Since expatriating to Copenhagen, Mike and I have been lucky enough to travel all over. We often make art museums part of our travels, even though neither of us is a true art lover. Still, when you’re in Paris, you have to see The Louvre and in Amsterdam, you must see Van Gogh. Therefore, we have grown to appreciate art as part of our travels. It’s been an element of traveling that we struggled with at first. We now know there are ways in which visiting art museums can go poorly. Here are our tips on how to visit an art museum. They can help you make the most out of a visit to a museum and keep you from having a bad time.
Believe it or not, museum fatigue is a real thing. It was first studied and defined in 1916. Museum fatigue is the physical and mental exhaustion felt during long visits to museums. Once I knew what museum fatigue was, I realized I definitely experienced this myself. I also wondered if it included watching Nicolas Cage movies, but it turns out that’s something separate. Still, there are a lot of tips that can keep you from experiencing museum fatigue.
One of the best is to start your museum experience on the upper level. This is because most museums place their main exhibitions on the upper floor. The bottom floors of the museum are typically reserved for rotating exhibitions. Perhaps the best reason to see a museum this way is that most other visitors will be starting on the ground level or the area closest to the ticketing area. Crowds will often flow better if you start on the upper levels.
Ask questions to the museum staff
You don’t work at an art museum because you enjoy standing around in air conditioning all day. These are people who can assist you with where the toilets are AND probably help you to understand the art. They may not be paid art critics or guides, but they have an interest that got them to work there. Take advantage of their presence and see what knowledge, museum tips and fun facts they’ve picked up from working at the art museum.
Get a museum guide for major art museums
Mike and I learned this one the more we traveled together. In 2017 we went to The Louvre and it was a bit overwhelming. Even with an audio guide, I really think the Louvre requires more expertise. A guide gives you that detailed knowledge that you won’t have in an audioguide or by reading placards. (You can find information on a Lourve guided tour HERE)
Another reason to use a guide in an art museum is that you can ask them to focus on what you’re interested in. Heck, you can ask questions and have someone to share your reactions with. It’s much better talking to a living human guide than talking to the audio guide from The Louvre.
This Spring we visited The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and booked a tour with a live guide. It was more expensive but we got a lot more out of the museum. The guide gave us a great overview of the best art with the relevant history and background of the artists and the building. She answered our questions and it was a much better experience and something worth spending a little extra money on. Our guide even recommended other places to see in the city and discussed a lot about life in Russia. (HERE is that tour information)
Pair museums with something complimentary
Sometimes it’s tough to squeeze every attraction into a weekend or few days spent in a city. Museum fatigue could sneak up if you try to do two museums on the same day, so definitely split them up.
You can still cover plenty of touring by pairing the art museums with complementary activities and attractions. For example, if you visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam you’ll be in awe of the classics from Rembrandt. It would be really tough to take in the Dutch masters there and move on to the Van Gogh Museum.
Instead, finish the art museum and then head to Rembrandt Square. There you can get lost in the statues that recreate his famous work, Night Watch. Alternatively, you could visit The Rembrandt House Museum and tour his former lodging in Amsterdam. These activities balance out a long day of art admiration but help you to add a layer to the experience.
Depending on the museum, you may need to buy tickets online before you visit. While art museums are generally spacious, this is especially true of smaller cultural attractions. One example is The Anne Frank House which often requires booking tickets a month or more in advance of your visit.
Another reason to plan your visit in advance is that there are often art museum discounted tickets days. Some days you may even find free art museum admission.
Adult-only evenings are also popular in some museums and provide a great way to enjoy their museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds evening hours on certain Friday nights. They serve cocktails and tapas-style foods for these events and it’s a great way to fit an art museum into your travels. The late art museum hours let you fit more into your day of traveling.
Base your museum visits on the weather
When it’s scorching hot out, you can always rely on an art museum being temperature controlled. Similarly, on rainy days you know a museum will be dry. If you don’t plan your museum days in advance, allow the weather to help you schedule your visits.
Check online to see what you can bring inside
Before you visit an art museum, check online to see what to bring to a museum. Most importantly, check out what you’re not allowed to bring inside the building. Priceless works of art require care and attention which may restrict what you can bring with you.
It’s unfortunate to think about it, but art can be attacked and has been in the past. In 2018, a drunken man slashed at a painting of Ivan the Terrible at a Moscow museum. He claims he drank 100 grams of vodka in the snack bar and it hit him hard. In 1997 a prized Rembrandt was attacked with acid at The Hermitage. It was brought there by Catherine the Great and restoration was costly and expensive.
While you’re likely not chugging vodka on your way into the art museum, be sure you’re complying with the publically available rules before you visit.
Manage your phone
When you visit an art museum, do your part to preserve the atmosphere of learning and observing. This, of course, includes silence and solitude. You can help by placing your phone on vibrate or do not disturb. Even then, you should try to stay off of it and take in your surroundings.
