Mid-century modern clock in pop colors on exhibit at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
history museums pragmatic historian

How to Visit a Museum

Ever go to a museum, especially a large museum with multiple floors and endless exhibits, and run around frantically trying to take everything in? It’s an exercise in brain overload and exhaustion.

Being a museum person, you’d think I’d know better, but I’m often tempted to look and look and look until I’m frazzled. I don’t want to miss anything! But, in my effort not to miss anything, I end up absorbing nothing, which makes the trip unmemorable.

There is a better way to visit a museum.

You can do so with one of two methods.

  1. Plan ahead for a museum visit.
  2. Pay an impromptu visit to a museum.

The Planned Museum Visit

If you like to plan, do some research on the museum you will be visiting. Make sure to find the museum’s official website to check the hours and fees. (I can’t tell you how often I hear visitors say, “Your website said you were open,” but it was obvious they didn’t find the info on the official website.)

Most museums will have a section on their websites that will explain their permanent and special exhibits. Look for these and decide where you’d like to spend most of your time. That’s where you are going to concentrate your museum-going effort.

When you go, plan to only spend an hour or two in the exhibit areas. Any more time than that and you’ll find your mind wandering or shutting off.

When you arrive, check in with the front desk or entry staff. This is where you’ll pay any fees required to enter the museum or special exhibit. Even if the museum is free, say hi to the front desk staff so they are aware you have entered. They will provide you with basic info on the nature of the museum and directions to the bathrooms, the exhibit halls, drinking fountains, and any other visitor orientation info you might need.

Once you’ve checked in and made yourself comfortable by removing your jacket and using the bathroom, it’s time to head to the exhibit area you have chosen to make the focus of this visit.

As you enter the exhibit, scope out the entire area to see if there is a natural or planned flow to the exhibit story. If you want to follow the story, begin at the beginning. Don’t feel you have to read every bit of text on the exhibit if you are trying to follow the larger story. Read headings and subheadings on the labels to get an overview. (Museum staff don’t expect you to read everything. That’s why we use headings and subheadings, to allow you to get something out of the exhibit without deep-diving into every piece.)

Allow your senses to draw you to whatever seems interesting in the exhibit. Spend most of your time with items on the exhibit that fascinate you; read the exhibit text carefully; study a piece from all angles.

If you’re visiting a renowned museum that has a famous piece, like the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s “David,” be prepared for crowds. If it’s on your bucket list of things to see before you die, it’s likely on the bucket lists of lots of other people, too. Have a backup piece or two you want to experience in case you can’t get close enough to your highest-priority piece.

Once you’re done with your planned exhibit, check in with yourself to see if your attention is waivering. If it is, it’s time for a break or to head out.

If you feel you’ve missed something, plan for another visit. Museums love repeat visitors!

The Impromptu Museum Visit

Impromptu museum visits can be loads of fun because you have no idea what to expect. The human mind loves surprises and novelty and dropping in to a museum on a whim provides that stimulation.

Once again, stop by the front desk to pay the admission fee and get a brief orientation to the museum. Then, take a quick overview of the place. If you discover an exhibit on a topic of interest, do as suggested for the planned museum visit and follow the flow of the exhibit.

Otherwise, pretend you are a bee sampling flowers and randomly move through the exhibit by stopping at whatever catches your attention. Is it the tiny Buddhist reliquary? The Hmong embroidery? A Pop Art clock? Viking tools?

Allow yourself to linger with an artifact. Wonder about who made it and how it was used. Read the text and figure out how long ago the item was made. How similar to or different from you was the maker? How long did the maker have to work to achieve this level of skill? Can you see evidence of use in the piece? How did the piece come to be in this museum?

Because I work in a museum, I also look for the following things when viewing items on exhibit. How is the piece mounted? How is it lit? Can I see the accession number? What sort of case is it in? What other items are in the case, too? How much text is on the label? From what perspective is the story being told? What seems to be missing from the story?

When you find your mind beginning to go numb from the stimulation, it’s time to leave and let what you’ve learned filter through your lived experience.

There’s always another day to return and refill the well of inspiration.

What museum is your favorite? Do you have a favorite artifact or exhibit? If so, please share in the comments.

Mid-century modern clock in pop colors on exhibit at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
Mid-century modern clock in pop colors on exhibit at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, Little Falls, MN, 2018.