Museums 101

The National Gallery in London (Photo by Alex)
The National Gallery in London

A guide to getting the most out of visiting Britain's museums

The U.K. is just chock full o' history and art. It has enjoyed quite the prodigious output over the past millennium—2.5 millennia, if you count the stuff in British Museum from across Europe and Africa.

And, by the end of your vacation, you’ll feel like you must have seen it all.

You'll visit ample amounts of ancient Celtic ruins, a multitude of medieval castles, gobs of Gothic cathedrals, reams of Renaissance paintings, tons of Tudor palaces, Georgian sights galore, numerous neoclassical sculptures, varied Victorian jewels, miles of modern art, and a heck of a lot in between.

It can get overwhelming, so take these few hints in your back pocket to help get the most out of these grand halls o’ great art without getting brain overload.

Ten Tips to Enjoying Museums

  1. Visit twice. Some museums are just too big to attempt in a day—the British Museum, V&A, and National Gallery all come to mind. If you have the time and the inclination (and luckily, those three are all free), spread out the visit over several days. 
  2. Split up. Nothing is so subjective as taste in art, and there’s no reason you and your companions need to stick together in museums and spend equal time perusing all the same paintings. If you part ways at the front door and set a time to meet, you can each go through at your own pace and look at whatever darn well pleases you. This strategy also gives you some time apart (even the closest of friends and family get on one another’s nerves after a while). 
  3. Take the audio tour. The 1990s brought a wonderful revolution to museum visits. Almost gone are the ancient, stilted cassette audio guides that march every visitor in lock step from one masterpiece to the next. Nowadays, most audio “tours” are digital, often little wands that you hold like an elongated cellular phone. The works on display have numbers next to them, which you just punch into the wand’s keypad and it starts spewing out facts and background galore on the work, artist, era, and so on. When you tire of it, just hit stop and wander to the next painting. You go through at your own pace and hear only about what intrigues you. Brilliant.
  4. Take a guided museum tour. You can learn a lot more than you would on your own if you’re led through the collections by a certified expert, who will explain the significance and background of the most important works and answer all of your questions. » more
  5. Know your art history. Art is much more interesting and engaging when you have some idea what you’re looking at. Just a little brushing up on major artists and movements, whether you just skim your guidebook for it or take a course in art history before you embark on the trip, will enrich any museum-going experience.
  6. Draw cartoon balloons. Not on the paintings themselves. The guards take a pretty dim view of that sort of thing. I mean, put dialogue into the mouths of the figures on the canvas. Most of us get a little punchy after too many hours spent soberly contemplating creative genius. Feel free to make up stories to go with the scenes. Look for humorous details the artist painted in—any large canvas of a courtly scene or a banquet will feature things like a dog and monkey eyeing each other warily under the table, or two servants getting frisky with each other in the background.
  7. Know when the museum closes. Museums empty out in the later hours, especially the biggies that routinely stay open late on Fridays. If you plan to close the joint and are a fan of museum books and postcards, however, always check when the gift shop shuts its doors. For some idiotic reason, museum gift shops often close 30 minutes before the museum itself shuts the gates, so drop in early if need be (or plan to return for your shopping).
  8. Concentrate on the masterpieces. You have to pace yourself, or even a moderate-sized museum will overwhelm you. Do not feel obligated to look at it all. On a first visit, or if you have limited time, just concentrate your energies on select paintings. Skip whole wings if you don’t feel like going through. Many museums include on their floor plans a list of the masterpieces. Alternately...
  9. Look at what you like. In the end, art is supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore. There’s something liberating about going through a museum and just looking at the paintings, pausing at the ones that you find most visually intriguing and studying them, and moving on without ever even glancing at the little placard that tells the name of the artist, the title, and the background info. Enjoy the art for art's sake. I promise, there will be no test at the end.
  10. Try small, private museumsYou wouldn’t believe the places you can find where wealthy collectors left behind dusty old mansions jumbled with valuable bric-a-brac ranging from Ming vases and Roman reliefs to medieval suits of armor and occasional paintings by a Renaissance master. Although few of the individual pieces, or the collections as a whole, tend to be first rate, they offer fascinating insights into one man or family’s tastes and styles—and often as not these places are preserved exactly as the collector left them... » more
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