Art 101: Guide to Museums

The best way to experience art is in person: museums, galleries, exhibitions, etc. Books, postcards, calendars just don’t do justice. But museums can often be a source of anxiety for people afraid that they will be intimidating, stuffy, or difficult to navigate with children in tow. You should never fear museums. Ever. Follow some simple guidelines and you will have an enjoyable experience every time out.

Basic Etiquette 

Let’s start with the basics:

1. No food or drink in the galleries. Art, all art, is sensitive to climate, water, oils, stains, etc. So no museum allows food or beverage in their display galleries. The risk of damage to artwork is too high. It should be noted that chewing gum should also be avoided, especially if you have small children who may inadvertently spit the gum out or stick it to a dais, vitrine, or artwork without realizing the faux pas.

2. No smoking. I think this goes without saying, especially considering how stringent most US cities have become with smoking in and around public buildings, but it needs to be said nonetheless.

3. Observe the museums photography and videography policies at all times. The UV light in cameras can be damaging to artwork, even with the flash turned off. Museums don’t restrict photography to crimp your vacation plans or keep you from capturing your child next to a Monet, they do it to ensure the molecular integrity of their artwork. It’s important that you appropriately observe the policies at all times. Every museum has their own policies. Most museums allow non-flash photography of their permanent collections only, but some do not. There will be signs at the ticket desk and you can also ask gallery attendants in the galleries. Photography is seldom allowed in small, private museums or in academic museums. Also, foreign museums seldom allow for photography. If you are ever in a situation where you need access to photography of a particular work of art and the museum will not allow your to photograph it yourself, speak with the curatorial department about acquiring rights for images.

4. Keep it “low key.” I know of no museum with a “dress code.” The only exception is the Vatican. So dress comfortably, especially when it comes to shoes. Most museums are spread out over a good amount of space and on several levels. Wear what you’re going to be comfortable in.

“Low key” applies to your behavior, too. You don’t have to be silent. Feel free to talk to your companions about the art, about the architecture, your experience, etc. Your behavior shouldn’t, however, impend the enjoyment or fluid movement of other patrons in the museum. If you and your family are screaming, running around, or blocking entrances to galleries you’ve crossed a line. Museums know people need spaces to have “moments” while they visit. So there are benches or chairs scattered throughout the museum as well as cafeterias, lobbies, restaurants and other communal areas in which you can take a break and regroup. If you have small children with you who need breaks or snacks, feel free to see a gallery and then head to the restaurant or lobby for a break. It will give everyone a chance to sit, rest, and regroup. Museums know that people enjoy a bit of food with their culture and as such they provide ample space to sit and enjoy a snack. A restorative snack between galleries is good for young and old a like.

5. No touching! It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: Never touch a work of art. All art is susceptible to damage from the dirt and oils on your hands. The older the work the more fragile it is. I know how tempting it can be to reach out and touch the tactile surface of a painting or the creamy smooth curves of a sculpture. But you must resist. Museums reserve the right to remove you from the galleries for touching, and in some foreign museums you can face worse. So, keep your hands to yourself.

6. Sketching. Just like photography, every museum has their own policies. Sitting on a gallery bench to sketch is never a problem; you’re not blocking traffic areas. But some museums restrict sketching to certain galleries or ask that you inform the front desk if you’re going to be sketching. Furthermore, the museum may dictate how large your sketch pad can be and whether or not you can use graphite, crayons, pastels, etc.

Do Your Homework

1. Check the website. All museums have one (exceptions, of course for some small foreign museums). Information on ticket prices, current exhibits, parking, etc, can all be found there. This will help you plan the logistics of your trip in advance. Furthermore, you will be able to see what type of art the museum has, their specific curatorial departments, and perhaps see pictures of their most popular or well-known pieces so you know what to expect in the galleries.

Utilize the Museum’s Resources

1. Children, family, and/or educational resources. Museums aren’t just depositories for art, they’re educational environments as well. Every museum has implemented and integrated educational elements into all aspects of their collection and exhibits. If you don’t know about a particular artist, period, or exhibit refer to the wall text, the information pamphlets at the start of the exhibit, or docents who work with the museum. You can also check the museum’s online calendar of events to see when there is going to be a gallery tour or talk. This is a great opportunity for free information about current work in the museum or a visiting exhibit. Also, often there are events held during the week aimed specifically for children or families. Contact the museum or the education department for details.

2. Gift shop. I always stop in the gift shop first. Not to shop, I save my shopping till the end, but to see what’s hot or popular in the museum at that time. Gift shops push the blockbuster exhibits and the works that the museum is most known for. A quick tour through the postcard rack and the front tables of the gift shop will clue you into what’s hot at that time in the museum.

3. Become a Member! The best way to enjoy a museum is to become a member of the museum. In addition to covering your entrance fees, the membership earns you discounts at the shop and sometimes covers parking costs. Even more important, however, is that with your membership you are often given opportunities for lectures, exhibit events, gallery talks, tours, etc. that the public is not afforded.

US Museums

Here’s a brief but handy guide to the best and most well known museums in the country. By no means is this a comprehensive list. I’ve mixed in large institutional museums with smaller, specialized and academic museums. All have great works of art to savor.

Heard Museum, Phoenix

Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
Orange County Museum of Art
Museum of Art, Santa Barbara
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino)
Timkin Museum of Art
Museum of Contemporary Art (La Jolla)
The C and the de Young (see
The Legion of Honor
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection
The University Art Museum (Berkeley)

Denver Art Museum

Wadsworth Atheneum
Yale Center for British Art

Washington, D. C.:
The National Gallery of Art
The National Portrait Gallery
The National Museum of American Art
Dumbarton Oaks Museum
The Phillips Collection
Hirshhorn Museum
Freer Gallery

Shangri-la (Doris Duke Foundation)

Art Institute of Chicago
Terra Museum
Oriental Institute Museum

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Baltimore Museum of Art
The Walters Art Gallery

Museum of Fie Arts (MFA)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Fogg Museum (Harvard)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Harvard)
The Busch-Reisinger Museum (Harvard)
Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)
Williams College Museum of Art
Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA)

Detroit Institute of Arts

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Walker Art Center

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
St. Louis Art Museum

New Mexico:
Albuquerque Museum of Art and History
New Mexico Museum of Art
Georgia O’Keefe Museum

New York:
Albright-Knox Art Center
Corning Museum of Glass
Brooklyn Museum of Art
The Frick Collection
Guggenheim Museum
The Hispanic Society
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
The Cloisters
The Morgan Library
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
The New York Historical Society
The Whitney Museum of American Art

North Carolina:
Museum of Fine Art (Raleigh)
Nash Museum (Duke)

Museum of Art (Cleveland)
Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin)
Toledo Art Museum

Thomas Gilcrease Museum

Philadelphia Museum of Art (MFA)
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Blanton Museum (University of Texas, Austin)
Dallas Museum of Art
Nash Sculpture Center
Trammel-Crow Asian Collection
Meadows Museum (SMU)
The Rachofshy House
The Amon Carter Museum
Kimbell Art Museum
The Modern (Fort Worth)
The Menil Collection

Virginia Museum of Fine Art

Buffalo Bill Historical Center


1 Comment

Filed under Art, Art History, Culture

One response to “Art 101: Guide to Museums

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