how to visit an art museum

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive at work (FAQ #1: “Where’s the bathroom?” ) is “Where should we start?”  This is a challenging question, particularly in an encyclopedic art museum where collections are arranged from antiquity to the present.  Some visitors arrive with very definite ideas of what they want to see,  heading straight to their favorite collection area, while others prefer to wander and see what they discover.   However you choose to explore, I would like to offer a few tips for museum visitors, first-timers and “frequent flyers” alike.

  1. Start with the museum’s website.  Whether this is your first visit or your fortieth, take a quick glance before you arrive.  Perhaps there’s a new tour, curator talk or acquisition to enjoy.  While museums, particularly encyclopedic ones, can seem like staid,  invariable monoliths, the truth is that something is always changing.   If available, explore artwork online and find some must-sees.  Also, please check the museum’s admission fees and hours of operation.   Don’t frustrate yourself by crafting an awesome plan to visit on a day the museum isn’t open (and for most museums that’s at least one day a week).   If you don’t like crowds, call to find out the least-busiest days  and visit then.
  2. Be mindful of your audience.  Are you attending with other adults? With children? All of the above?  A few moments discussing everyone’s likes or dislikes prior to visiting can avoid the inevitable “I don’t want to see that!” argument later on.   It’s perfectly okay to explore separately (my preferred method) and then regroup to discuss what you have seen.    When visiting with kids, keep routine nap and/or snack times in mind and plan accordingly.  Don’t worry if they snooze through the Egyptian collection.  [One of the most serene things I’ve ever seen in a museum is a father rocking his son to sleep in a contemporary art gallery.]   If there is a sculpture garden or nearby park and the weather permits, plan on blowing off steam outside.  It’s tough looking at fantastic things you can’t touch!  Bring a frisbee, kickball or soap bubbles and release that kinetic energy!  
  3. First stop, information deskNot only a good place to orient yourself (get a map!), you should take the opportunity to ask the info desk staff what they enjoy about the museum, from favorite artworks to the best dessert on the restaurant menu.  Believe me, it’s not often that these fine folks are asked something personal (see FAQ #1 above), so don’t be shy!
  4. Determine a set timeframe to visit.   Unless the museum is very small, I  recommend each visit last no more than 90 minutes with children and two hours with adults.  And during that time span, build in time  for lunch, resting and browsing the museum store.  I love art, but more than a solid hour of looking at anything is too much for me.  I know it is tempting to try to see it all, particularly if you’re visiting from out-of-town, but the last thing you want is “museum feet” and museums are notorious for not providing enough seating.   I learned this lesson the hard way during my first visit to The Art Institute of Chicago.
  5. Resist the intimidation factor.  I hear this from visitors all the time: “I don’t understand art.”  Most of us have received instruction in history or science during our school careers, so visiting museums geared towards those subjects does not create the same type of foreboding as an art museum.  I’ll save my rant about the lack of art education in schools for another day, but that may be why folks are resistant to visit art museums.  The perception is that art is for the elite and that only a “certain” kind of person can understand it.  There is no prerequisite for enjoying art.   You either like it or you don’t, but you can certainly appreciate it all and examine how it makes you feel.  I would imagine that if I was an artist, the worst thing would be if someone looked at my work and felt nothing.   Relax.  Your visit is a time to immerse yourself in humanity’s expressed thoughts, feelings and cultures.  Allow that creative spark to inspire and enrich your life.  I promise, there will be no test over this material.


Please share your museum-visiting tips in the comments.