How to tackle the museums of the world

How to tackle the museums of the world

So, you’re planning a trip to London or Paris or New York…Washington, Florence or Rome…(insert any city of the world here) and, of course, you’re going to include the iconic museums and galleries on your itinerary. The Met, The Smithsonian, Tate Modern, The Uffizi…giant repositories of the world’s treasures.

But, if you’re not careful, too many museums and too little time results in a blur of pigments, an overload of antiquities and (if you’re travelling with children) possibly, a meltdown of dramatic proportions.

So, what’s the best way to tackle the museums of the world in order to take away memorable moments, rather than a spinning head? In the tips below, I offer a few alternative ways of visiting museums. There is no one approach that will suit everyone. Choose a method that resonates best with you and your travelling companions.

Hit the highlights

Get on-line before you visit and check out the website for the particular museum or gallery. Create a short list of five or six appealing ‘highlights’ of that collection, and use that list to create your touring itinerary for the museum. I followed this approach when we visited The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC. The list was: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, the star-spangled banner, the Greensboro lunch counter and Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown. Along the way, we encountered many other fascinating displays and items, and wandered off on a whim through several galleries, but the list shaped our overall visit.

American History Museum
Some of the ‘highlights’ at the American History Museum

Create a ‘no regrets list’

For every big museum or gallery there are the iconic items that everyone will ask if you saw. For example, you’ve gone to the Louvre in Paris. When you return home, all your friends and family will ask you what you thought of the Mona Lisa.

Think about what items or artworks are non-negotiable in your museum experience? Which ones would you regret forever if you didn’t see? Write a list of those, and use them to craft your touring route.

My own experience of the Louvre was back in 1996, which was my only (so far!) visit to Paris. I was three weeks into a six-week holiday in Europe and was suffering badly with a virus. But I had soldiered on for as much as I could manage – it was Paris after all! We had left the Louvre to visit on our last day, and had already been to the Musee D’Orsay, The Musée Picasso and Musée de l’Orangerie. As we stood in the foyer of the Louvre, under that impressive glass pyramid, I looked at The Poolboy and said, “I just don’t have the energy to do this…”

So we left.

I don’t regret that. I’ll visit the Louvre someday. And I would rather that when I do, it is a memorable experience, not a blur of paintings half-seen through a veil of exhaustion and art-overload.

Bang on the headphones

Many museums offer an audio tour experience. For a few dollars, you can put on a headset and listen as experts give background and explanation for what you’re seeing.

There’s various types of audio tours. Some follow a set path (i.e. Painting 1, then Painting 2 etc) through an exhibition. The downside to this, is that everyone with an audio tour is following the same well-worn path. While the crowd is huddled around Painting 1, listening to the informative (but let’s be honest…sometimes a bit long-winded) audio, the painting right next to it, which is not on the audio tour is wide-open, getting very little visitor-love.

Other types of audio tours allow you to select your own pieces of interest and key in the number to start the commentary for that particular piece.

The most innovative I’ve experienced is ‘The  O’ at MONA (Museum of New and Old Art) in Hobart, Tasmania. There is no traditional wall signage at MONA. Instead, visitors are equipped with an iTouch device which is used to read about what you’re seeing and/or listen to interviews with the artists. You can also add your email address, so that your tour of the gallery is tracked and emailed to you afterwards, which creates a handy record of artworks seen, and links to further information.

MONA at Hobart, Tasmania
MONA at Hobart, Tasmania

Go against the crowd

When the doors of the museum open and the crowds all charge for the gallery on the right…go left. There is nothing quite like the experience of seeing ancient artifacts or masterpieces of art without 1,000 other heads bobbing around in your line of sight. Seek out some of the lesser-visited galleries and enjoy the peace of really being able to see something rather than jostling for space in front of a ‘big-ticket-item’.

I’m a frequent visitor to The National Gallery of Victoria; both the International gallery on St Kilda Road, and the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. There is always at least one big drawcard exhibition on at both of these locations (currently at NGV International it is the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition). The ground floor galleries are often where the queues form, and the crowds swell. So, when the gallery foyer is busy, I like to take the escalator to some of the other galleries. At NGV International, I particularly like the third floor. It’s always quiet, and there’s some wonderfully quirky pieces to find up there.

Narrow the focus

Tackling some of the world’s biggest museums and galleries in a day (or less!), is really just an exercise in scraping the surface. The British Museum in London, for instance, has over 8,000,000 items in its collection. Over 80,000 will be on display at any one time. That’s a lot to take in, and can lead to a severe case of being ‘museumed-out’ (as my girls would say).

Rather than trying to ‘do’ the whole museum, an alternative way to approach it is to focus on one theme, or artist, or period of time, and seek out appropriate items.

This works particularly well with kids. Perhaps they are horse-mad? Then you could focus on works of art featuring horses. Maybe a teenager is studying The Great Gatsby at school? Why not find textiles, artworks, jewellery or furnishings from the 1920s? Are you a crafter yourself? Many museums or galleries have exquisite collections of lace-work; often hundreds of years old.  The opportunities to narrow down the focus of your visit are endless, and it doesn’t take too much prior research to achieve.

Wander aimlessly, stop at will

The antithesis of the approaches outlined above is to have no plan, and no prior expectations. Just wander into the museum and see what catches your attention. We used this approach at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington. We had no idea what exhibitions were currently running, we just strolled though the galleries, passing anything that didn’t grab our interest, and stopping at what did – mostly modern sculpture.

