How to visit a museum!

I’m not a typical museum-goer.  Usually after about an hour, my brain is dealing with “sensory overload” and I just can’t look at another exhibit.  (Autism and ADHD have not helped!) So I have a technique for visiting museums that you might find helpful yourself!  Along the way, I’ll show you some surprises I’ve had too!

Bored in museum

(Don’t let this happen to you!  Try my method below!)

Before I visit a museum, I visit the museum’s website to see what they have in their collections.   This helps me to pinpoint what I especially want to see.  Then I see if there are any floor plans or maps of the museum, and I print out the ones that relate to what I want to visit.  When I go to the museum, the first thing I do is head straight for those exhibits.  After I’ve seen those, then I can wander around and look at other things.  When I’m ready to go, I can leave, knowing that I’ve seen the stuff that was most important to me!

Stuff like this!  One of my favorite artists is Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a 16th century Flemish painter, and one of the BEST places to see his work is the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Austria).  In 2018-19, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Brueghel’s death, the museum will be presenting what will be the biggest exhibition of his art ever put together, from October 2018-January 2019.  I will be there! (As you can see, I’m already doing my planning for this one!)

This video from the museum is in German, but even if you don’t understand the words, you can appreciate the art!

But what do you do if you just happen to visit a museum spontaneously, without planning for it?  Here’s what I do.  When I walk in the door, the first thing I get is information.  I’m looking for a map of the museum, or a brochure that shows the “highlights” of the museum’s collection.  I might just chat with someone from the museum for a few minutes, to get some ideas on what they’d recommend for a quick visit.  

Here’s an example: the guide you can get when you enter the Smithsonian in Washington DC (USA)!


This of course is the online version, but you can pick up the paper copy at the entrance!  I chose the Smithsonian here because it is not just one museum, it is an entire complex of buildings scattered all across the city.  It is, in fact, exactly what it claims to be: “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex.”  This guide has a great map to help you find your way, and it gives highlights of each of the museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution!


(You can even see the original studio model of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise at the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian!)

Once I’ve got a good idea of where to go and what to see, I start my visit.  I don’t need a watch to tell me how long I’ve been there: if it’s an interesting place, I’ll stay much longer than an hour, but if not, by the time “overload” has kicked in, again I will have seen the best that the museum has to offer!

On a recent visit to Chicago (USA) I had a couple of hours free.  I had never been to the city’s most famous museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, so I wandered in.  I asked the lady at the ticket desk, “I’ve never been here before, and I’ve only got an hour or so.  What do I absolutely HAVE to see?”  She smiled and told me that there were two paintings I needed to make sure to see.  These are the paintings she directed me to.

Seurat 1

(A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat, 1884.)

I had heard of this painting, but seeing it in person, and being able to get close and see the thousands and thousands of colored “dots” that make up the painting is pretty amazing.  (Pointilism is the name of the technique, I learned.)


(American Gothic, by Grant Wood, 1930.)

This is an American classic!  I had no idea it was in Chicago!  It really is impressive in person.

As I was walking through the American section of the museum, I discovered that the Art Institute has 21 paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.  I’d seen pictures of some of her “big flower” paintings, but never anything in person.  I spent about an hour just looking at her work.  It was a treat!  This next picture was my favorite O’Keefe.

O'Keefe 1

(Blue and Green Music, by Georgia O’Keefe, 1921.)

I developed this system of “how to visit a museum” while leading groups of young students (12-15 years old) on extended tours of Europe (30-35 days).  It worked very well with them, and it helped to get them more engaged in what they were seeing, and kept their interest level high.  One caution, though: no more than TWO museums in a day!  One first thing in the morning, and maybe one mid-afternoon, but that’s pushing it.  Touring with kids, “less is more”!  

I hope this method has been of some use to you.  Try it next time your visiting a museum: you’ll be amazed at how much more enjoyable your visit will be!


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