It’s great to look at art online, but nothing beats seeing it up close at a museum. For the best possible museum-going experience, plan ahead. Here are some things to keep in mind.
This article has been superseded by my short online course about museum visits. Click here to take the course for free at Teachable.
- Check out the website. In addition to obvious things like hours, ticket prices, and parking, take a look at the permanent and special exhibitions. 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. If the museum is running a popular special exhibition, you may also have to wait (inside) to enter that particular space.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Do I really need to explain this one?
- Think twice about bringing a big bag. Museums usually make you check large bags, including all backpacks, at the door. This is partly for public safety and partly to protect fragile artwork. If checking your bag is ok with you, go ahead and bring it. Just be forewarned.
- Ask before you photograph. Many museums let you take photographs, but some don’t. It’s a good idea to ask when you buy your ticket. Even if you get a “yes”, still look out for “no photography” signs and ask a guard before taking pictures inside any special (non-permanent) exhibition. These temporary installations often include loans from other museums, so they sometimes have different rules. Pretty much all museums ban flash photography because it can harm works of art, so shut off your flash when you enter. (And please silence your phone while you’re at it!) On a related note, it’s fine to take notes as long as you use pencil, not pen.
- 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.
- 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 open it!). Many museums have one or more cafes inside, but they’re generally pricy. I’ve had some good experiences with food trucks outside larger museums, but you usually can’t 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.
- Pay attention to room/gallery numbers. With their many wings and additions, museum buildings can be confusing and maze-like. Fortunately, many museums assign numbers or names to each room or gallery. They’re typically listed on small signs near the doorway. 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.
Added June 2017
My reader Wife of Bath adds the following advice based on her professional experience: Buy tickets in advance to avoid lines, and be nice to the employees. Thank you!
Added December 2017
- Put your phone on silent and pretend it doesn’t exist. There’s more than one reason for this. First of all, it’s considered rude to have your phone ring in a museum, and it’s even ruder to answer it. People come to enjoy the works of 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. You can use your phone to take pictures, but I wouldn’t interrupt the magic too often for that, either.
- Take a tour or use an audio guide. No matter how experienced you are, it can still be nice to hear what a tour guide has to say. Tours (whether live or through an audio guide) often point out details you might not otherwise notice and offer interpretations different from your own. Plus, they always give helpful information about the works on display. Experiencing a museum through someone else’s lens can be very enriching, and that’s basically what a good tour does for you. If tours aren’t available, look for written material at the admission desk or near the entraces to different rooms.
- Don’t touch! This one is serious. It’s bad for the art, and you will get in trouble.
Added May 2018
Keep your mind open to enjoy museum surprises. Don’t assume that you already know what you will and won’t enjoy. I decided that this merits its own post, so read about this here.
Added November 2018
The following points came up the same conversation that inspired the post “How to Enjoy An Art Museum When You Didn’t Study Art” but seemed a better fit for this post.
Regarding navigation: I love it when museums provide a clear path through a set of galleries, so that you see everything in the best order and don’t miss anything. However, that’s rare to find. The thought of missing something gives me anxiety, so I try to sort of mentally map out the place as I walk through and make sure I visit all the galleries in a section even if I have to backtrack.
Regarding 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. Try not to take an unnecessarily long time, but you don’t have to rush and jip yourself of the experience. 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 saw in the Met’s Michelangelo 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. Don’t be that guy! 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.
Regarding the necessity of reading wall labels: The information given on wall labels – title, artist, culture or place of production, date, materials, and often a brief or long interpretational text -can be useful and interesting. However, don’t feel compelled to read every one, especially since that would take so much time. Also, don’t feel bad if your reaction doesn’t seem to fit with what the text says. You’ll often find larger, poster-sized texts scattered throughout an exhibition. I suggest reading these, since they’ll give you an overview of a show’s main points. Then, read the smaller labels only as much as your patience and interest allows. In my opinion, an exhibition that requires you to read every single label in order to follow it isn’t generally a strong exhibition.