How to visit a Museum

I grew up with a visual artist and an amateur art historian. That meant that I was required to visit art galleries and museums in every town we visited and on every family vacation. While I appreciated most visits, I was also a normal child and teen and incredibly bored most of the time. Especially once I’d made my way through the space, and I was tired and hungry and there was nowhere to sit. My dad on the other hand, would spend hours moving close to each painting then stepping back and then moving in closer and tilting his head and then finally, moving on to the next one to repeat the same dance. I think most of us, when we visit museums of all kinds, fall into the category of appreciative, but easily bored once the charm wears off. In my case, I could always ask my dad what he was looking at and he was able to use his artistic vocabulary and experience to explain to me what was either interesting or not interesting or why he liked the painting or didn’t like the painting. I had a built-in docent, but rarely used him in that capacity, and more often than not, would pull on his arm to go. My mom was just as wary of leaving the galleries and would be my go-to for questions about the artist or the historic context that surrounded the painting to contrast my dad’s technical conversation.

This February, Mondays @ the Museum is excited to offer two free, live courses with Varsity Tutors, prepping students and parents to travel and explore in a world that we hope will begin to re-open soon!

Dates and times will be announced soon to add to your family time calendar!

Because of my upbringing, and interests, I also eventually built a great love of museums. My love and appreciation for museums grew even more once I started working in the museum field.

Just because I love museums and have worked in museums for years doesn’t mean I still don’t get mind-numbingly bored sometimes.

(I also studied and performed opera for years and can hardly bare to sit through a whole opera. I’m much more likely to leave at intermission, especially if the aria I was looking forward to hearing has already been sung, and listening to the rest at home. Lucia de Lammermoor might be one of the few I’ll sit through, because I have to make it to the end to experience the “Mad Scene” or maybe I’ll sit through Don Giovanni, to observe him being dragged into hell. )

I think I’m with many when I say, that along with my memories of how cool it was to see certain cool objects or paintings at a museum, I also carry with me memories of sore feet, a sore back, exhaustion, snappiness, hunger and overwhelming sensory overload.

So, how are we supposed to experience museums meaningfully?

When we’re on vacation, we often only have 3 days to collect our London experience, so we gorge on all the museums, theatre’s and cathedral’s that we can, to say we’ve done it. One more check off the bucket list! On to Paris, Rome and Budapest to cram in more “Instagrammable” experiences!

I think I can confidently say that all museum professionals would agree that what I described above is the absolute worst way to experience museums and cultural spaces. The anxious, sensory overload that comes with feeling that we need to stuff our brains with all a museum has to give, in a single visit is unmanageable and only leaves us with a bad aftertaste.

So, again, what will leave us with the warm-fuzzy feeling we all intend with each museum visit?

These are my 5 suggestions for how to visit a museum, given the amazing resources we now have at the tips of our fingers in the 21st Century.

  1. Be kind to yourself:
    • Start with food & make sure you’re hydrated
    • Visit the bathroom before you start your journey
    • If you can, check your purse, backpack or bag or wear something with pockets and leave any bags in the hotel room, in the car or at home.
    • Take a breath, and use the time at the museum to escape from your everyday cares
  2. Set realistic expectations:
    • Choose two or three things you really want to see and focus on seeing just those things first.
    • Take a break & go outside if you can & Give your brain a break to rest and process before coming back
  3. Take your time:
    • If you can come back another day, do it so that your brain can take a break
    • If you live nearby, become a member, and go as many times as you need throughout the year
  4. Utilize the resources that museum staff have created for you:
    • Virtual Collections:
      • Many museums, especially the big ones, have interactive and/or virtual collections online, including virtual gallery tours, that give you full access to their collections from home. These are amazing resources that can help you plot out your route before you get to the space OR parse out what you are actually interested in seeing.
      • These collections also often include videos, expert insight and way more access to information than you can get on a crowded day at the museum and can help make better sense of what you may have seen
      • (Use Mondays @ the Museum videos for tips on fun ways to interact with any virtual or in-person collection from ways to “read art” or find mathematical patterns in paintings or “Ask Questions like an Archaeologist” to learn about artifacts and more)
    • Website & online resources:
      • Even smaller museums have helpful resources like virtual maps, audio tours, and educational resource guides that will help you plan your visits. Make sure you go to a museum’s website before heading out to check on special events, unanticipated closures, fees, group discounts, guided tours, special requirements and more.
    • Gallery & Family guides
      • All museums have some sort of printed or virtual guide when you arrive, that provides a map and often a suggested route to take to see all the cool stuff. Many times museums will also have a guide made specifically for youth or families with children. These are fun for adults too and often include scavenger hunts, special activities and more!
  5. Take advantage of staff and docents!
    • Most museums either have volunteer or paid gallery educators, docents or tour guides available to help guide you through the space! These are amazing people who can both answer questions and spark your curiosity about the collections through their passion and knowledge. These people are ready and willing to help, (but also understand when a visit to the museum can sometimes be a quiet meditation time for many of us.)

In our February, Varsity Tutor classes we will be exploring where museums came from and why we have them, what kinds of museums there are along with fun tricks and tools to make both virtual and in-person museums visits engaging and educational for all ages.

These, of course, are my suggestions. (I don’t even follow them most of the time.) But always remember that museums have as many ways to enjoy as there are people to enjoy them. Just make sure to enter with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to go on a journey you may not have expected. Museums provide space to meditate, breathe, learn, observe, question and converse. Each visit will and should be different, but hopefully, with every visit we will learn a little more about ourselves and how we can make this world a better place through our expression of art, craft, science and more.

Since I first viewed it, I’ve really appreciated the advice in this video from by Museum Hack’s founder, Nick Gray. I leave you today with this fun link to amplify the topic of how to visit museums! Don’t forget to follow Mondays @ Museums on YouTube, Facebook, Linked-in, Instagram & follow this blog at our website: museum-mondays.com.

One thought on “How to visit a Museum

  1. How sweet to read your thoughts! I’m glad you enjoyed all those places, in memory at least! You are encouraging us now to go virtually! The Getty, Chicago Art Museum, and the Met would be my first choices. I’ll let you know how it goes if I really do that. My memories of pacing myself with you in the British Museum are best. I kept us going at a slow walk, stopping at the exhibits for photos of things I thought you would like to remember later. Now I wish I had videoed it all! I’m so proud of you.😌🤓 Mom Sent from my iPhone

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    Liked by 1 person

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