Write down your questions
As you’re experiencing an art museum, your mind will make connections and discover new questions. That’s a great thing! However, instead of immediately looking up the answers to your questions on a smartphone, write them down for later. This will help you to see more of the museum and live in the moment of what you’re doing.
Mike does this a lot, and it’s not a bad thing. I love how his mind works because he sees something and almost immediately researches whatever sparks his curiosity. In an art museum, this can mean a lot of researching. That’s time-consuming – so write it down for later.
Look up photography rules in advance
Just like vodka fueled slashing attacks, art can be harmed by flash photography. The museum rules should include what restrictions exist for photography. Some art museums fully prohibit photographs. Others have more relaxed rules or place restrictions on certain wings of the museum. Check this out in advance so that you’re prepared.
Regardless, you’ll never take a photograph of a painting that captures the textures and hues you see in person. Simply put, your photo won’t do it justice – so don’t sweat it if photography is restricted.
Don’t stay all day
It’s impossible to really see everything in most museums, so you have to prioritize. In fact, we seek out guided tours for that reason, guides know what you need to see. If you don’t want to splurge on a guide, many museums offer an online collection database and preview. Use their website to plan your visit and maximize your time.
Some art experts suggest a 2-hour maximum for viewing art. Set this expiration in advance with your travel partner and check-in 30 minutes before you hit whatever limit you set. Just like any aspect of traveling with others, communication is key.
Buy something to remember it
Whether it’s a print of your favorite piece, a puzzle, an artifact, a unique souvenir – bring home something to remember your visit. It will make you appreciate your time spent at the art museum. You’ll also have a reason to drop how cultured you are.
“Oh that mug? That’s Picasso. I picked it up when Mike and I were in Barcelona at The Picasso Museum. A lot of people think it’s from the Picasso Museum in Málaga, but it’s not. We were there too, so I know.”Things a d-bag would say
See how cool that makes you sound?
You don’t have to “get it”
Some travelers avoid museums altogether because they don’t know much about art. I don’t know much myself, but it’s not an excuse to avoid art museums. All you need to do is appreciate the art and each person may get something different out of the artwork.
I love history, so for me, I often think about what was going on during the time of the artist who created the piece. Make a connection to what speaks to you. Art is subjective, so it inspires something different for all of us.
Discuss it later
The best thing about going to a museum with a group, a travel partner or especially your significant other is the chance to discuss what you see. I definitely recommend you save it for after you leave the museum, but process together.
Art is, of course, unique to the individual experiencing it, but it’s cool to share how you felt. Talk about your favorite piece, what artist you liked the most or if it’s a museum dedicated to one artist, how you imagine they were inspired. If you hate the entire museum, you can even talk about that, but share your thoughts.
I can’t take credit for this term, but I wish I could – because I love it. When you visit a museum, take time for an après-museum stop afterward. This means, sit down for a glass of wine or a beer and unwind your brain. Many museums have a snack bar with adult-beverages. What a great place to process and download the experience of the museum! Après-Museum is best with your travel partner, and it allows you to chat and revel in your experience of the art.
Journal about it
This is something I always say I will do and rarely get around to doing. It’s still an awesome idea to write down what you saw, especially if you’re traveling solo. A travel journal is such a cool way to remember your experiences, but even just journaling one aspect of your travels – like museums – is a good place to start. Plus, you’ll be happy to look back and relive your initial response to the art.
The highly-rated travel journal below is perfect for reflection while traveling or exploring museums in your hometown.
While some people dress up a bit for museums, you don’t normally have to. Check this in advance, but there is rarely a dress code unless you attend a specific event.
You should, however, wear comfortable shoes and bring a light sweater or long sleeve shirt. Because art museums are climate-controlled it’s nice to have an extra layer and most art museums have a wardrobe to hang it if you don’t need it.
Don’t visit a museum out of obligation
We have skipped an art museum here or there, it will probably happen again too. It’s okay not to feel like looking at art, especially when you have a limited time somewhere.
For me, visiting an art museum is an extra flourish to help me understand any city. It’s a way to extend the culture and apply it building a deeper knowledge of those who live and have lived there over the ages. It helps me understand cultures and people on a micro-level.
This also requires a mindset that I don’t have every day of every trip I take. Make sure you’re mentally up for an art museum and don’t feel obligated to visit one if you’re not.
What did we learn about a visit to a museum?
Overall, make sure you’re planning ahead, not taking the art too seriously and finding a way to connect with it later. Those are the most important tips for a visit to a museum.
See more of our trip to Saint Petersburg by clicking HERE
See more of our trip to Amsterdam by clicking HERE
Did we miss anything? Have any art museum travel tips to share? Comment below and let us know: