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The Detroit Institute of Arts: A Museum that Provides an Excellent Visitor Experience!

The art will bring you in. The visitor experience will bring you back. Why visit museums? Because places like the DIA exist!

by Susan M. Ward

Front facade of the DIA, a museum with a great visitor experience. This is why we visit museums!
Detroit Institute of Arts - worthy of a visit!

Detroit? A world-class museum?

Detroit has had a bad reputation for so long (even as it continues to grow, improve, and change) that it might be surprising to discover that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is considered one of the top 10 museums in the United States. Also, the DIA is ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report as to things to do in Detroit.

Detroit Industry, floor to ceiling murals
Diego Rivera murals

It was the first museum I went to as a child being that I grew up in Detroit, and, thankfully, I had a mom who believed in culture for kids. I have fond memories of art classes, Kresge Court, the Rivera murals, and buying a reproduction scarab with “my own” money when I was about seven or eight years old. It’s a joy to see how the museum has continued to expand over the years.

Front facade of the Detroit Institute of Arts
The Thinker by Rodin

Architectural drama

Grand steps up to a dramatic front façade including The Thinker by August Rodin. A large, high-ceilinged entryway. A Great Hall with a detailed, palace-worthy ceiling. The iconic, dramatic, Diego Rivera Court. The replicated Medieval courtyard – Kresge Court with grand staircase and numerous windows. No matter what part of the DIA you’re meandering through, there are dramatic open spaces, artful ceilings, patterned floors, and elegant wall colors.

Van Gogh in a straw hat
Vincent van Gogh Self Portrait, 1887

"Ah..." - worthy art to admire and spark curiosity

  • The museum has 65,000 works of art

  • There are 100 galleries to display the art

  • The DIA collected the first Van Gogh of any museum in the U.S.

  • Pre-1950 American art is considered one of the best collections in the world with close to 3,000 artifacts.

  • The Asian collection spans 8,000 years and a third of the world’s landmass. It includes metalwork, painting, book arts, glassware, ceramics, calligraphy, sculpture, textiles, and more.

Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566
The Wedding Dance
  • European paintings date from the 1100s to 1950 and includes landscapes, everyday life scenes, portraits, and religious imagery. One of the most famous from this collection is The Wedding Dance from 1566 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

  • The Islamic gallery, with 170 objects that includes carpets, enameled glass, textiles, lacquerware, metalwork, calligraphy, books arts, and more, was opened in 2010. It includes a dazzling Iranian Qur’an from 1450-60.

  • The Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, painted from 1932 – 1933 are considered the most monumental and the finest paintings devoted to American industry. Even though these were painted during the depression, Rivera focused on technology and the workers. The murals are awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and grand in size!

Inviting hospitality

“You are welcome!” is incorporated throughout the museum. Every staff person and volunteer I crossed paths with was cordial and welcoming! Because the overall visitor experience is important to me, I make a point to chat with numerous people in every museum I visit. The entry greeter (she may have been security but I forgot to ask her title) was cheerful and willing to tell me about her favorite painting in the museum.

Sign regarding galleries, parking, restrooms, and more
Helpful wayfinding signage!

As I exited the museum through the same door, she was quick remember me and to ask what I thought of the museum and if I had seen her favorite landscape painting. I spoke with several volunteers throughout the museum and each shared about their responsibilities as well as their delight at being connected to the DIA. Staff people in the shop, galleries, and café were at least very polite if not outright friendly. I felt very welcomed!

In addition to positive personal interactions, the DIA does better than most museums with seating throughout the galleries and in the hallways, which adds to a sense of hospitality and improves the visitor experience. There’s a complimentary coat check and lockers are available, too, which add to the sense of comfort.

Wayfinding - how to get from one part of the museum to another - is well done at the DIA. There's an easy-to-use online map, they hand out paper maps, and the location signage throughout the museum is some of the best I've seen!

Engaging storytelling

Friends who visit museums with me know I’m scathing about labels. I whine that they’re boring and sound like curators wrote the labels for other curators. Not the DIA! Labels are engaging and intriguing. I was impressed!

Whether the labels were small object labels, large gallery labels, or topic labels, they moved beyond basic art historic information and included history, social issues, emotions, and more. The words were carefully crafted and interesting. At the same time, they didn’t shy away from explaining difficult topics. They were also laid out in ways that made them easy to read with inviting titles, paragraphs (odd to mention, I know, but some museum labels are just one huge on-going chunk of info), white space, and attractive graphics on the larger signs. And the first sentence was compelling, inviting you to read further. (Some museum labels start with words like, “The light and dark areas of this Baroque painting represent the artistic changes that were occurring in multiple…” Boring!)

An example of a DIA label:

A shipwreck in a storm
The Wreck by Isabey, 1854

Looming Forces of Nature

Have you ever been caught in a crashing thunderstorm? If you felt your heart skip with both terror and amazement at the experience, you know what the artist of the works along this and the adjacent wall wished to convey.

Artists of the early 1800s saw the natural world as wildly unpredictable – a destructive force that could overwhelm human society. During this period in particular, artists used elements of nature – threatening storms and predatory animals – as metaphors for the turbulence and violence of the fast-changing times.

Nature was also, however, something to hold in awe and reverence. Most artists observed nature’s fury from the relative safety of their homes. Some thrill-seekers ventured directly into the storms to experience nature’s might and fury firsthand.

A fun sign to spark curiosity while playing eye spy with the art
Eye Spy signs are throughout the museum

Some of my favorite small labels, sprinkled throughout various galleries were titled “Play Eye Spy.” They included a written clue and a photo clue that showed just one small part of the object. They were colorful and placed low on the wall so that children could read them. I read and participated in many of them!

Key Info


High quality hospitality is apparent throughout the museum. An organization-wide emphasis on being a welcoming facility is evident, along with what must be some well-thought out orientation and training.

Mental Wellness:

The museum is large enough that you can always find galleries that are quiet and an excellent source of respite. Also, ways to improve wellness is built through opportunities to be creative, learn new things, and feel a sense of awe and wonder. All of these are abundant at the Detroit Institute of Arts!


The exit survey I was asked to fill out included questions related to mental wellness! Increasing knowledge. Relaxing and escaping from everyday life. Seeing rare and beautiful objects, and experiencing beauty. Spending time with family/friends, and interacting with others. I was impressed! Museums have, what I believe is lots of untapped potential in regards to wellness – however, it seems that the DIA is on the ball with this topic!

How to visit:

This is a large museum. Plan to spend a good part of the day, perhaps including coffee or lunch in the Kresge Court Café. If you can only spend a short time, look online ahead of time and select a few galleries or topics that interest you. And, being that staff and volunteers are so friendly and helpful, you could ask them for recommendations.

Website: Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Put the Detroit Institute of Arts on your list!

The Detroit Institute of Arts is worthy of a planned trip just to see the museum. And, once you’re in Detroit, there are other museums, festivals, music venues, and restaurants worthy of your visit.

Have you visited the Detroit Institute of Arts? This is an example of how museums and wellbeing go together!


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