Museums, particularly art museums, overwhelm me. And the bigger the museum, the greater the feeling of being thrashed by a wave of sensory overload.
I want to see it all. But in museums like the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, I simply can’t. Not at least in a few hours. And if I go beyond that, fatigue tends to mar even the best viewing experience. So, what’s the solution to getting the most out of an art museum in a short amount of time? Here are three solutions I’ve found that work well.
Choose your battles carefully
The same strategy that works for parenting works for visiting museums. Knowing you can’t see it all, choose only a few sections and concentrate on those. Forget the rest. Maybe you can come back later. Maybe not. But many museums now put their collections online so you can see what you missed when you get home. You’ll at least have seen in person those works of art that seem most interesting to you. I pay special attention to visiting exhibitions knowing that these will be the hardest to see again.
Intentionally go fast just to see what stands out. No one said you have to appreciate every single artwork. Zip your way through until you find something interesting. Then, move into the next approach.
Stop and stare. Then stare some more. If you’ve found something you like, take time with it. This New York Times article from a few years ago recommends essentially the same thing. Peruse the paintings or sculptures until you find something that speaks to you. Then really look at it.
Here are two additional approaches I’ve found to help you do that even more effectively.
I’ve recently resumed an earlier attempt at drawing. I’m still no good at it (if “good” means capturing the image in its exact proportions), but that doesn’t matter. The very act of trying to sketch something helps me see it so much better. You literally see things you miss with a cursory or even extended examination. It’s like learning anything. You learn best when you teach others. Drawing is like that as well. You see best when you have to translate it into a different medium line by line, shape by shape, color by color.
Snap a detail
Can’t sketch? No worries. Try this. Take a photo instead. You can shoot the whole painting, but lately I’ve found a greater enjoyment of the whole work when I concentrate on just a part of it. Taking a photo of just one section that appeals to me is again, another form of translation. But instead of translating what I see onto a piece of paper, I’m translating what I see into an emotional experience.
Let me explain.
Unless you’re an art historian, student or critic, you’re likely going to an art museum simply for the delight of it. I know this is hard to imagine if you don’t like museums. But somewhere along the line, we picked up this notion that art museums were all about culture and appreciation. They are, but that’s not all.
Let your jaw drop
Art museums are, to me, places of wonder. Sometimes I’ll come across a work that staggers me. It is usually some piece I’ve never heard of before. Something that isn’t bogged down in expectations or hype. Other times — and this is where the details exercise fits in — I’ll see a piece and I may like it. But if I spend time with it, I find that there is some element that speaks not to my head about technique or lighting or the historicity of the piece, but to my heart.
With these small sections of details, my reaction isn’t to tuck the ear piece of my glasses in the corner of my mouth and nod philosophically. Instead, it is to smile. Maybe even sigh in a happy way. In those moments, I’m completely disarmed by the beauty of that one detail. It triggers something inside me. It connects to some inner longing or interest. I may try to figure out what that connection is. Or maybe not. Often, it is enough to just stand there and be enchanted.
Go slow and small
So if art museums tend to overwhelm you, don’t “go big or go home.” Instead, slow down and go small. Find the artworks that appeal to you, but also focus on the small sections or moments within those. Take a photo (where allowed) and capture that section as its own work of art. Some artists hate this. They feel you should appreciate their work as a whole. And quite often, you will. But other times, take the opportunity to find what matters to you in their work. Treat each piece like a “Where’s Waldo?” book or poster: find the secret gem within the bigger whole that resonates with you.
One aid in doing this is my guide to seeing the right details. Check it out if you want to get better at noticing and capturing details, either in photos or in writing.
However you do it, finding the works or even the details of the works that resonate with you will enable you to walk away from the museum happier, more energized and more inclined to visit other museums in the future.