How to Enjoy Museums

I used to be neutral, or maybe slightly negative on museums. There was something pleasant about being in them, but I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do there, and always felt like I was doing it wrong.

And it turned out I was doing them wrong. I was introduced to a guy who is now one of my close friends, Nick Gray, who hosted guided tours of the Met. I actually delayed meeting him for a while, because a tour of the museum sounded very boring to me.

When I did, though, I saw the museum through a different lens. It didn’t matter what I was supposed to do at a museum. It was a public resource that I could use in any way I wanted. Nick’s Museum Hack tours were irreverent and fun, and focused on the less famous pieces of art in the museum, but gave a lot more context on them.

Now I have my own way to enjoy museums, which is heavily influenced from what I’ve learned through Nick (I thought it was exactly the same, but now I find that when we go to museums we do it differently).

The biggest thing I learned from him is that the goal isn’t to see everything. If you see everything you will necessarily be disappointed because you will either spend so little time on any given piece that you get nothing out of the experience, or you will be exhausted. I usually go to a museum for 45-60 minutes.

The first thing I do is I go look for things that I already know I like. I like to walk through all or most of the areas of the museum, but I just glance at everything and see if anything catches my eye. If it doesn’t, I just keep going.

If something does seem interesting, I will stop and check it out and read the information about it. Often the information will get me more interested and I might look around for similar things. I also try to mentally note artists I like. If I keep seeing the same artist after a few museums, I might look them up and try to read more.

Through this process, I develop favorites. There are certain things that I will go try to see no matter which museum I’m at: woodblock prints, Goryeo dynasty celadon, John Singer Sargent, MirĂ³, Russian malechite, Vermeer, Rembrandt, any teaware, James Turrell, John Cederquist, and some others. Having a few things you like gives you a reason to go to museums and criss-cross around to explore and find new stuff.

You’ll also find stuff you don’t like. I really don’t like tapestries, most religious art, southeast asian art, or most contemporary art. Nothing wrong with any of it, it’s just not for me. So I tend to breeze through those areas pretty quickly.

You can also enjoy just about anything in a museum by thinking about how difficult it would be to make it. Well, maybe not in contemporary. Or you can look at old paintings and think about what life must have been like if that’s how scenes of that time were painted. Or just marvel at how expensive some of the things are and just how close you’re allowed to put your face to something worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Museums are now some of my favorite places to visit when I travel. Top ones for me are the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Forside in Copenhagen, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum also in Amsterdam, Dallas Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Art, and The Met in New York. If you’re near one, try breezing through it and see if anything stands out.

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As you might guess from the random closet door in the middle of it, the picture is one of the walls of my little personal museum I’m building. Some day I will write a post about that, too. Bonus points if you can figure out who the artists are or what the objects are.

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