Museums are among the most popular attractions in the famous cities of the world, but they can also be boring. Ask many travellers to be honest and they’ll often say that they go to museums out of obligation, not out of interest. But museums are also unparalleled in terms of historical interest and detail. If you want to learn about the past, you can’t afford to skip museums. So if you do want to see treasures of the past, but are worried about being bored, how can you make a museum tour more interesting? We have a few ideas. The following are 10 tips to make a museum visit more interesting. These ideas have as much to do with how you approach a museum visit as the visit itself, but they should help you make the most of a trip to one of the world’s great museums, whether in France, Italy, England, or China.
How to make a museum visit more interesting
Don’t feel obligated to go to a museum
This is an easy first step. Don’t go to the museum in the first place if you don’t like museums. Sure, it can feel weird to skip the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London, but if you know that deep down, you’ll be bored to death or have no interest in history, why spend the time doing something you hate? Vacations should be tailored around your interests and if you have no interest in museums, no amount of finessing the experience will make you suddenly like it.
That being said, don’t automatically discount a museum if you think that your modern attention span cannot handle it. Travel is a great way to slow down the pace of your ordinary life and have new experiences, and a trip to a museum can be that experience for a lot of travellers.
Check wait times before you go
This one is key. Some museums are very popular and you’ll have a lot better time in the museum if you don’t have to wait 45 minutes before you get in. At the Vatican Museums in Rome, for instance, you can book a “skip the line” ticket that gets you around the potentially hours-long wait to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and the Museums. For other museums that are known to have lineups to get in, simply check the website ahead of time to see what the estimated wait time is. Going at off-peak times like lunchtime and near the end of the day will often mean fewer visitors, so if you don’t plan on staying long at the museum, this is a good option too.
Try to take in seasonal exhibits
Most major museums have rotating seasonal exhibits that either showcase travelling displays of art and artifacts, or that showcase treasures from the normal museum collection that are not normally on display. Thus, you should take advantage of seasonal exhibits to see stuff you otherwise couldn’t. Museum curators often put in more effort to make seasonal exhibits entertaining in order to attract new guests, so you can be sure that seasonal exhibits will often take advantage of cutting-edge technology or lean into a hot-topic issue in order to get people in the door and be more exciting in the process. As well, part of the joy of travel is its transience, the fact that you cannot replicate the unique experience you’re having in that specific part of the world at that specific part of your life, so embrace the transience with exhibits that won’t be there forever either.
Read about the exhibit beforehand
You’ll learn things in a museum, but never to the detail that you think you might before you visit. That’s why you should learn about whatever the subject is beforehand. Heading to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam? Read a bit about the lives of Rembrandt and Vermeer so that you’ll better appreciate their masterworks. Going to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo? If you know the broad strokes of which pharaohs ruled Egypt at what time periods, you’ll enjoy seeing their elaborate tombs much more. As well, if you’ve already put the legwork in ahead of time to cultivate interest in the subjects on display in museums, the museums themselves will be infinitely more interesting. So it’s a win-win approach to a museum visit.
How to approach museum tours
Book a private tour ahead of time
If you’re going to take a tour, plan it ahead of time so that it’s entirely shaped around your interests. As well, opt for a private tour so that you’ll enjoy personal attention throughout your entire museum visit. I know that private tours are more expensive, but there is nothing more likely to drain your interest in a museum than having to suffer through interminable questions from other travellers on a larger tour or having to spend extra time at some part of the exhibit you aren’t interested in, but others are. Thus, if you go for a private tour, you’ll do without the boring questions from other travellers. As well, your guide will shape the tour around your interests, meaning that you’ll stay interested throughout your visit.
