How to get more out of museums & art galleries
Most people visit museums and art galleries when they travel. Few people seem to actually enjoy them.
Stand in a room and people watch and you’ll see a parade of bored, stressed, distracted faces. You’ll see disgruntled kids trailing behind their parents, whining and asking for an ice cream. Teenagers racing to snap an Instagram picture of the most famous exhibit, taking selfies in any reflective surface. Tourists wielding cameras sprinting from room to room, taking pictures at lightning speed with one hand and pressing an audio guide to their ear with the other. Hordes of people shuffling around, reading the signs, glancing and moving on.
Honestly? I don’t see the point of rushing around just so you can tick it a particular place or sight off your bucket list. Yes, you saw the Mona Lisa and took a selfie. Yes, you saw Whistlejacket and bought a fridge magnet. Yes, you saw the Rosetta stone and tweeted about it. So what?
There’s nothing intrinsically special about being in the same room as a famous exhibit or piece of art. We don’t magically absorb knowledge by osmosis. Any pictures probably won’t be as good as the professional ones you can find online. No one on Facebook is really that interested in seeing 987 holiday pictures. Let’s just get that straight.
The point is to enjoy it - not to pretend to enjoy it because it’s expected, but to truly derive value from a visit. If a particular exhibit bores you, move on. If an entire museum bores you, go somewhere else. If you don't like galleries, don't go. It's not mandatory.
While I’m no expert, I’ve spent a lot of my life in museums and art galleries. Some of my happiest memories have been within those marble halls, beneath vaulted ceilings, in dark little rooms where a single spotlight glows on a canvas. Those moments of awe had a big impact on me as a child.
Recently, I started making some notes for my own reference and, as is often the way, decided to turn them into a post intended to be straightforward and unpretentious. These are some of the rules I follow. I’ve learned these over the years and they've served me well.
If possible, go alone and at a quiet time.
Although this might not be possible, I always find it preferable to go to museums and galleries alone - unless it’s with someone who has a similar attitude or I specifically want to show it to them. Otherwise, you’re forced to keep someone else’s pace and constantly have to worry about losing them. Scratch that - you always lose them.
Likewise, it’s better to go at quiet times, such as on weekdays. You have more space, the staff are likely to be more accommodating and there’s no obstruction. There’s also probably no queue and potentially a lower entrance fee.
Choose museums and art galleries with care. Sometimes the weird ones are more interesting than the popular ones.
Big cities and even towns tend to have a surprising number of museums and galleries - except many of them are closed much of the time, have weird names, are very niche or poorly publicised.
There are a few ways to find these. You can search on Google maps. You can ask people - although locals may not actually go to museums and galleries if they consider them too touristy. You can watch out for signs as you walk around (they are often clustered together in the same area.)
My personal favourite is Atlas Obscura, a site listing unusual, odd or little-known places around the world. It’s helped me find numerous places I would otherwise never have heard of, such as the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris and the cathedral treasury in Dubrovnik. The site works like a wiki so it’s fun to add your own pictures and tips for other travellers. My page is here.
Even within large museums, some areas or rooms are less popular yet potentially more interesting. In the Louvre two years ago, my friend and I were reluctant to join the louder areas, so we spent some time reading ancient stone inscriptions in a pretty much empty room. It was peaceful and ended up being fascinating and memorable. The Museum of Hunting and Nature is a little known, intriguing place with talking taxidermy animals, a vast collection of ornate antique guns and strange modern art.
While the popular places are popular for a reason, something else might resonate with you in a better way.
Only twice in my life have I been to an outright terrible museum. Both were small natural history museums containing a few grubby cases of wilting stuffed birds and minerals that looked like they’d been hurriedly bought on eBay. Otherwise, even the mediocre ones have at least one thing that’s worthwhile.
Don’t try to see everything. Stick to three rooms per visit.
I have a simple rule for museums and art galleries: three rooms per visit. If I’ve come a long way or it’s a small place or there’s a lot I want to see, I’ll take a break in between. Any longer and you just get tired and stop absorbing anything.
Let’s not get pedantic about what counts as three rooms. You know when you’ve had enough. And that’s when it’s time to either leave or take a break.
Most museums and galleries are too big to see in one go anyway. Three rooms will take perhaps two hours which is long enough. Plus, this forces you be selective about what you see. In any given museum or gallery, there are likely to be a small number of exhibits or shows that you’ll connect with and get something out of. The rest is just noise. Planning ahead is a good idea. I try to look for things to see that connect to my interests or are by artists I know I like. After reading The Pope’s Elephant, I’ve started looking for artwork inspired by Hanno, the elephant depicted in the book. Although it’s hard to know for certain, I’ve been able to connect a few pieces to original sketches of Hanno - or at least, to art inspired by those original sketches.
Don’t take pictures until you’ve looked at something first and take as few as possible.
