How to visit an art museum–a guide for students

First Things First...

This resource is designed for students, but instructors may want to adapt it in developing guidelines or assignments for students to visit museums on their own. It offers background information that may be useful to individuals unfamiliar with art museums, and suggestions for how anyone—including experienced museum visitors–can make the most of their museum experience. Some of the topics covered include how to

  • prepare for a museum visit;
  • explore different areas of the museum;
  • engage with the objects and exhibits on display;
  • share thoughts about the museum visit with others;
  • reflect on the experience of the visit and consider how it contributes to an understanding of art, art history, and art’s broader relationship to society.

Note to Instructors

These materials can be adapted to support course learning objectives related to

  • object-based learning
  • visual literacy and communication of visual phenomena  
  • critical analysis of museum collection and exhibition practices

Before You Go . . .

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to visit a museum!  We developed these materials because, although museums are common in most cities, they are often big, sometimes crowded, and can be confusing, overwhelming, and even intimidating when you first walk in.  Below are some resources and suggestions to help you make the most of a museum visit, but you should feel free to adapt and alter our ideas based on your own interests, exploration, and discoveries while you’re there.

While museums share many common features, each has its own distinctive qualities.  These might relate to the mission of the museum, the history of the collection, or changing ideas about the museum’s role within the community.  The building itself can influence and shape your experience dramatically. Some museums were originally private homes; some were built in a Neoclassical style that resembles an ancient Greek or Roman temple; some are refurbished warehouses and factories; and others are pinnacles of modern architecture, often serving as works of art in themselves!

Click below for related resources on the history and background of museums

AHTR created these short videos as an introduction to different structures and environments found at museums in New York City.  

Smarthistory.org 

Visit the museum's website

When planning your trip, be sure to confirm the museum’s hours, location/directions, and admission cost.  This important information is often grouped under a “plan your visit” link on the museum’s home page.  Note that many museums have regular days they are closed to the public. This gives staff additional time for changing exhibitions, upkeep to the galleries, object conservation, and other important tasks that happen behind the scenes in museums. Some also schedule large school tours in the morning, which causes them to delay their public opening.   

Another important reminder: most museums offer free or discounted admission for students, children, and other special populations if you have appropriate identification. Many also schedule particular days or times when people can visit for free.

There’s lots of other useful stuff on websites. In addition to schedules of upcoming exhibitions and programs like films, classes, lectures, concerts–even yoga and meditation), you can learn about the museum’s collections and highlights that you may not want to miss; view maps to help orient you to the space; and read about the museum’s mission, history, and the types of artwork it owns. 

As you peruse the museum’s collection online, keep an eye out for artists, objects, or topics that are interesting, and look for additional information about them on the museum’s website, your school’s or a public library, or other online resources. Just a little background reading or preliminary research done prior to your visit can make your experience even better! 

Once You're There . . .

There are a lot of strategies for visiting a museum and avoiding “museum fatigue.” (Yes, it’s a thing!)  Consider the strategies below in planning your experience and then focus on the artworks that you want to spend time with.

Regardless of a museum’s size, you’ll get tired quickly if you try to look closely at every object displayed.  Likewise, most museums provide lots of information about the objects on view, so don’t try to read everything!  You’ll likely encounter (at least) two types of labels that may be helpful to read.

“Tombstone” labels are very brief and provide facts about the artist, the dates they lived, their country of the birth or artistic activity, title and date of the object, and the media used to make it.  There may be an accession number, which the museum uses to catalog the object, usually according to when it became a part of the collection, and a credit line that indicates the donor, fund, or other institution that enabled the museum to show the object as part of its collection or exhibition. 

Object (or “Chat”) Labels are placed next to many objects. These are usually short texts of 100-200 words, intended to give viewers information about the artwork that is not always obvious from the object. The approach used to write museum labels has been much debated among art historians and museum professionals. See AHTR’s (forthcoming)”The Thing About Labels.”

It’s always a good idea to stop by the information desk.  Ask for a map, or have museum staff suggest highlights in the collection or special exhibitions that you might want to see before you leave. Many museums have special tours, audioguides, or downloadable apps that point you to these objects and give you additional information, but don’t feel compelled to use them.  Some people love guided experiences, but others prefer to create their own pathways through the museum.

Some people recommend setting a specific amount of time for your visit (1 or 2 hours), or planning frequent breaks so you don’t get too tired in the galleries (the rooms where the art is displayed). In addition to benches in the galleries, most museums have a cafe, shop, sculpture courtyard or gardens where you can hang out and relax for a bit.

