Seven Tips For Visting An Art Museum

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I am not an artist. In fact I am probably the farthest thing from an artist you can possibly be. I can’t draw, paint, sculpt or play a musical instrument. I’m also not a serious student of art history. I’ve never taken a course on the subject or studied it in a rigorous manner. I have however, had the pleasure of visiting many of the great museums of the world. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered from visiting museums around the world.

1) DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING

The first rule of art museum is “do not touch anything”. The second rule of art museum is DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. For the love of baby Jesus, don’t touch anything. Imagine yourself touching something….then don’t do that. Wanting to touch something is a natural human reaction. Keep your hands in your pockets or behind your back and keep a few steps away from any paintings. Even a light touch can damage old and fragile art works. Remember to take whatever you do and multiply it thousands of times over hundreds of years. That is how long things hopefully will survive and even small actions can add up. Look at the wear on the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican or on the pig in Florence. You can see how just a few decades of touching can wear down solid metal. Imagine what it can do to cloth. A few years ago a guy at the Minneapolis Museum of Art sat on a several hundred year old chair and broke it. Don’t be that guy.

2) Don’t bring children

This one might be controversial, but for the most part kids are bored stiff in art museums. That is why they have special children’s museums where kids can run around, touch stuff and not get in trouble. I saw one kid running around at the Chagall museum in Nice, France who almost fell down and put his hand through a painting. I don’t know what the optimal age is to bring a kid to an art museum, but it is probably over the age of 10. At least a baby can sleep the entire time, but somewhere between the ages of 2 and 10 kids will have as much fun at an art museum as they would going to church.

3) Leave the camera at home

About half the museums I’ve been to do not allow any sort of photography at all. The other half will not allow flash photography or tripods. There is no way possible you will get an image of a great work of art you can print out and hang on the wall. To get that you’d need access to the photo under good lighting conditions (which do not exist in museums for photography), in a studio with a tripod. If you do bring a camera make sure you know how to turn off the autoflash on the camera. I see this all the time: people take out their pocket camera or cell phone and the flash goes off because they don’t know how to turn the flash off. The light from a flash is short but intense. Added up thousands of times it would be like putting a painting in the sun. If you do bring your camera the best photos will be when you take photos of the entire room, not of a single piece of art. You will never get a good photo of the Mona Lisa, but you might get an interesting photo of a throng of people gawking at the Mona Lisa. Likewise, you can often zoom in on a part of a painting and get better results than trying to get the whole painting. (see the image on the right). Now days, I usually don’t even bother bringing a camera at all.

4) There isn’t some deeper meaning that you are missing

Many people are intimidated by going to museums. They think there is something they ought to “get” and feel dumb when they don’t get it. They can stare at something all day and not understand why it is supposed to be a big deal. The secret is….there is nothing to get. Museums are about history more than anything else. The Mona Lisa might be the most famous painting in the world, but that doesn’t mean it is the best painting. It is famous for two reasons: 1) It was stolen in the early 20th Century which made it an object of popular culture, 2) it is one of the few works of Leonardo di Vinci who is a person of historical note even outside of his paintings. You can enjoy the painting for what it is (a portrait of a woman) but you can also use it as a vehicle to learn about the artist, the time period it was created, and the history of the physical work itself. Some works are like Paris Hilton; famous because they are famous. Some paintings were never meant to be great. They were just portraits of rich people or meant to be an ornament for a church. Today they are in a museum because they are old.

5) Don’t try to see everything

Some people feel the need to get their moneys worth when they go to a museum. Even if you walk in every room there is no way you are going to “see” everything in all but the smallest museums. I’ve been to the Minneapolis Institute of Art dozens of times and every time I go back I notice something new I have probably walked past many times before. If you go to the Louvre, the British Museum or the Metropolitan, there is no way you can see and appreciate everything in one trip. If you are visiting a museum you probably will not be returning to, get a map of the building and prioritize the things you want to see. If you don’t walk into every room, don’t worry about it.

6) Feel free to like and not like things

Many people do not like modern art. That is a perfectly fine opinion. Not everything is equal. If you don’t like something, try to look at it in a different way. Don’t look for a deeper meaning to Jackson Pollock (see #5 above) because there isn’t one. It is just a pretty picture. If you don’t like something, then at least try to articulate to yourself why you don’t like it. Likewise, if you do like something try to figure out why. One of my favorite painters is Gerrit van Honthorst. You never hear much about him but I think his paintings were very innovative with what he did with light. I learned about him from seeing his works in museums. No one told me about him in an art class and I was never told I was supposed to like him, I just did.

7) Use a guide

If there are walking tours available while you are there, join them. If they have audio guides available where you can listen to descriptions of various works, get one. Buy a small guidebook if that is all that is available. There are often small things in artworks you would have no idea they were there unless you were a student of history or of that particular artist. A person in a painting might be a specific person, but you’d never know that without any context. Likewise, if there is a particular famous work at a museum you are visiting you might want to research it online before you go. The more information you have, the more you will enjoy your experience.

  • 18 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. John S Hansen says:

    Thanks for letting me be a passenger on Your great venture!
    One thing I think You are wrong about is kids in museums. I found that many years later my kids remember stuff from our museum visits, that I have forgot and their museum experiences give then a richer life by having opened their eyes to see and listen to the wonderful world.

  2. Derek says:

    The coolest museum I’ve ever been to was in Cairo, Egypt. I was there a few months after the main uprising and could still see the aftermath of the riots, but the museum itself was well protected.

    Seeing 3000 year old bread really rocked my world! King Tut’s tomb was so well preserved since it wasn’t ever raided over the past few thousand years that the bread they found inside was still there, just completely black and almost dust.

    Well worth going

  3. Idealgewicht says:

    I agree with 3 as one can always buy nice copies of favourite artwork in a museum shop, plus the photos almost never look as good as the professional copy.

  4. Gary: YOU ARE AN ARTIST! Photography is definitely an art. I hope you’ll visit the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson some time.
    Love all your points, except the children one, and I would just add one thing. Take advantage of the Museum Cafe. Almost all museums have lovely cafes, and you can take a break, refuel, and keep going for a couple more hours.

  5. Kevin says:

    Also be careful if you’re carrying a backpack, messenger bag, large purse, etc., especially if you’re not used to it (as may be the case for the infrequent traveler). I’ve watched people nearly knock things over (and hit plenty of people) by just turning around.

  6. MB says:

    With the don’t bring kids to a museum thing, I’ve actually found some kids will have a longer attention span than many of the adults I know.

  7. Simon says:

    I specially agree with #5 and # 6. You do not need to like everything (and basically this is impossible), and therefore there is no need to see everything. Better focus on the works of art you prefer or are most interested in. Anyway, our eyes, memory and concentration have only a limited capacity.
    Visiting a museum is not only a matter to “see” but much more to “experience”. Art is a gift not only for the eyes, but also (and I dare say mostly) for our souls and our emotions.

  8. I agree with you but not completely, because you should learn them & prepare them in advance to go tour of museum, because they learn more than read than they watch in museum.

  9. Victoria says:

    You’ve inspired me to write my own post! 7 tips for visiting an art gallery with children… http://itsasmallworldafterallfamily.wordpress.com/2009/07/15/7-tips-for-taking-children-to-art-galleries/
    Hope you like it!

  10. Jason says:

    I agree it’s never good to take photos in a museum. Photos of objects, landscapes etc are always better in the wild!

  11. Ali says:

    Despite my love of photography, I will concede that number 4 is a valid point. Who has ever taken a decent photo in a museum? Not a pleasurable experience, dealing with the glass reflections, people jostling you and walking in to the shot. Definitely leave the camera at home for a stress-free stroll!!

  12. Travelwriter says:

    I strongly confirm #7 Especially in art museums a tour guide or even better an audio guide will help you to understand paintings better.

  13. Anil says:

    Agreed with all of them, especially #4!!

  14. Roland Smith says:

    I would confirm #7 (Use a Guide). I’d been a number of times to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and particularly enjoyed a number of the paintings. Then I was on a Viking River Cruise which ended in Amsterdam and included a small-group guided tour of the Rijksmuseum mini-collection on display while the museum is being renovated. That was a real eye opener. The guide juxtapositioned different paintings and walked us back and forth amongst them to show the different uses of light. I was astounded at how much I learned in about an hour. A good guide is invaluable.

  15. Peter Gokey says:

    I’ve been to many museums as well, and have in fact taken students on tours to many of them. This pretty much hits it dead on.

  16. Victoria says:

    I agree with all of the above except for the point about not taking children. Our children are aged 7, 4 and 2 and if we prepare them properly, they enjoy art museums too. We’d never let them just run aimlessly, and certainly wouldn’t let them touch or damage something. Instead we do our research beforehand and choose just a few things to look at, that we can tell a story about. For instance, just before Christmas we went to the National Gallery in London and tried to spot as many nativity scenes as possible. Children also really ‘get’ most installation art. They don’t look at it and think ‘what is it about?’ they just enjoy what it looks like or what they can do with it (like the slides they had a while back at Tate Modern). Adult’s too often try and analyse things, without just enjoying them.

    • Nicole says:

      The children one is hard because I use to love going to art museums when I was younger, but I know that most parents are oblivious to their obnoxious children’s behavior (no it’s not cute).
      I grew up in Chicago and every other weekend my Granfather would take to a museum. It was my grown up day, we would go out for lunch and then walk around the museum where he would explain things to me, etc. I loved it, we started when I was 3 and did it until I was in middle school when his health failed.

  17. MousE says:

    Thanks, Gary, these are wise words!

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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