How to Make Sense of a Big Museum

kelvingrove museum spitfire by kerry dexter

One thing the world’s great museums all have in common: there’s lots of stuff there. Whether you come to such a museum as part of a tour, to follow a lifelong wish, as a backup plan on a rainy day, or out of curiosity as you walk by, there’s plenty going on. Exciting, yes; fascinating, yes; loads to explore, that’s true as well. With all that it is easy for your visit to a huge museum, and your memories of that visit, to become nothing more than a blur.

Across the years, I’ve developed several strategies to help make such trips fun to experience and to recall.

Strategies to organize your visit

Follow your dreams
Is there a painting, an artifact, a creation, some thing you’ve always hungered to see that has drawn you to this museum?. Or perhaps, as you stand in the lobby or check out the floor plan, there is something that fires your imagination, that calls to you to come stand in its presence. Follow those dreams — and do that first. Orient yourself on the museum’s floor plan, negotiate with your travel companions, pass by all the intriguing things you’ll want to see that line the way to your goal, and go see this thing.

related article: Meeting the Lewis Chessmen

There are really good reasons to do this If you put off seeing it while looking at other things, it’ll always be tugging at your attention. If you never get to it, or you don’t have time to take it in, your visit will seem unfinished and disappointing. But, you say, what if I’m disappointed with the thing itself? Have no worries on that — neither you nor the object have anything to live up to. All you want to do is see it. Maybe the reason why will sink in later, maybe seeing this object will lead you to something else, or maybe what you’ll discover is that it’s just not for you. There is learning in all of this.

Follow your interests
I’ve an acquaintance who was remarking that she never enjoyed museum tours in Italy because she didn’t like looking at all those holy people and with arrows and such sticking out of them. This person loves food and has written cookbooks, so I suggested that she look for fruits and vegetables in the paintings — Italian Renaissance artists often used views of orchards trailing off in the background to show their mastery of perspective, for example, and used fruits and flowers as symbols. She could make a game with herself of finding these things. She could also look for art of the Northern Renaissance, where domestic scenes (think Vermeer) and still life often show things that’d be of interest to her.
kelvingrove museum faces by kerry dexter

I used this strategy myself when a friend asked me to go with him to a science exhibit. He was quickly absorbed in the physics and engineering of what was offered, while I looked for the stories of people who’d discovered and used these things, and found myself thinking about the wonders of faith and creation while looking at photographs of stars. We both enjoyed the museum, seeking out stories that meant the most to each of us.

Follow the stories
That idea of story is a good one to keep in mind when making sense of a big museum. The scholars, artists, and educators who create museum exhibits think about the stories their work tells, and how objects and ideas relate one to the other. Sometimes this is obvious, at other times the connections are more subtle. Pick an object, or a room, or a series of displays, and see what stories you can find.

related article: Sails, gold, stories

Follow your wanderlust
Finding unexpected sights and sounds and experiences is part of the fun of exploring a big museum. As you try this out you’ll know now that there are dreams, interests, and stories for you to seek out as you follow this strategy.

Tips to put these strategies into practice
*Get a floor plan — get two, actually (see the tip about notes, below) — and take a moment to orient yourself
*Take breaks for your eyes, mind, and heart as well as your feet. There’s as much need for you to rest your eyes, ears, and mind from all the lights and colors, sights, sounds, and ideas you’re taking in as it is to rest your feet. Step into a courtyard or out on a balcony, look out a window, take a break in the museum’s cafe, just close your eyes for a few moments — all of these work to refresh you

lewis chessmen by kerry dexter

*Take notes — brief ones. I’m a big fan of being present with whatever is there to see at the museum and taking notes later. You may do things differently. Whether you prefer detailed notes or short ones, that second floor plan you picked up is a good place to make them, or if you’re taking longer notes, to make an index of what you write in a notebook.
*Talk about what you liked best — tell a friend about it, write an e-mail, write notes to yourself in a journal. Thinking back over what you saw and telling someone else (or yourself) the story is a good way to focus your memories of the museum. It’s also fun to compare notes with friends who’ve explored the museum, and to look back days or weeks or months later, to see what’s changed.

related article: Holding memory in your hands

*Give yourself time, at the museum and afterwards. There’s a lot going on, stuff you’re familiar with and things that may be new to you. It’s an experience to savor.
*Hang out in the museum shop. You do not have to buy anything to pick up different perspectives on your museum journey.
*Plan to return. Even if it doesn’t seem likely at the moment, think about what you’d like to see on a return visit. That’s another way to to focus on what you’ve enjoyed and learned on this trip to a big museum.

These tips work with moderate sized and small museums too, I’ll have a bit to say about visiting those in a future article.

Do you have a favorite big museum, or a tip on how to get the most out of a visit? Join the conversation in the comments.

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