Or skip the tour altogether
I am not a fan of museum tours, so I am one of those travellers who is likely to skip the tour altogether and explore on my own. Back in the day, I was scared of missing out on details about the tour, but I realized that I preferred moving at my own pace and following my own fancy. What interests the tour guide might not interest me and over time, I’ve become more comfortable to simply head to parts of the museum that sound interesting and while away the hours exploring on my own. For instance, I love the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, but I spent most of my time looking at the Van Gogh, Monet, and Manet paintings and ignoring the many sculptures on display, as I love Impressionism and Post-Impression far more than other art styles. I may not have seen everything the museum has to offer, but I got to spend time on what I most cared about, so I don’t regret striking out on my own and paying exclusive attention to my own interests.
What to do when visiting a museum
Lose the phone
No one wants to visit a museum while other people are livestreaming on Instagram or Snapchat, so don’t be the person to do that yourself. As well, part of the appeal of museums are that they transport you to the past. However useful they are in everyday life, phones distract from this atmosphere. They pull you out of the past and constantly force you to pay attention to the present. So leave the phone in your purse or pocket and pay attention to the treasures on display. Who knows: you may even realize that what you’re seeing was made by people with technology far more primitive than what you have in your purse or pocket, making it all the more impressive.
Don’t take pictures
This is kind of an addendum to the previous point. Leave your phone in your pocket, meaning avoid taking pictures. This seems to go against everything about travel in the modern world, especially travel in the age of Instagram, which is all about making people jealous of the experiences you’re having while on vacation (or selling a product, or both). But being in a museum is not the same as being at Machu Picchu or outside the Taj Mahal. Usually, taking a photo will not enhance the experience in a museum, and you’ll almost never want to go back and look at photos you took in museums. (The big exception is if the photo is of the museum itself. Many museums are architectural attractions in their own right, and if that’s the case of the museum you’re visiting, shoot away!)
As well, a selfie will do little more than prove you were there, which you were, so why document it? Also keep in mind that all the artifacts on display will be recorded online, whether on the museum website itself or in other databases, archives, and general records. That photo you take of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre will never be as good as the official picture of the painting that you can find online. So leave your phone alone and pay attention to the work itself instead of obsessively documenting every moment. You’ll have a more stress-free and patient experience by doing so.
Get Obsessed with Details
Some people want to see everything when they visit a museum, but such an approach is a fool’s errand. For instance, if you were to spend a minute looking at every painting on display in the Vatican Museums, you’d be there for several years. So slow down the pace, forget about seeing everything, and pay attention to the details. When looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, pay attention to the brush strokes and the thick layers of paint on the canvas. Spend 20 minutes staring at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, marvelling over how he was able to capture such palpable darkness in the frame. Stand back and really let the scale of Raphael’s The School of Athens sink in. Appreciate the attention to detail in the character’s faces and the depth of the scene. The more you pay attention, the more you’ll appreciate what treasures these museums truly have. And the more you’ll want to head to museums to see these artistic treasures up close.
Skip the Café and Gift Shop
I like a coffee table book and latte as much as the next person, but museum gift shops and cafés are tourist traps that are overly crowded and expensive. Some museums have great restaurants in them that are the exception to this rule (like the Larco Museum in Lima), but for the most part, avoid the café unless you absolutely need a drink (staying hydrated is important), but always remember museums have water fountains that are free as well. As for the gift shop, all the pretty images in coffee table books are available online and you can often buy the books elsewhere for cheaper prices if you really do want them. Gift shops also have a way of making you spend more time in them than you want to; there’s a reason the exit is always through the gift shop. So you may be tired and want to head to dinner, but dawdling in the gift shop has suddenly made you 30 minutes behind schedule. Focus on what’s important and leave these spots by the wayside. You won’t miss them.
Museums will always be among the most popular attractions in great cities of the world. So make the most of a museum visit when on vacation, knowing what you’re interested in and how to best take advantage of the huge exhibitions of art and history on display. They may not be your favourite places in the world, but if you approach them correctly and know how to navigate them once you’re in, you’ll have a much more positive, interesting time.
If you’re interested in getting the most out of museum visits, plan your trip with the help of a destination expert who’ll help you follow your interests in great cities around the globe.
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