- 3 February 2011
- Filed under
Jane OrmondLonely Planet author
It starts with the exhilaration of going to the Met or the Louvre or the Tate – just you, floating through art-jewelled hallowed halls, magnetically drawn to your favourite artwork. You gaze at it for hours, gripped by transcendental reverie.
Well that’s how you imagine it. In reality, you’ve probably queued for an hour with 1500 other schmucks and now the controlled heating and jostling crowds are starting to burst your bubble. The sheer volume of museum pieces can make you feel itchy, claustrophobic and hankering for fleeting, thoughtless crap. Your feet ache, your eyes hurt from squinting at the blurbs and your tiny brain cannot possibly process another painting that depicts ‘the artist’s struggle with the abyss as rendered through subtle layers of translucent sheen’. You start to hunger for the ‘meh’ and the ‘pfft’.
But don’t. It’s not the art’s fault. Seeing one of your favourite pieces in the flesh (well, in the canvas) is one of the most thrilling travel experiences. It can be emotional, visceral and awesome in the truest sense of the word. So you owe it to yourself not to cut out and give up when the fatigue sets in. Try these strategies instead:
Be prepared to queue: Major museums attract major crowds and while most of them are well-oiled machines, it’s likely you’ll still have to queue, even for a short time. Admit this to yourself and expect to see snaking lines. Get a takeaway coffee to sip while you wait.
Do your research: Many museums have late-night openings once a week. These can be prime crowd-dodging opportunities. Or you can at least guarantee you won’t get swept along with a yammering gaggle of distracted, hyperactive schoolkids.
Admit you’re not going to see everything. You don’t go to an acclaimed restaurant and expect to eat every dish on the menu. The same goes for epic museums like the Met. It’s impossible to have a meaningful interaction with the exhibits if you’re sprinting past them. Choose an area or era you’re most interested and hone in on that.
Keep comfortable: Yep, this may sound like a no-brainer but that slow museum amble can be hell on the feet, so make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes. Check your bag in at the cloakroom because a shoulder bag with a couple of books in it becomes a lead weight surprisingly quickly.
Keep healthy: If you can, take a small (museum-friendly) snack and bottle of water with you. That particular kind of museum air seems so much more dehydrating. Take a breather every 30 minutes or so to rest up and ruminate on what you’ve seen so far. Many museums have a courtyard and/or cafe you can dip into for some fresh air and a sit-down. (A bowl of spinach soup in the sculpture garden at New York’s MoMA is as refreshing and restorative as it gets.)
Buck the trend: You don’t have to go to the main museums if you don’t want to. If there’s a queue at the Louvre that rivals the length of the Great Wall, consider exploring one of the smaller museums like the Jeu de Paume. Not in the mood to take on the whole Tate? Try the Serpentine, set in leafy Kensington Gardens instead. Overwhelmed by the Met? Nibble your way through the plethora of tiny galleries in Soho or try the architecturally slinky New Museum on the Bowery.
Did you know: According to tracking and timing studies, people spend no more than 10 seconds viewing an exhibit and another 10 seconds reading the label before they shuffle on to the next. No wonder they get overloaded and exhausted so quickly. Again, to avoid this pitfall, narrow your focus to a particular era or section. Guided tours of the museum’s highlights can be a good option as they set a reasonable pace and give a bit more meat to the experience.
So how do you cope with the amazing overload?