Others suggest walking quickly through the entire building (or a single floor or wing of a large museum) and then returning to objects that caught your eye. Note that these might not be artworks that you find appealing or like best. Whether positive or negative, a strong immediate reaction to a work of art can often lead to interesting new discoveries!  

If you’re fortunate to live near the museum, consider returning frequently to see what exhibitions may have changed, and if you notice different things from your previous visits.  

Check out these suggestions from The Art Assignment, and be sure to read (and add to) the comments!!!!

Enjoying the Art

Once you’ve honed in on a particular object, there are lots of ways to engage with it more closely. While museum labels can be helpful, don’t let them prevent you from exploring the work on your own, developing your own opinions, and considering how it contributes to your museum experience and understanding of art.  Below are several different strategies for looking at works of art that can help deepen your experience in the museum.  

Slow Looking

While there are variations on this engagement technique, slow looking is a strategy where the viewer focuses their attention on a single work of art for an extended period of time (15 minutes or more).  It’s important to eliminate distractions (ie: turn off your cell phone!) in order that to take in as much information about the object as possible. As your eye wanders over the work of art, you may find your ideas shifting as well to take note of the image represented, visual details, the technical elements and signs of how the object was made, and different possibilities of the object’s meaning, function, or cultural significance. You might also become more conscious of your surroundings or the object’s placement in the gallery–the lighting, space, etc.. 

Sketching

Recent years have seen a number of studies touting the benefits of drawing, so why not give it a go while visiting a museum! Regardless of one’s skill level, drawing and sketching can increase focus, relieve stress, and enhance memory and other cognitive processes of the brain. Many museums offer special programs to encourage visitors to draw objects in their collections, but really all you need is a sketch pad, a pencil, and some time in the museum galleries. Sketching can be a great complement to time spent slow looking and leaves you with a detailed record of your observations to refer to for subsequent reflection and related assignments.  

Guided Close Looking

Many museum visitors glance only briefly at a work of art before turning their attention to the label that provides additional information. While labels can be very helpful, try asking some of the following questions to encourage closer visual analysis BEFORE you read any supplemental text.

  • What do I see going on in this work of art? Is there a story depicted?
  • What details are visible? Are there details I can’t see, or which are difficult to understand?  
  • What do any details of the image tell me about the subject?
  • What might have been the original purpose or context of this object?
  • What seems to be the most important things to notice about the object? 
  • What choices did the artist make in creating the object?
  • What materials were used? What techniques were used?
  • How are different visual elements (ie: line, color, light, proportions, scale, composition, etc.) used to help make sense or lead my eye around the object?
  • How does this object compare to other objects, stories, or ideas I already know about?  
  • How does this object fit in this gallery? What relationships exist with other objects nearby?
  • What choices did the museum make about the object’s display?
  • If I were the curator, would I have displayed the object differently, or in another gallery? Why?
  • If I were to tell a friend or family member about this object, what about it would I be sure to discuss?

Look (and think) like an art historian

Chances are that you may have reached this site because you’re already studying art or taking an art history class. So, why not try practicing what you’ve learned so far?

Museums offer a wonderful chance to test your skills of visual analysis and your understanding of terms, techniques, and stylistic characteristics that are discussed in art history classes. One of the best lessons museums teach is that it’s not always easy to classify art into clear stylistic categories or art historical periods that seems to be the case with the canonical objects found in textbooks. Art historians in the wild (or in museums) must look closely to analyze unfamiliar objects for clues that help them situate them within their own knowledge of art history.

If you need a refresher on the tools for understanding art, check out these videos at Smarthistory.org. Test your understanding by looking for examples in the museum that demonstrate each of the concepts discussed.

Talking about art with others

When you visit the museum, consider taking a friend along!  While looking at works of art can be very personal, sharing your ideas with others can be a great way to deepen your understanding and experience with art. In a 2017 essay reflecting on his experience in museums, critic Adam Gopnik wrote, Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter.” Visitors in museums often incorrectly think they should whisper. Museums can be great places to have conversations about the art on display.

