How not to be overwhelmed in a museum

Illinois residents’ annual winter bonanza of free admission to Chicago’s major museums ended in late February. I took advantage of it quite a bit, both for the obvious reason of not paying and because winter is my preferred time to be in museums. But no need for regrets, those of you who didn’t: there are plenty more days to get in free.

Museum-going close to home has an advantage over museum-going when you’re traveling. At home, you needn’t make a must-see list or attempt the impossible challenge of taking in everything. You can always go back. But even so, any major museum can be overwhelming. Consider that the Field has about 400,000 items on exhibit at any time. What to choose to see?

After spending a number of days in museums recently, I’ve come up with a game plan for profitably experiencing a hometown museum. It’s based on my experiences; there is no right way for everyone.

• Limit myself to one or two exhibits, which means two or three hours, not all day. My brain gets overloaded when I attempt more. I see more, in more depth, by seeing less. Even with it narrowed down to one or two exhibits, I can be selective about what to focus on, beginning by wandering through the exhibit without pausing to read the wall text, then returning to what things stood out.

• Take a tour if one’s available and I’m interested in the topic. Whenever I take one, I see things I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.

• Read the wall text, but don’t let it bog me down. Sometimes it’s over my head, too detailed, or not that interesting. I’m there to see the artifact, painting, or specimen.

• Try to go when the museum isn’t packed. School holidays are guaranteed to be crowded. It’s hard to predict other days school groups might be there, but going outside school hours is a good bet. Thursday evenings at the Art Institute are usually quiet, for instance. (Plus, the time constraint makes me limit what I see.)

• Don’t force myself to see exhibits about subjects I’m really not interested in. Since it’s good to open your mind to new topics, I might walk through without pausing to see if anything strikes my fancy. If not, go to another gallery. This has been the hardest lesson for me. I kept resolving to spend time in every area of the Art Institute, but I’d give up trying to understand the symbolism of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, appreciate the Roman busts that to me look much the same, or comprehend modern painting.

By following the game plan, ideally I leave a museum stimulated rather than exhausted and overwhelmed about how much more there is to see. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen and let the rest go.

How would I apply these guidelines when traveling? That’s a tough one. Certainly I wouldn’t advise a Chicago visitor to skip American Gothic or the Field’s Sue. Perhaps the best approach is take a highlights tour or, if one’s not available, to research what the museum considers its highlights. Yes, that will mean scampering around the museum with a checklist.

Actually, when I’m out-of-town, I don’t like to spend my time in museums unless they’re unique or about the destination. I get a better feel for a place wandering its streets and neighborhoods. The exception is Washington, DC, where I consider the museums the main reason to visit.




“Trump finally went to Vietnam and he’s getting killed back home.”
— Seth Meyers, host of Late Night with Seth Meyers, during Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un while his former fixer Michael Cohen testified to Congress


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  • These are good tips. I'd add one, based on years of working in museums: Go when the weather is good. Crowds are always bigger when it's rainy or snowy, because people don't want to be outside. When the weather gets worse, you'll be in a more crowded museum and have trouble getting around it. Especially if your preferred exhibit depends on good lighting, go on the beautiful days!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thank you, Margaret. That makes sense — I'll just have to fight my own desire to be outdoors on beautiful days!

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