Learning to Love Museums

Girl standing in front of a Picasso

My daughter Catherine at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. My work here is done — she now goes to the museum and takes her friends.

Want to make someone hate you?

Find a person who doesn’t know much about art and force them to spend hours as you drag them to every painting in every gallery in a museum while you read every placard as they fidget next to you.

Yep. I guarantee that by the end of the day, not only will they hate you, they’ll be damned sure they never get close to another museum again.

I can say this with authority.

You see, I have a degree in Art History, and I might be considered to be a very dangerous person when it comes to death by museum. Except for one thing. My mother taught me to love art, and she taught me a method for helping others to do the same.

Cafe at the Uffizi

Taking a caffeine break midway through touring the Uffizi in Florence.

It’s not rocket science. If you want someone to love something — make it pleasant, make it fun. Don’t punish them with it!

When my Mom took us to museums – the National Gallery in Washington, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or the National Gallery in London — she would do this simple thing.

She usually had one or two artists, or perhaps an art period that she wanted to see. We would arrive at the museum, go to the shop and pick up a museum catalogue, then go sit and have coffee or tea and browse through the catalogue. My sister and I would both choose things we wanted to see, and then the three of us would set off to find those things. At other times, we would buy an audio tour and use that instead.

man using the audio guide: the British Museum My Way.

My husband Drew using the audio guide: the British Museum My Way.

Plan a Rational Museum Visit

I’ve spent most of my life teaching at the college level, and when I create lesson plans, human attention span is critically important. I work with 10 – 20 minute blocks, changing what we are doing — and being sure to involve my students. Then every 50 minutes to an hour, they need a break.

That’s the way I approach going with someone to a museum — whether it’s my daughter Catherine, my sister, my good friend Joyce, or my husband Drew.

With the internet, it’s easier than ever now  to do some pre-planning. If you are going to a world-class museum during a heavy tourist season, find out about getting tickets ahead — nothing makes a non-museum person grouchier than standing in line for an hour before your visit starts.

It’s also important to agree on about how long you’re going to spend at the museum so that everyone is on the same page.

Unless someone is heavily into art — you should limit the visit to 2 to 3 hours. If you are taking young children, or a really antsy adult, the time should be shorter.

Try to go to the museum early in the day — before it gets too crowded, and while you are still fresh. We all know that the more tired someone gets, the more difficult it is to pay attention.

Catherine with Autumn Landscape, Tiffany Studios.

I love the The Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing. Here’s Cat with the Autumn Landscape, Tiffany Studios.

When Drew and I went to the British Museum, we got the audio guide The British Museum Your Way. Then we also used one of the museums object trails: 3 Hours at the British Museum — great set of highlights with things we both wanted to see. We had lunch in the museum cafe halfway through. Stopping for a rest and refreshment is key. It does several things; most importantly, it allows you to process some of the things you have seen. My husband and I watched people. We chatted about the Ashurbanipal lion hunt. Then we picked up with renewed energy and went on to the next gallery.

When I took my daughter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the first time, she was fifteen. Before we went, we stopped and had coffee and Catherine thumbed through the Met website on my iPad. When we entered the museum we had a plan — and it was a great experience for her. We did the same thing on our next two trips to the city. Since then, Catherine’s been back to New York for a mock trial trip and to visit a university — and she has taken her friends and her Dad to The Met. I love museums, and it brings me great happiness to see I’ve raised another museum lover.

Catherine viewing Death Becomes Her, A Century of Mourning Attire.

Death Becomes Her, A Century of Mourning Attire. Catherine chose this exhibit to visit on her first trip to The Met.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art now has a smartphone app, The Met App, that can help you plan your visit. Another way to tour the Metropolitan is new to me — there is now Viator’s EmptyMet tour that I’d like to try the next time I’m in the city — the chance to visit the Metropolitan when it is closed to the general public.

But I Want to Spend ALL DAY at the Museum!

Yes, darling. I know that there is an art lover out there right now reading this and feeling very put out.

What if you’re in Paris for the first time and you think you may never see the Louvre again? And you just want to spend the WHOLE DAY wandering the galleries of the Louvre.

My advice? Do a short visit with the other person, then send them back to the hotel in a cab — afterwards, you can geek out with your art to your heart’s content. Obviously, if you have small children, this won’t work — but then you know that already.

The big thing is this — if you exhaust someone who doesn’t have the same level of interest you do — and make them hate museums, then you’ve done everyone a disservice.


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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15 Comments on Learning to Love Museums

  1. I love art. My fiance doesn’t like art too much. I hope to see the Louvre if we ever get to go to Paris.

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  2. Love this post! We are a museum-loving family; having said this, each member of our family of four approach museum visits in vastly different ways, so I hear you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree with your last piece of advice. Or even better, just don’t bother bring ‘the other person’ ! I love visiting museums on my own…free to ‘geek out’ as much as I like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love going to museums by myself, too. Another tactic I’ve used with success is to say, “Let’s split up, and I’ll meet you back at the museum cafe in an hour (or two), and we talk about the favorite things we’ve seen . . .” — Works pretty well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your post! Love it. We’ve posted tips to really be a pro museum-goer here (humor piece): https://growingeverupwards.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/how-to-be-an-expert-museum-goer

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great tips! I love visiting museums and always want to see everything as well! My husband usually enjoys 80% of it… I think it’s a great idea to take a break for refreshments and a chance to process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The breaks make a huge difference for us. I think it’s a combination of things — attention span for certain things is very different person to person. Also, even when someone REALLY loves art, a drop in blood sugar, tired feet, information overload — can all be improved by having a rest.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Dream Big, Dream Often and commented:
    This is Ann Cavitt Fisher!!

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  7. Ann, my father used to take all three (!) of us little, rumbusteous boys to the Payne-Whitney museum at Yale … on his day off … to give our mother a break. Admittedly, it wasn’t “art,” but there was plenty of individual preference expressed; dinosaur bones were great; but there were too many tall glass cases of arrowheads we were too short to see into. Thinking back, he used your technique to good effect.

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    • It makes a big difference. My friend Joyce talks about a trip to London with her Mom — and this is when they were adults. Joyce is into history, but art, not so much. When they went to the National Gallery in London, her mother expected to spend the whole day. This was Joyce’s first trip to London — and there were so many other things she wanted to do. It was a VERY BAD DAY. I have such strong feelings that museum visits should not feel like punishment.

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  8. Thank you, some really wonderful tips here which I’ll definitely use next time I drag my admittedly very patient other half to an art gallery!

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    • Wonderful — it’s worked for me with my friends and family. I must admit, one of the things I’ve loved when I do travel solo is that I can stay at a museum for as long as I want — or go back for shorter visits over several days. No one complains :-).

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  1. “The big thing is this — if you exhaust someone who doesn’t have the same level of interest you do — and make them hate museums, then you’ve done everyone a disservice.

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