9 Museums Around the World That Every Cat Lover Should Visit

Olga Maltseva, AFP/Getty Images
Olga Maltseva, AFP/Getty Images

Cats are put on a pedestal (sometimes literally) at a handful of feline-loving museums around the world. Here are nine institutions that showcase kitty artifacts, host feline-themed exhibitions, and even serve as homes to real-life cats.

1. THE CAT MUSEUM // KUCHING, MALAYSIA

People in Kuching, Malaysia, are kitty crazy: Even the city’s name means "cat" in Malay. Kuching is filled with large feline statues, the local radio station is called “Cats FM,” and guests at the 2017 ASEAN Film Festival and Awards, held in Kuching, helped set a Guinness record for the largest gathering of people dressed as cats. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Kuching is also home to an impressive cat museum.

Located in Kuching City North City Hall, the museum contains four galleries filled with thousands of feline artworks, cat relics, photos, and other objects (including an Egyptian mummified cat). They trace the history of cats and examine different cultural depictions of felines from around the world.

2. THE CAT MUSEUM // ŠIAULIAI, LITHUANIA

Šiauliai, Lithuania’s fourth-largest city, has its very own cat museum. Local animal lover Vanda Kavaliauskienė founded the attraction in 1990 after her collection of cat-themed memorabilia grew too large for her apartment. Visitors can view thousands of artifacts—including photos, artworks, and mini feline figurines from around the world—or cozy up with live cats strolling around the premises. (There’s also a mini-zoo with exotic animals if you experience cat overload.)

3. THE CAT MUSEUM // MINSK, BELARUS

In addition to viewing plenty of cat art, visitors at the Cat Museum in Minsk, Belarus can check out special exhibitions, enjoy cat-themed books and games, make cat art, and sip coffee or tea in a cat-themed café—all while petting members of the museum’s cat “staff.” These adoptable rescue kitties live on site and are presided over by Donut, the museum’s feline “director.”

4. KATTENKABINET // AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS

Housed in a restored 15th-century home on Amsterdam’s Herengracht canal, the KattenKabinet (“Cat Cabinet”) art museum examines the role that cats play in art and culture. Museum founder/homeowner Bob Meijer launched the attraction in 1990 in honor of his beloved deceased tom, which he’d named John Pierpont Morgan after the famed U.S. banker.

In addition to a section devoted to John Pierpont Morgan, the KattenKabinet’s collections include original works by greats like Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rembrandt—all of which depict cats, and are guarded by a bevy of in-house felines.

5. THE SERPUKHOV MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND ART // SERPUKHOV, RUSSIA

The Serpukhov Museum of History and Art is home to a valuable collection of Western European and Russian paintings and home furnishings. Most of these objects came from the collections of A. Maraeva, a successful merchant, and the museum itself is located in her former mansion.

In addition to providing visitors with a sense of local history, the Serpukhov Museum’s staff has been known to stage the occasional practical joke. In 2016, they decided to trick local media outlets by writing up a fake job application letter from an orange feline nicknamed Maray (for Maraeva) that hung around the mansion to greet visitors. Signed with a scribbled paw print, the note read: “As I am a direct relative of Maraeva, I ask you to give me a job in your museum. Maray the Cat.”

The museum sent the letter to the Russian media, along with a press release announcing that they’d taken the feline up on its offer. They ended up fielding so many questions about Maray that they decided to commit to the joke and hired him as a furry doorman. He now works a normal 9-to-5 shift, with his own special spot in the museum, and is compensated with food and shelter.

6. THE MANEKI NEKO MUSEUM // CINCINNATI, OHIO

The Lucky Cat Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio
Courtesy of The Maneki Neko, or Lucky Cat Museum

Fans of Asian culture and cats can visit the Maneki Neko, or Lucky Cat Museum, in Cincinnati for an extra dose of good fortune. Housed in the small art space are more than 1000 models of the Japanese maneki neko, the “beckoning cat” with a raised paw you’ll often see in Asian restaurants as a symbol of luck and prosperity.

Museum owner and operator Micha Robertson began collecting maneki neko of all shapes, sizes, and designs more than a decade ago. Eventually, she amassed so many that she decided to open a tiny museum dedicated to her feline finds. "For me," Robertson told local radio station WVXU in 2015, "it’s just taking a basic idea—[it's] not just a cat, but it’s a cat with its paw raised—and it’s interpreted so many ways. Each one is very different from another. Even the ones that are the same basic look are still very different. I love seeing how many different ways it can be interpreted. And the weirder they are, the more I love them."

Robertson isn’t alone in her fascination: Two similar homages to the maneki neko exist in Japan, including the Maneki Neko Art Museum in Okayama and the Maneki Neko Museum in Seto.

7. YUMEJI ART MUSEUM // OKAYAMA, JAPAN

Fans of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), an influential Japanese artist and poet of the Taishō period, can visit museums dedicated to his work in Okayama and in Setouchi, Japan. But only the Okayama location has Kuronosuke, a black-furred feline that serves as the establishment’s “manager” and mascot.

Museum officials rescued Kuronosuke in 2016 after a car nearly ran him over. Noting that the homeless kitty looked like a black cat from one of Takehisa’s illustrations, they decided to “hire” him to amuse visitors. Kuronosuke—all dressed up with a red ribbon around his neck—began regularly greeting museum patrons several times a week in December 2017. His attendance is “whimsical,” according to news reports, since he’s probably more interested in chasing mice than schmoozing with art lovers.

8. THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF THE HOUSE CAT // SYLVA, NORTH CAROLINA

 Artifacts at the American Museum of the House Cat
Courtesy of the American Museum of the House Cat

Harold Sims is a retired biology professor and a full-time collector of cat memorabilia. With his wife Kay, he’s spent more than 30 years building a vast assortment of feline art, crafts, and tchotchkes. In April 2017, Sims opened up his own roadside museum, the American Museum of the House Cat, inside a Sylva, North Carolina antique mall. Its two rooms are filled to the brim with as many as 10,000 artifacts. (Still more cat objects exist in Sims’s private collection.)

Curiosities at the American Museum of the House Cat range from vintage kitty toys (such as 19th-century automatons) to an Egyptian cat amulet dating back to 1000 BCE and a petrified cat discovered in a 16th-century English chimney. Admission fees go towards Catman2, a no-kill cat shelter in Cullowhee, North Carolina that Sims opened adjacent to his home in 2002. In addition to 60 to 80 rescues per year, Catman2 is also home to—surprise!—even more cat art.

9. THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM // ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

A cat sits in front of Russia's Hermitage Museum
OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

The State Hermitage Museum houses more than 3 million works of art and artifacts, spread across a vast complex of historic buildings. Safeguarding these treasures are efficient security agents, many of whom have tails and whiskers.

The former Winter Palace, where Russia’s tsars once resided, is today the museum’s main building. It’s reportedly been home to cats for hundreds of years, beginning in 1745 when Empress Elisabeth issued a call for “the finest cats of Kazan” to help rid the building of mice. In later years, during the reign of Catherine the Great, these kitties were nicknamed the “Winter Palace cats.”

Today’s museum cats are a far cry from aristocratic mousers. Many (if not all) of them are former strays, some of which were found huddled near the museum’s underground heating system in the late 1990s. Their mere presence is said to deter mice, which are perhaps equally as dangerous to art as thieves or hands-y visitors.

The Hermitage cats are tended to by a team of full-time volunteers, managed by their own press secretary, and permitted to roam through staff offices (they’re banned from galleries and the museum director’s wing). They're also adoptable.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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