The British Museum in London

How not to hate a museum visit

Pro tips from me to you. You’ll thank me, I swear.

1. See stuff you actually like.

I know this sounds obvious. But how many times have your museum experiences been either on a trip with a school group, a tour group, or overbearing friends and family all aimed to make sure you see works because they are important?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Don’t overthink this. If you like The Starry Night, work the google on the internet machine and see if there’s any Van Gough exhibiting in your city, or a nearby city, or wherever your next trip might take you. If you like Impressionists, or medieval tapestries, or Warhol, seek those works out. If you wanna see stacked naked dudes, head to your local museum’s classics and antiquities section. You’re welcome in advance. See what you like to see. You’ll thank yourself for it. Give yourself permission to have your own aesthetic taste. If you’re not sure, here are some great resources to find out.

The Wrestlers at the Uffizi Museum. This is art. You can stare and everything.

And this leads me to…

2. Don’t see things just because they are “important”

Look, there are great paintings by great masters and the experience of seeing them can be magical. Or it can be a letdown. There’s a reason people see the Mona Lisa and say it was smaller than they expected (and, incidentally, if you’re looking for big paintings, look for David and works labeled “Historicals”). If you like to be surrounded by crowds, queued into lines, and being able to say you did a famous thing, then, by all means, knock yourself out. If not, don’t beat yourself up. This goes back to #1 and seeing what you love.

Jacque-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii. This painting is enormous. So big. Ten feet long. You will be impressed if you just want to look at something large.

This takes me to…

3. Have a plan and give yourself time

Having a plan is — “I love Jackson Pollock so I will look up where to find his work.” Giving yourself time is twofold. The first way of giving yourself time being, museums can get crowded no matter where you are going. Give yourself more time than you need to get there and get inside. The second being giving yourself time to sit or stand in front of whatever piece catches your eye. Give yourself time with a work of art. Let yourself notice things about it — lines, color, texture, hell, even the frame. Enjoy just looking at the art. Don’t feel you have to think anything profound. Just enjoy it. Because it’s pretty. Because it’s ugly. Because it makes you feel something you don’t even quite understand. This is much like hanging around with a good friend. Notice things, stay in silence, and relax. Oh, and try not to block anyone’s view.

Now, remember how I said have a plan?

4. Look up one fact about the piece.

I can hear you groaning. This is not homework. You probably already have a magical device in your pocket with the wealth and breadth of human knowledge at your fingertips. Barring that, museums already do this work for you by putting nice plaques by the pieces of art on display. Just read one teeny, tiny fact. You can even stop reading after you have finished this first fact. Hold that one fact in your mind as you look at the piece again. Does it apply to what you noticed earlier? It might; it might not. Artists are storytellers. They draw on the stories they know. Sometimes these are stories you also know. Sometimes they aren’t. If you’d never heard of Christianity, a sculpture of the crucifixion of Jesus would be devoid of context. You could still enjoy an altarpiece. But just one fact would connect you with a depth of meaning, connecting you to a larger story.

This moment — when your perception meets facts, that’s art history. Congrats. Never let someone be an asshole about this to you ever again. You nailed it.

Madame LeBrun approves.
Elizabeth Louise Vigée LeBrun, Self-Portrait
oil on canvas, 1787
Fyvie Castle, Scotland

Remember though…

5. Leave

Seriously, go away. Give yourself permission to just get up and go once you’re done. Don’t spend six hours at a museum. Only people who work there do that. If you are worried about getting your money’s worth, try to see if the museum you want to visit has a free day of the month open to the public. Most museums do. That might not cover transportation, but it could knock down the price significantly. Many museums also have student and senior tickets available as well. Some are literally always free.

You wouldn’t sit in a movie theater seat in the dark, long past the credits were finishing. I mean, unless you were there to *ahem* not see the movie. With works of art, we often conflate a quality experience with the sheer volume of artwork seen by our eyeballs. You cannot see everything. You do not have to. If you want, make a plan that includes a couple of works of art. Then leave. This is not a school trip. Unless you enjoy maximizing your learning potential for funzies, let the pieces you haven’t seen go.

That’s it! Now go forth, and enjoy the public institutions at your disposal!

Enjoy your time at the museum? I’d love to hear about it! Enjoy this article? Click recommend below.

Aminah Mae Safi is a writer who loves superheroes and men in breeches. If you want more on books she’s read, movies she loves, or spotlights on women artist’s, get the newsletter.

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