Engaging your friends in dialogue about a shared art experience can help you find words to communicate visual (and other sensory) observations, and it is a good opportunity to practice applying art vocabulary that you’ve read or learned in class. Moreover, conversations about an object’s purpose or meaning reveals that viewers bring many perspectives to make sense of works of art, and encourage us to think more deeply about objects, as well as other people in the world. Consider what Kate Baird, a museum educator in Springfield, Missouri, observed:   


[The visitor] prefaced her comments by saying she didn’t know much about art history or what the artist meant, almost seeming to apologize for what she was about to say. She then proceeded to share a very poetic and personal interpretation of the painting. . . After a period of silence, three other participants indicated that her words had opened up a new way of seeing a painting with which they were very familiar. It was arguably the speaker’s lack of art historical context that allowed her to look at the painting in the way that she did. No one left the conversation thinking that the painting had been explained or that artist’s intention had been revealed. But I believe we all left the conversation feeling that we had learned something about each other and about the ability of art to hold many possibilities.

From Museum Questions: Reflections on Museums, Programs, and Visitors, February 13, 2017

Using Technology

Although there are critics who dislike  the use of smartphones and digital technologies in museums as distracting or disruptive, these devices can be used effectively to enhance the museum experience and deepen engagement with the works of art on view.

Museums have begun to experiment more with augmented and virtual technologies that allow viewers to experience their collections in new ways. Some (like the Cleveland Museum of Art) have created digital installations that provide visitors the opportunity to curate their own self-guided tours, go deeper into the objects’ history and meaning, and explore new ways of knowing the artworks displayed in their galleries. Social media can also be a wonderful way to share your museum experience and capture moments that you want to reflect on later.  

Here are a few ideas:

  • While in the gallery, use your smartphone to research more about the artist, place, or period of a work on view.  Use the image search function to find any similar or related objects to the one displayed.
  • As you wander through the galleries, tweet your impressions about the objects you see using a hashtag and/or the museum’s Twitter account. Consider creating a theme (animals seen in the art) or question (how many objects are by female or POC artists?) to explore.
  • Curate an Instagram exhibition by posting the objects you enjoy the most. Use a hashtag or the museum’s account to amplify your experience with others who visit the space.  

After You Leave . . .

Here are some ideas to help you reflect on your museum experience and think about how cultural institutions shape our understanding of art and art history.  

  • Write your own guide on “How to visit an art museum” based on what you now think makes for the best visit.  Use the #AHTRideas hashtag and share your guide on social media!
  • Write a letter or email to telling a friend or family member about your visit to the museum. Some topics you might address:
    • Your expectations and perceptions of art museum before your visit. Compare how this experience reinforced or challenged your previous ideas about museums, and why you would (or wouldn’t) encourage your reader to go.  
    • Focus on the spaces you encountered during your visit.  How did the galleries and public spaces you visited differ?  How did the museum’s architecture and way different objects were displayed contribute to your experience?  Which spaces did you enjoy most, or least? Why?
    • Discuss the object you think you’ll remember most from your visit, explaining why it struck you as it did. Describe (or draw a picture) of what it looked like—be sure to include enough detail so your reader will have a clear mental image of the object.
  • Find a digital image on-line of your object preferably from the museum’s website).   Write a 1 or 2 page essay comparing the digital image to the object you studied in the museum.  Consider any formal differences between the digital and real objects, which version provides more visual details, how your experience/other objects in the gallery impacted (or not) your understanding of your object.  

 

Useful Terms

Permanent collection:  These are objects owned by the museum.  Although museums own many more objects that the works on display, most are kept in storage (on or off-site). This is especially important for works on paper (photographs, prints, manuscripts) and other objects that can be damaged by too much exposure to light.

Special exhibitions: Museums often dedicate some galleries to temporary exhibitions that showcase works related to a particular theme, artist, media, or art historical period. Special exhibitions may include objects from other museums, and sometimes travel to different museums in order to reach a broader audience.  

Galleries:  These are the rooms where most of the artworks are displayed.

Museum staff:  Although you’ll see some museum employees in the public spaces and guards in the galleries, most museum staff work behind the scenes. Curators and registrars research, manage, and organize the museum’s collections; exhibition installers and designers handle the art, displaying in on view or moving it to other spaces in the museum; conservators clean and restore works of art, and educators create programs for the public and provide tours, often with the help of museum volunteers called docents. Museums also rely on administrative staff who are responsible for the business of day-to-day operations, fundraising, marketing, and producing publications about the museum and its collections.  

Based in Washington, DC, Virginia B. Spivey (author) is a contributing editor at AHTR and co-founding editor of Art History Pedagogy and Practice. As an independent art historian, educational consultant, and mother of twins, she keeps busy.  Her current projects can be found on her website, Teaching with the Lights On.