I really like going to art museums. A whole lot. Maybe it's because my dad's an art professor so I have learned a lot about art history from him. Maybe it's because I like beautiful things. And I like to learn. But along the way I've figured out a lot of things that help make trips to a museum more fun, so here are ten suggestions for having a great time.
1. Bring a friend.
Some people will feel differently about this. I have a bunch of friends who really enjoy going to restaurants and movies alone. I am not usually one of these people. However, I would much rather go alone than with a big group or with people who don't want to be there, and I do enjoy re-visiting museums solo. In London I would often stop in the National Gallery to visit a painting I'd made friends with there. But a bunch of the activities I'll suggest later are better with a friend.
2. Do some prep work.
This is especially important if you don't really enjoy going to museums or don't feel like you know very much about art. Sometimes just looking up some famous pieces of art on the museum website and learning a bit about them before you go will make you feel lots better. Five pieces, I'd say. In different genres or eras, so that when you find them it will be like a present. Or if you don't have time for this, you could plan your visit so you can join a tour or use an audio guide. These will also help you so you don't feel like you're floundering.
3. When you get the museum map, find a place to sit down and write all over it.
This is something I have only done once, but it was so excellent, I plan on making it part of my museum-ing routine. This past weekend Owen and I arrived at the Rijksmuseum about noon. We were thinking we would look around the museum for about an hour and then find lunch, but the line for the coatroom was SO LONG that we made a new plan and went to eat first, bringing along our museum maps so we could make a plan while we waited for our burgers. We then circled all the rooms that we wanted to visit and then made a route for ourselves (with dotted lines, treasure-map style). It was great! Usually, I'm fumbling with a map and trying to make decisions with my museum buddy along the way, and it's tiring and sometimes frustrating. This made things a lot easier, and meant that we didn't feel like we needed to visit every room.
4. Don't make the security guards nervous.
Never touch the art unless specifically requested to do so by the signage, but it's also a good idea not to get close enough that the security guards are watching you. If you're trying to point out something in the painting, you can use the shadow of your hand to point. If you want to lean in to see the details, keep your hands well away. However, when touching is allowed, go for it! The British Museum is particularly fantastic about this. They have these little "touching history" kiosks, where an attendant will let you hold coins and pieces of pottery that are CRAZY OLD, and will tell you all about them. I held a coin with Cleopatra's face on it. Yep. That Cleopatra. Amazing.
5. Take care of your body.
When there are seats available, sit in them, even if you're not desperate yet. Snack breaks or at least water breaks are a must. Our bodies aren't usually used to that much standing, so it can be surprisingly exhausting to spend some hours at a museum. If you're about to go into a ticketed exhibit, use the bathroom first.
6. If you're not liking a room or a gallery, don't try to force yourself to like it.
I sometimes feel duty-bound to enjoy art. It's okay if you don't like everything. If you're bored by the state portraits, or the weird music that goes with the contemporary exhibit is freaking you out, go to another part of the museum. Don't sweat it.
7. In rooms full of portraits: compare them.
Which of the subjects looks friendliest? Least approachable? Who is the happiest with his clothes? Who is least happy to be sitting for a portrait? Are any of the portraits making eye contact with each other? Which ones would be friends with each other? What nicknames did this lady get called?
8. Treat big paintings full of characters like a comic books with blank speech bubbles.
Abigail, Owen and I encountered this gem in the Philadelphia Art Museum. There are so many little stories going on it's fantastic to make up dialogue for all the groups of people. The cupid in the bottom left never really learned to fly, the two over on the right hand edge half way up the painting look like the man is telling the lady, "you get in that water!" "but Dad! it's so nice sunbathing here with my friend." And Europa! She doesn't look particularly ravished, but she does seem happier about the flowers than the wind-god spitting at her. Don't worry too hard, though there's a cupid on the right hand side aiming at him.
9. Play I Spy.
A similar idea to the previous game, this one works best with giant still lifes and with street scenes where people's facial expressions are less prominent, but there's a lot of stuff to look at. This Avercamp painting is a great one for this sort of thing. I spy a bird dive-bombing. I spy a couple where the girl's not that excited about her date. I spy someone with a GIANT yellow feather in is hat. It's a lot of fun.
10. Bring crayons.
This is my favorite way of visiting art museums. I stole this idea from an awesome mom taking her two little kids through the modern section of the Met. They were really into it, and I was jealous. Pick a room that's mostly empty or an unpopular time of day, and set yourself up with a little box of crayons. I'm partial to the 24 color box, as it's small and light and gives you a decent variety. You need to have a lot of time because trying to copy a work of art is not easy. I've had a lots of people mistake me for an art student, and some people offer suggestions, but the kids get the most excited of all. One time in the Richmond art museum I was copying a giant Monet onto a little folded-over 8 1/2 by 11, and a mom and two kids came upon me. The kids were so excited to see someone copying the picture and they were in total awe when their mom asked "is she using fancy art materials?" and they just chirped back, "She's using crayons!" and they walked off making plans to bring their own next time. I had been a little anxious that time because the map for the museum said that no one was allowed to bring in paints and easels. When a security guard wandered by I was all about to make excuses and apologize, only to find he was just stopping in to ask if I wanted a little folding chair.
I hope you visit museums, and I hope you have a great time.