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.