Whether you’re going to the Field Museum in Chicago or to the Louvre in Paris, here are 8 tips on how to get the most entertainment and education out of your visit!
Don’t try to see everything
Museums are large. That’s part of the reason why they have a reputation for being intimidating; it’s impossible to see everything in one day. Being mentally prepared to skip some things will make your trip more manageable and more enjoyable. Only see what you’re most interested in.
After you decide which displays you’re most interested in visiting, it’s time to study up! Learn a thing or two about the piece. Why did the artist paint the subject? Why did the scientist use this flask? When did the archeologist discover this dinosaur bone? What is the object, and what classification does it belong to? Context is key! It’s important to understand why the display you’re viewing is on display, and preparing ahead of time will boost your appreciation, just like knowing all the words at a concert.
Take your time
Once you’re in front of one of your chosen displays, spend some quality time in front of it. Without preparation, people usually spend a dramatically short amount of time with the piece on display. Opinions on this vary, but taking your time will result in much better understanding than if you just breezed past it, especially if you read the plaque. I’ve even heard people say to spend a half an hour in front of a work of art. Spend as much time as you need with a piece, but do spend more than a few seconds.
Ask yourself what the purpose of the piece was; ask yourself what the theme of the collection is
You might find this out when you’re studying up on the displays that you’re most excited to see, but things might stick out to you in person that you didn’t find written about online. In art, you could discover a political slant, or even simpler, which tools they used. You can ask yourself why they needed to put their politics into art, or why they used the brushes they did. Also, museums are curated collections, so try to figure out why the curator decided to group the pieces together.
Discuss what you see
What you see in a painting or diorama might not be the same as what your friends have seen. Discussing a display with your friends, other museum visitors, or online will help you to gain a new perspective, in addition to the knowledge you got just from studying and visiting the display. You can also find a museum employee, perhaps a tour guide, to discuss it with. They'll know the academic bullet points you want to know.
Expect to be surprised
One of my favorite museum experiences happened at the Toledo Museum of Art, when I turned a corner and saw a Rothko painting down the hall. I had just watched a documentary on the artist in the week prior and was particularly taken with what I had learned. I didn’t know that the Toledo Museum of Art had a Rothko, so I made a beeline to the painting and stood in front of it for a good long time. There’s a good chance that you either are going into a museum blind, or maybe even missed something in your research, so be prepared to find a stunning new favorite or an unexpected old love in the collection.
Expect to be exhausted
You’ll likely be both physically and mentally exhausted by the end of your trip to the museum. Standing up and processing what you’re seeing will take a lot out of you, no matter what, so come prepared. Wear some comfortable shoes, drink a lot of water, and eat a hearty breakfast in order to keep your energy up all day. You probably can’t bring food into the museum, but maybe toss an energy bar and a reusable water bottle into your backpack, just in case.
Take pictures if photography is allowed; take notes either way
There’s probably a million photos of the Mona Lisa out there, but a photo you took can help you remember exactly what you liked about it since you’re in control of the photo. I’ve taken close up pictures of brush strokes that I found particularly incredible. I also recommend writing a bullet list of your favorite aspects of displays, since notes can help you remember better than simply storing them in your brain.
The museum doesn’t have to be an impenetrable house of artifacts! There’s a lot to see, but you’ve got this. When you prepare yourself properly, you’ll have a wonderful day and come out feeling smarter and more cultured. What museum visiting tips do you have? Do you have a favorite museum to visit? Let us know how you spend a day at the museum over on Facebook and Twitter!