HirshhornAt the time we visited, there was a striking installation by Barbara Kruger called Belief + Doubt on the bottom floor (it’s still on, until the end of December 2014). While the girls had been less than enthusiastic about the upper floors, their spirits picked right up when we found this. It made for the perfect backdrop for selfies (see tip about creative engagement with artwork below).

The best part about this unstructured approach is that you just don’t know what you’re going to find.

Spend more time with less items

Some people like to take on the big museums as a sprint event. They dash from room to room, glancing at each item as they pass, snapping pics to prove they were there. But I don’t personally know any of these people. Most people I know find that experience very unrewarding.  To view every single item on display in a museum as large as, say The Vatican Museums, means that you could only lock eyes on each item for a matter of seconds.

I would rather choose some individual pieces and spend some quality time examining them. It also gives you a chance to engage with your companions about what you’re seeing rather than huffing and puffing as you complete your cardio-circuit of the museum.

I have a host of photos of the girls, sprawled over gallery seating in museums around the world. While The Poolboy and I wander around a space, they choose to plonk themselves in one place and wait for us. I bet though, that they have a greater appreciation of the works that were right in front of them while they sat, than they would otherwise. Often several minutes of quiet contemplation is just what is needed to really see what it is that you are looking at.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851) in The Met, NYC

Tour with a local

If you know someone local, ask them to accompany you to the museum, especially if it is one of their favourite places. They will know all the best bits to go to, and the highlights to seek out.

Twice we have met a NYC-native friend in The Metropolitan Museum in New York. She has lived her whole life in the city, and is a regular visitor to the Museum. The first time was Christmas 2008, and we asked her to take us to some of her favourite places – one of which was the Christmas tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche which is installed in The Met each year for the festive season. It is an 18th-century Neapolitan nativity scene with a cast of many little lifelike attendant figures. Silk-robed angels hover over the scene on a huge candlelit spruce. Our friend goes to The Met each year to watch it being installed, and was able to tell us all about the piece, which made it a very memorable sight.

The second time, in April 2014, she took us to the American Wing, and she was a wealth of knowledge about the particular events or personalities in American history being depicted in some of the artworks.

If any Feet on Foreign Lands readers are ever in Melbourne,  I offer my services as your local!

Ask for advice at the information desk or join a tour

I take my hat off to the people who work in most of the museums and galleries I’ve ever visited. They are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the contents of the museum.

Want to follow a themed approach to your visit (as above)? Ask for advice at the information desk.

Want to see the highlights of a museum and hear a bit more about each of them? Join a tour.

At the NGV galleries, voluntary guides take free daily tours of the collection or specific exhibitions. And many other museums offer similar tours. Take one. These guides are so incredibly well-informed about their subject matter, that their insights and information add an extra layer to what you see in front of you.

Choose a narrower museum

There are times when tackling the big museums just seems too much. Or perhaps you’ve already done them, and are looking for something a bit different? This is when you should seek out a narrow museum. I don’t mean one with a small street frontage, just one with a more specific focus.

Here in Melbourne, there is a fantastic museum dedicated to sport at The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The National Sports Museum showcases sports memorabilia and contains interactive displays related to Australian football, cricket, Olympic Games, soccer and many other sports. The Musee Picasso in the Marais district of Paris, is dedicated specifically to the works of the artist Pablo Picasso. The International Spy Museum in Washington DC focuses solely on the history and role of espionage, and features the largest public display of international espionage artifacts. The National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia is a very quirky museum dedicated to preserving America’s heritage of freedom.

If you have a specific area of interest, there’s bound to be a museum somewhere in the world that covers it.

Engage with the artworks

Art purists often sneer at museum visitors lining up with artworks to take their ‘I woz here’, selfies with their smartphones. And, I have to admit, I find the process of mindless snapping of a selfie pic alongside a work of art a little bit annoying…especially when it is a crowded gallery and that act blocks others’ views of the item.

However, I do love creative and thoughtful engagement with artworks through selfie-snapping when it’s done without impacting too much on anyone else’s experience. Search the hashtag #museumselfie in Instagram and you’ll find over 5,000 photos. Some are very clever. Some are silly. Often they involve something mirrored. But what many of them have in common is that someone has stopped for a moment, and really engaged with the artwork. They’ve imitated its form, or used it to create a whole new image.

#museumselfie at Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul
#museumselfie at Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul with Anish Kapoor artwork.


My favourite memory of our last visit to The Metropolitan in NYC, is of Queenie and Britannia in a quiet gallery, posing alongside Greek sculptures, mimicking the poses and taking photos. To do that means really seeing the artworks, not just glancing at them as you pass.

The recent fluffy bear installation (You started it…I finish it by Italian artist, Paola Pivi) in the foyer of NGV International was another fabulous example of patrons interacting creatively to take selfies.

What’s your best tip for tackling the museums of the world?

This post is linked up to:

Weekend Wanderlust


#WeekendWanderlust hosted by A Brit and a SouthernerJustin plus LaurenCarmen’s Travel TripsOutbound Adventurer, and A Southern Gypsy.

#SundayTraveler linkup -on Chasing the DonkeyPack Me To…A Southern Gypsy, The Fairytale Traveler, and Ice Cream and Permafrost.

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