7 Ways to Make the Most of Visiting a Museum
Britain’s museums are among the best in the world, and London’s museums are among the best in Britain.
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For a start, there are heaps of them: the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert (usually abbreviated to the V&A), the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the London Transport Museum, the Imperial War Museum and countless smaller museums and places with museum exhibits like the British Library. And some of these museums are vast: the British Museum houses approximately 8 million artefacts that come from every continent of the globe and date from the dawn of human culture to the present day.
It’s possible to go through London’s museums just looking at the handful of artefacts recommended by your guidebook – mummies, Rosetta Stone, Sutton Hoo treasure and then to lunch – but it is possible to get much, much more out of your visit than simply seeing in real life things you’d previously just seen on postcards. We’ve compiled this guide to help you make the most of your trip to a museum.
1. Be realistic
You cannot, will not, and realistically should not want to see everything in the British Museum; that is probably not achievable even if you work there. Similarly, admiring every artwork in the Tate Modern, seeing every artefact in the V&A or even visiting every major museum in London is not realistic or advisable. Setting yourself a romantic target of seeing everything will only leave you disappointed.
Additionally, museum fatigue – that concussion-like feeling of tiredness that is inevitable after about three hours in any museum – is likely to set in and detract from the overall experience. It’s a good idea to quit and go to the cafe at this point, but if you’re there specifically to learn rather than simply to soak up a bit of culture, you might want to stop a little before you reach that point.
2. Pick and choose
As a consequence of the first point, in the knowledge that you cannot see everything, it’s useful to spend some time in advance choosing what you would like to see. It’s not a great idea simply to get yourself to South Kensington and pick whichever grand-looking building has the shortest queue. Instead, think about what sort of museum you would like to visit (interactive? historical? scientific?) and then visit its website and figure out what to target.
An aimless wander in the Science Museum is reasonably manageable, as there’s a standard route to follow through it. An aimless wander in the British Museum or V&A, however, will leave you utterly lost, wandering through endless corridors of broken pottery and wondering where all the daylight went. For these kinds of huge museums, thinking about what you want to see (and being honest with yourself – if it’s really just mummies and bog bodies, then don’t lie to yourself and spend ages browsing for Bronze Age urns) is vital for a good trip.
Is there a period in history you’re particularly interested in? Perhaps one of your favourite artists was inspired by, say, Edo period Japanese screen painting. For instance, fans of Percy Shelley’s poetry will definitely want to look at the 7.25 ton bust of Ramesses II, which inspired the writing of ‘Ozymandias’. Failing any obvious points of interest, there are set tours – such as the British Museum’s excellent ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ – that you can download information about.
3. Check the things you want to see are on display
The V&A has 4.5 million objects in its permanent collection. The British Museum has 8 million. Closer to home, the Ashmolean is not quite in the same league but is also vast. It takes a lot of work to maintain a museum with so large a collection, so at any one time, several galleries are likely to be closed for restoration. Furthermore, specific objects are likely to be on loan to other museums and galleries around the world.
This isn’t a problem if you decide to ignore point 2 and browse whichever part of the museum you happen to get lost in. It’s less great if you’ve decided that on going to the Ashmolean that you want to see the Alfred Jewel, you have to see the Alfred Jewel, you absolutely must see the Alfred Jewel… and it’s on loan to a museum on the other side of the world. So this is something else to check beforehand.
It’s particularly relevant if it’s a museum that frequently has special exhibitions; it isn’t unusual for the British Library, for instance, to remove an exhibit from its stunning Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (which contains Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Shakespeare’s First Folio, the earliest complete copy of the New Testament and Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s hand) in order to display it as part of its 3-month temporary exhibitions. It would be unfortunate to turn up to the gallery where an artefact normally appears, not to find it and not to know that it is in fact on display in a different part of the same museum.
4. To pay or not to pay?
Since 2001, entry to more than 50 British national museums has been free. A list of free national museums can be found at the end of this page. A donation of around £5 is usually advised, and many of the largest museums aren’t fussy regarding whether that’s in sterling, euros or dollars. Additionally, maps and other guides of the kind that might be free in a museum with a hefty entrance fee are normally not available for free in museums that don’t charge for entry – so don’t wander over to an information stand and walk off with them without making sure you don’t have to pay!
Additional exhibitions, events and activities are a way for museums to help cover their costs, and therefore these usually charge, with free entry available only to permanent collections. Tickets for these can be expensive – up to £20 is not unusual, with discounts available to students and museum sponsors. If it is your first visit to the museum, and you do not have a particular interest in the subjects of the exhibitions, it may not be worth the cost. However, if you are particularly interested in the subject, or simply want to see something that not everyone will get to see, then they are recommended.
5. Better together
For the really huge museums – like the 12.5 acres and 145 galleries of the V&A – it’s advisable to look around in small groups of two or three people, in order that you get lost in the exhibits, rather than the museum itself. One way to structure your visit is for each person to pick an exhibit they want to see, enhancing the overall museum experience as each person will see something they might not have seen before.
More than this, though, museums are best seen in groups simply because of the range of enthusiasms and interests that can exist within a group. Reading a lengthy series of information cards on your own grows dull pretty rapidly; hearing your friend enthuse on, say, the Vindolanda tablets and what they have to tell us about the everyday lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around 100AD is a rather more interesting way to learn.
6. Have a rest
Most museums nowadays have excellent options in cafes and restaurants. The British Museum’s Great Court restaurant is in a stunning location at the top of the Great Court, and serves afternoon tea as well as larger meals, as well as sometimes offering menus themed around special exhibitions. Similarly, the Ashmolean Dining Room combines good food with a lovely view. It’s rare to encounter a museum that doesn’t have at least a passable cafe.
Meandering through a museum is a standard holiday activity, so it’s important to remember that it’s also a lot more tiring, mentally and physically, than lounging on a beach or browsing through sales racks on Oxford Street. Put your bag in the cloakroom so you’re not hauling it around with you, permit yourself to pause on a bench every so often, and when you need it, stop for a cup of tea and a scone.
7. Allow for spontaneity
You’ve planned your day like a military operation, your group has scheduled times in galleries that relate to your interests, and regular breaks. But the thing you won’t be able to take into account: your curiosity! Chances are you will be attracted to an exhibit you dismissed beforehand, or take a wrong turn into what could be a whole new area of interest. Although it is good to plan, keep the plans loose, and yourself open to the new experiences on offer. You never know what you’ll find.
And if you do end up hopelessly lost in rows of identical-looking potsherds? We recommend you take the time to read a bit of the information provided before you experiment with using your phone’s GPS to guide you back to the main staircase. Exhibition space in most museums – even enormous ones like the British Museum – is usually at a premium, so what’s out on display rather than hidden in a temperature-controlled vault is there because someone who is an expert in the field thought it was worth gaining the attention of the general public. Take a moment to find out why.
We’ve talked a lot about London and Oxford museums as those are the ones we’re most familiar with, but of course they aren’t the be-all and end-all of museums across the world. Tell us about your favourite museum in the comments!
Image credits: banner; Tate; Ramesses II; lion; donations; cafe; potsherds.
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