How to See a Major Museum in One Hour

Detail of Tiffany lamp at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Detail of Tiffany lamp at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Sometimes, you don’t have much time.

When a major art or history or science museum is nearby during a trip, but you only have an hour or so to see it, is there a way to make the visit worthwhile?

Of course, but be prepared for some trade-offs.

On a recent trip to Boston, I found that I had free time on a day of the week when the nearby MFA (Museum of Fine Arts) was open til 9:45 p.m.

Here is what I learned from rocketing through a world-class museum in one hour (plus 5 minutes at coat check….)

1)  Get in free if you can, but be prepared to pay full fare without regret. Many major museums have a free day or free evening once a week, and if that coincides with your window of opportunity for a visit, great. You won’t have paid anything, so you won’t pout too much about only being there a little while. The biggest drawback will be the freebie-seeking crowds around you.

If, however, you do NOT get lucky, pay up. The regular adult entry fee for MFA Boston is US$25; pretty steep for the limited time I’d be in there, but I silenced my inner cheapskate and paid it with a smile. Yes, the ticket allows for a return visit within 10 days, but I was flying out the next day. I told myself that it was my donation to support creativity and wonder.

Thoughts on art at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Thoughts on art at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

2)  Do some research on the museum’s “Top 10” must-see items, and plot a course through the building(s) to cover as many as possible. This is one of those times when a “Must See” lightweight listicle blog post or article comes in handy. Get Googling. The museum itself will often help you out on their website: the MFA Boston 12 Highlights Tour is included on the printed museum map you get upon entry, plus they have it as an audio tour you can rent.

I did a ruthless time triage with the 12 Highlights. For example; the MFA’s mummies and Egyptian gallery? I’ve seen a lot of that before, including in Egypt, so I skipped the Boston offerings. Ancient artifacts from the Americas and pre-Columbian items? Had the pleasure of seeing a lot of those in Mexico City, so no, thanks, time’s a-wasting!

Extraordinary American Colonial-era paintings like the one below of Paul Revere? In BOSTON, the birthplace of the Revolution? Um, yes, that’s gonna happen.

Paul Revere painting at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Paul Revere painting at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Warning – be prepared for a “must-see” item to be on loan elsewhere. A few years ago, I made a special run through the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago just to see Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” only to discover that it was on loan to….the MFA in Boston. Gaaaah!

3)  Need to catch a meal during your limited time? Eat at the museum. I grabbed a quick dinner at the MFA’s New American Cafe before jumping into the collections, and it was a highlight of the visit to eat good food while gazing at the enormous Chihuly glass sculpture in the open eating area.

Chihuly glass sculpture at New American Cafe MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Chihuly glass sculpture at New American Cafe MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

4)  Ask the staff! This is no time to be shy. MFA staff understood that I only had an hour, and they gave me tips on getting from one place to another quickly in the enormous building.

Once staffer got me pointed in the right direction to see the Impressionists when I went off in the wrong direction (sucked in by rooms full of gorgeous Art Nouveau – it’s easy to get distracted.)

Van Gogh's favorite postman at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Van Gogh’s favorite postman at MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

5)  Take photos. Check that it’s allowed and make sure that your flash is off, but grab a few photos of your favorite items so you can relive your short visit.

One of the 12 Highlights was a famous John Singer Sargent painting (no, not Madame X – that’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) but I also stumbled across some Sargents from later in his life when he did less portraiture and more murals. His mural work was a fun surprise for me, so I took a quick photo so I could learn more later.

John Singer Sargent mural studies MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

John Singer Sargent mural studies MFA Boston (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

6)  Don’t take photos. Put away your phone or camera for a few minutes. Stop trying to record everything. Just be. Breathe. Soak in the artistic talent, beauty, and/or history in front of you. Get up close to Van Gogh’s thick brushstrokes. Marvel at Sargent’s command of light in his portraits. Be grateful that you can spend some time, however little, with the best that humanity has created.

What’s your experience? Ever blasted through a museum in a short time but still gotten a lot out of it? Let us know about it down in the comments.

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10 Comments

  1. Dominique King February 26, 2015
  2. Kerry Dexter February 27, 2015
    • Sheila Scarborough March 3, 2015
  3. Deb March 2, 2015
  4. Stacy March 2, 2015
    • Sheila Scarborough March 3, 2015
  5. MichaelRpdx March 2, 2015
    • Sheila Scarborough March 3, 2015

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