Taking pictures in museums and galleries is sort of pointless. A million other people will have taken the same picture. An iPhone snap of Monet’s waterlilies is not going to look better than the official photograph taken with a ten grand camera in special lighting. As for selfies with every single item...please don’t. There are exceptions. I do take pictures in galleries and museums, particularly if I'm there to research. I love getting up close to record the details.
But there are limits too. Photographing every damn thing and taking a selfie with every single item is just annoying for everyone else. It’s like filming the whole of a concert or picking a pretty wildflower. The impact is from being there, not from a picture.
Most important: take a notebook and draw what you see. Pick one thing and sit with it. Get up close.
Each time I visit a gallery or museum alone (or with a tolerant companion), I’ll spend a good hour or so with one piece or exhibit. And I’ll draw it. A Moleskine Cahier, Lamy Safari (medium nib, purple or blue ink) and, when I can afford them, Caran D'ache pencils are essentials. But any old napkin and IKEA pencil will do.
I cannot draw. At all. If you think you’re bad at drawing, I’m probably worse. Even a well-proportioned stick person is a challenge. Honestly. But like dancing, makeup and swimming, I enjoy it despite being bad at it. It’s also the perfect way to really look at something, to see it as it is and not how you imagine it to be. To connect. To appreciate.
Plus, people always assume I’m an artist and peer over my shoulder, or very politely ask if they can look. Then I try to keep a straight face as they attempt to figure out if it’s bad in an abstract way, or just bad-bad. It’s the latter. I don’t care.
As for the matter of focusing on one thing for an hour or so, an inability to do it is a sign of a wider problem. Anyone can focus on a film or a book or a live band for an hour. Dinosaur bones or a watercolour painting are not too dissimilar. The difference is that you have to create your own story. You have to see and feel and question and debate. Perhaps it becomes a dialogue with the creator. Perhaps it becomes an attempt to put an artefact in context.
I get that not everyone has the time for this, in theory. But if you’re going to take the time to go to a museum, you might as well enjoy one thing rather than being indifferent to a hundred.
I’ve done this since I was very young and so has my brother. Often, when I stand up after sitting looking intently at something for a long time, I’ll notice other people and almost always children have joined me and are doing the same. Recently, I finished drawing some dinosaur bones in a museum and realised about a dozen other people - mostly kids under 10 - had sat next to me and were sketching away too. Many places even offer free colouring pencils and paper for this exact reason. When everyone else is rushing around, it might not even be obvious that sitting in one place is an option.
Treat exhibits like extended family members and revisit them when you can.
The dialogue can be an ongoing one. There are certain exhibits and pieces of art I have visited dozens of times since I was a child. I return to them furtively, like visiting a distant relative out of a sense of obligation. They stay the same. I change. I grow. I see them in new ways each time. They are a still point in a spinning world, unchanging as the world marches on around them. Familiar, yet always surprising. I panic when they get moved to another room or lent to another show, like reaching for the last step on the staircase in darkness and finding it’s not there.
Mostly I can’t say why those particular pieces speak to me. But they do. I expect everyone has pieces that speak to them in the same way.
One of these old friends is Bashaw, a marble statue of a Newfoundland dog carved in 1834 and currently held at the V&A in London. I’m not sure when I first met him, although it’s clear why I adored him as a child. The sculpture was originally commissioned by a Lord to depict his dog, although the owner died before its completion. Curly haired, tail and nose aloft, the dog tramples a cobra beneath his feet with a seeming indifference. Much like Whistlejacket (another favourite), it’s more of a portrait of the animal than a work of art. He feels a little too real.
Elsewhere in London, I revisit Paolo Uccello's clumsy Saint George and The Dragon, the Turners, the Arnolfini portrait, the quiet mineral room in the Natural History Museum in London, and the hall of extinct animals at the Natural History Museum in Paris.
Audio guides and tours are a waste of time and money- except when they’re not.
It depends. Sometimes a tour can be wonderful and illuminating. Sometimes they’re just distracting. It depends on the guide and whether they reel off facts like an Apprentice candidate or show genuine passion. In Dubrovnik, my mum, brother and I were shown around the aforementioned cathedral treasury by a young guy who seemed to know everything there is to know about every item, describing each with reverent enthusiasm and making the experience far more interesting than it would otherwise have been. But other times I’ve joined tours and given up after a few minutes. It depends on the experience you’re after.
Still, it’s always worth learning as much as possible about what you’re looking at. As a child, I saw a huge Vincent Van Gogh retrospective in Amsterdam and hated it because I knew nothing about him. Only after I watched the Doctor Who episode about him a few years later did I reconsider my opinions and start reading up about his life. No, it’s not a documentary but that episode is actually an emotional portrayal of Van Gogh as a person. Same goes for Frida Kahlo and Paolo Uccello - learning about them at school left me with an enduring interest in their work.
Header image is the enterance to the National Galery in London, ft. the back of Corrie's head.