the people who visit the hall walk right by not realizing that this is likely the oldest object on display in any museum.

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This sculpture at the Centrale Montemartini museum in Rome. I stood there 20 minutes, couldn’t look away.

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It’s pretty disturbing … What does it represent ? Is that Prosperina ? or is the story of some other rapey Sartyr that attacked a nymph ?

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Your second guess is correct: a satyr and a nymph.

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Her right foot is in the right place for a hard kick if she really wanted to get free. :thinking:

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She could also potentially gauge out the little imps eye

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