As an art historian, my friends and family often ask me to come with them when they visit a museum. Of course, I’m always delighted. Museums are my happy place. But I realise for many people museums are intimidating. They feel like they need permission to enter the hallowed halls of culture, or a guide to make these places less confusing. When I do go to a museum with others, I see them making the same mistakes I used to make— so this post is for anyone who wants a little guidance on how to really enjoy the museum or gallery experience without draining your pocket, becoming tired and cross-eyed, or getting kicked out by security.
These tips are pretty generic, and focused on a traditional art museum. I’ll do tips for more specific places (like historic homes, archeological sites or gardens) in the future. But for now, let’s start with the basics.
- You belong in a museum. Are you human? Do you have feelings? Thoughts? Great- you belong in cultural spaces like museums and galleries. Don’t feel excluded by what you don’t know. You don’t have to know anything about art to have a look— that’s why you go! All sorts of people visit art museums and galleries, from every culture and class. It’s true that collecting can have a class-element; after all, not everyone can afford to fill their homes with artworks, but the appreciation of art is free, and available to anyone who takes a moment to consider what another person has created.
- You can’t see everything. It’s impossible. Even the smallest museums have WAY too many things for your brain to consider at once. You only have limited energy and attention so there’s no point in killing yourself trying to see (and remember!) everything on display. I love art so much that I did a series of very expensive postgraduate degrees on the subject, and even I have a two-hour limit at a museum. On a good day. With tea and cake in between those hours.
- Go little, go often. This follows from the last tip. If you are lucky enough to have a local gallery or museum that doesn’t charge entry, there’s no reason not to pop in for 10 minutes on your way home from work. Visit your favourite sculpture to say “hi”, or decide you’ll hit a corner of the third floor that you’ve never made it to before. It’s a mini-adventure! And you’ll get to know the art a lot better than during one fatiguing binge-session. If your local museum charges for entry, consider buying a yearly membership. This way, you don’t feel like you have to get your money’s worth from each visit. This is the number one reason people burn out at museums: “I paid $30 for this, I’d better see EVERYTHING IN THIS PLACE.”
- Scan the room, see what catches your eye. When most people enter a gallery hung with pictures, they usually start on one side of the door and try to look at every single one as they work their way around the room. This is not a great idea. Why? Because the most interesting picture to you might be one on the opposite side of the room. If you work your way round, by the time you get to that picture you’ll be more attention-fatigued than if you had just made your way to your favourite in the first place.
Here’s what I do: as I enter the room I try to scan around for things that catch my eye. “Ooh, that little portrait of the girl looks a bit like my daughter!” I then boldly cross the room right to that picture, skipping everything else in between. I may get back to the other stuff later, and I may not. I do not feel the slightest bit of guilt about this.
- Look at the work of art for a minute, without judgement. Just look at it. Don’t try to find the answer to the ever-annoying question, “Is it good art?” Just take some time. Read the label. Look at it again. Don’t be afraid to ask the museum guards, get the audio guide, or look online for more information. Apparently museum-goers consider a work of art for an average of eight seconds. That kills me. It isn’t nearly enough time to really see something. Look for details. If it’s a narrative painting, try to see what’s going on. If it’s a portrait, try to look into the person’s face and guess how they’re feeling. If it’s an abstract work of art, look for things like textures, colours and shapes that you didn’t see at first glance. Look for brushstrokes, bumps, chips, cracks, hidden dogs, or people enthusiastically chugging beer (looking at you, Pieter Bruegel the Elder). There’s lots of stuff to see if you look hard enough. And the bonus is, you will remember this work of art, and you may find yourself thinking about it long after you’ve left the museum.
- You don’t have to like what you see. Another mistake people tend to make is feeling like they MUST like the work of art before them. That’s not true! You are absolutely allowed to hate it— with two caveats. First, don’t let “Do I like this?” be your first or only question as you look at the art. How can you know if you like it before it’s had a chance to sink in? With many works of art, you may hate it on first sight, but the more you know about it the more you love it. So keep an open mind. Second, do not loudly complain about it. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean others won’t, and it’s very annoying to hear someone else’s commentary when you’re trying to appreciate a work of art. If you don’t like it, zip it. At least until tea.
- Understand the etiquette. Like all places, museums and galleries have rules to make visitors comfortable and prevent damage to their collections. For this reason, make sure you have permission to bring large bags into the galleries. Most museums are fine with this, but it’s worth checking. However, large backpacks will almost certainly be restricted, because it’s so easy to bump into things with them on. Besides, why carry heavy stuff when you can use the (usually free!) coat check and explore unhindered? For the safety of the art, most places won’t allow the use of selfie sticks either, so ask a guard before you use one. Taking pictures is usually okay, as long as you don’t use a tripod. Having said that, for the love of God, DON’T USE THE FLASH. It’s damaging to almost all kinds of artwork. Especially fabrics and paintings. Just don’t. Also on the “Absolutely Not” list is touching the art. Unless you are invited to touch it (and there will be signs saying so) just assume that it’s off limits.
- Take pictures, but not too many. Having said that, do take pictures of art that you like, and want to remember. Take a photo of the label too, so you can find out more about the picture later on. But go easy- don’t take photos of everything. This distracts you from looking closely at the art, and is completely unnecessary, as most collections are now available online.
- Avoid crowds if you can. Nothing takes the pleasure out of viewing art than competing with a billion other people for a look. I really hate crowds, I feel like I can’t get lost in the art if I’m mindful that someone is standing way too close to me. To avoid crowds, try going early or late to popular museums, or on the weekdays. If everyone is looking at the latest exhibition, head to the permanent collection where it will be quieter. If you want to go to a popular exhibition, you may have to put up with the crowds—in that case, there are a few things you can do to ease congestion, like going backwards through the exhibition, avoiding a very crowded room and returning to it later, etc.
- You can go alone. In fact, I often prefer to visit museums alone, where I can meander and take my time on what interests me. So by all means, try going on your own. Or, if you’re with others, don’t feel obliged to always be looking at the same works of art for the same amount of time. My own rule of thumb is staying in the same room as my friends, or within eyeshot. Sharing an experience of a painting you both love is wonderful, but don’t turn that into an obligation for the whole visit.
- You don’t have to buy anything. Other than your entry ticket, you are not obligated to buy anything while at the museum. I think many people forget this, and feel they must have a snack in the cafe, or buy something from the shop. That’s fine, but you really don’t have to. And you might find those same things cheaper elsewhere!
- Let the art pull questions out of you. My last tip is the most esoteric, but also the most important. Good art makes you ask questions, from “What’s going on here?” to “What the hell?!”. These questions don’t always have answers, but it’s always interesting to pursue them. Looking critically, trying to understand, examining your own feelings, these are among the most valuable aspects of art. And these skills apply almost everywhere in our lives, not just at the museum. So think of a museum, or art in general, as a gym for the mind. They open us up as we take the time to discover new things, see in different ways, and question our own impressions and feelings.
I hope these tips help you to be more confident about visiting art museums and galleries. Let me know in the comments how you went, and do let me know if there’s anything I left off this list!