All of the things to look for, read, ask, and take in while visiting a special exhibit.
Best Time to Visit
Generally, the best time to visit a museum is right when it opens. You may have to wake up early (hello nearby coffeeshop), but you might get the exhibit all to yourself! On the flipside, sometimes nearer to closing can be your best bet for missing the crush of a crowd, know that the gallery may be darker, but this could be a great way to see the art. Weekdays can also be a good option, but you do have a greater chance of sharing your experience with school groups. When in doubt, look at the museum website, they might have suggestions for when you should visit. Regardless, just go when you're able and make the most of it — special exhibits typically only last a few months!
Writing on the Wall
You heard about an upcoming exhibit, now what? Depends on how much you want to learn! Ask yourself a couple of questions: Is this an artist or time period I'm an expert on? Or, is this entirely new territory for me?
Whatever your answer to the above, do you want to learn more? If you’re unsure about the exhibit, try to at least read the curator’s summary online and see if that further peaks your interest. Once you’ve arrived, read any and all accompanying wall text, and pick up a brochure (if available) to read more detailed explanations of the works you’re seeing. Don't feel obligated to spend an hour reading, you know how much I love to embrace the art without prior knowledge. Read the text at your own pace and you'll have a great time.
If you know the general premise of why an exhibit was set up and what the curator wants you to focus on, you’ll know what details to look for as you walk through. I have often walked into exhibits about singular artists, expecting to understand their whole life, and miss the fact that the curator put things together to specifically hone in on particular techniques, life events, or other more minute details than simply overviewing the whole artist’s life. This is actually a blessing, the curator has potentially just encouraged you to go learn more about the artist or time period, because they didn't put everything in the exhibit.
To Audio Guide, Or Not?
The one time I found an audio guide to be useful was at a Frieda Khalo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago. I had learned in art class a little about Khalo’s life, but not enough to fully appreciate what the whole exhibit held. With the audio guide, I received much more detailed information about her life, giving me amazing context for what I was looking at. This being said, use your judgement for getting an audio guide as they are often an extra cost and can be more exhausting than helpful. While they certainly offer information you may miss, I always enjoy talking with a friend and overhearing the conversations going on by the other viewers around me. Facts aside, listening to a stranger question their companion about a technique or composition can make you see art in a whole different light!
Take A Walk
Quite simply, proceed through the exhibit however you choose too. Even if you skip a painting in the curator’s layout and have to go back later, you’re not missing anything. This actually can lead to greater comparisons and understanding of what the artist was thinking (or not thinking). Read more about this topic in our Gallery FAQ.
Okay, not really everything. But there are a few key details you may want to keep in mind as you look at wall plaques. Here’s the order I suggest:
- Look at the painting or artifact. Think about what you would you have entitled it and how old you think it is.
- Now, read the title and date. Creative? Younger than expected?
- Read the rest of the accompanying description. While doing this, keep looking back to the work as you read, going back and forth from text to art.
- Inspection time. Take another minute or two and get up close and personal to see the details.
- If you’re curious, look at where the artwork came from. Is it on loan from another museum? Whoa, what if it got damaged in transit on the plane, ship, bus? Wait, how do you ship a 10 ft. tall painting? (And so goes the rabbit hole of cost, transportation, and any other inter-museum drama you want to daydream on).
- Last, step back a few feet from the work, and drink it in.
Optional: This work was so cool! I have to go back and look for another minute when I’ve gone through the rest and see if there are others by this artist.
Whether to your audio guide, museum buddy, to the strangers talking next to you, or to your own internal thoughts. Hey, listen to the artwork in front of you! What does it tell you about the time period it was made in, the context of the artist’s own life? Make up a story or dialogue for what’s going on in the painting before you, or what happened right before the cast of characters got together. Seriously — you can only see so many Annunciation scenes, before you want to think up realistic reactions Mary must have had when some celestial being dropped in on her ‘me-time.' No way was she cool with it.