This article is adapted from The Art Museum Adventure Guide, my online course about museum visits. Join the course to get more expert advice like this.
Nothing is better than seeing art up close in a museum. Here are some things to keep in mind for the best possible museum-going experience.
Check out the website. In addition to obvious things like hours, ticket prices, and parking, take a look at the permanent and special exhibitions to find out what’s on display. Since many museums are too large to see everything in one day, it’s helpful to come in with a general idea of what’s on view and what you’re most interested in.
Be prepared to wait in line. You may have to wait in line before you can even enter the museum, particularly on weekends, in the summer, and on days with discounted admission. Lines may form outside, so prepare to spent time in the elements. When possible, purchasing your admission online ahead of time will let you skip the line. If the museum is running a popular special exhibition, you may also have to wait (inside) to enter that particular space.
Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll do a surprising amount of walking.
Reconsider bringing a big bag. Museums usually make you check large bags at the door. This is partly for public safety and partly to protect fragile artworks. You may be asked to wear your backpack on your front so you don’t bump the artwork with it. Heavy bags are also tiring to carry around the galleries.
Ask before you photograph. Many museums let you take photographs, but some don’t. Ask before photographing, and look out for “no photography” signs before taking pictures inside any special (non-permanent) exhibitions, which may have different rules. All museums ban flash photography because it can harm works of art, so shut off your flash when you enter.
Pace yourself. When you get absorbed in a beautiful work of art, it can feel like time stands still. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, so it’s easy to miss out on other, equally-beautiful works if you lose track of time inside a gallery. So check your watch occasionally, and budget time for everything you want to see. Pacing yourself will also help you avoid the dreaded museum fatigue.
Plan your meals. Museums don’t allow visitors to bring food inside. (Don’t bother trying to sneak in a granola bar, since you’ll get caught as soon as you try to eat it!) Many museums have one or more cafes inside, but they’re generally pricey. I’ve had some good experiences with food trucks outside larger museums, but you can’t always leave the museum and re-enter on the same ticket. Basically, it’s no fun to look at artwork when you’re really hungry, so include meals in your plan.
Be nice to museum employees. I hope I don’t need to explain this one. It’s common courtesy.
Pick up a map and pay attention to room/gallery numbers. With their many wings and additions, museum buildings can be confusing and maze-like. So, be sure to pick up a map. Many museums assign numbers or names to each room or gallery (typically listed on small signs near the doorway), and you can use them to keep track of where you are on your map. Museums that don’t label individual rooms may instead identify them by showing the locations of key artworks on the map.
Put your phone on silent and pretend it doesn’t exist. It would be rude to have your phone ring in a museum and even ruder to answer it. People come to enjoy the art, and they really don’t want to listen to your loud phone conversation while they do so. But also, you’ll have a much better experience if you ignore your phone. Part of the fun of visiting a museum is escaping from your ordinary world for a while, and that’s hard to do if you keep answering texts or checking twitter.
Take a tour or use an audio guide. Experiencing a museum through someone else’s lens can be very enriching, and that’s basically what a good live tour or audio guide does for you. But make sure to also spend time exploring on your own.
Don’t touch! This one is serious. It’s bad for the art, and you will get in trouble.
Keep your mind open to enjoying museum surprises. Don’t assume that you already know what you will and won’t enjoy.
Expect to encounter crowds. Crowds are a reality to be faced at art museums, and you have a few possible strategies. You can look at the works that have the fewest people in front of them and come back to the rest once others have moved on. You can line up to see the works you want and wait your turn, which will take the longest. You can look as best as you can over other people’s shoulders and decide based on that which works are worth waiting in line for. Regardless, when it’s your turn to see a popular work, don’t feel bad about standing there for a few moments to appreciate the piece. Other people didn’t rush through their experience, and neither should you. However, please don’t be selfish and totally block the work from other people’s view on purpose. (Don’t be like the guy I once saw at a drawings exhibit who kept putting his phone right up to the drawings to take pictures. By doing this, he stopped anybody else standing next to him, behind him, etc. from seeing the work at the same time, because his phone totally covered it.) Crowds can be frustrating, so I find it helpful to remind myself that everybody is here for the same reason I am – to enjoy the art.
Read wall labels judiciously. The information given on wall labels – title, artist, culture or place of production, date, materials, and some interpretation – can greatly enhance your experience, but they can easily distract you from looking at the art itself. Don’t feel compelled to read every one, especially since that would take way too much time. Also, don’t feel bad if your reaction doesn’t seem to fit with what the text says. Your experience is valid, too.