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Tips for Visiting Large Museums: Places to Spark Curiosity!

Pre-planning will help you enjoy large museums

by Susan Marie Ward

Overhead view of the front facade of the Field Museum
Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Field Museum in Chicago. The Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. These are examples of large museums that are best visited with some plans and strategies so that you walk out having had a positive visitor experience, feeling gratified and fulfilled.

Small and mid-sized museums are often straightforward when it comes to visiting. You buy a ticket, wander or are guided through. You finish in the gift shop. You may have some outdoor paths or exhibits to extend your visit. And you head home. With large museums, you have many more options and choices to make before you walk out with a smile on your face. Large museums are great places to spark curiosity in visitors of any age and interest.

Pre-visit planning for large museums

Check the museum’s website. If you haven’t been to a museum in a while you might be surprised to find out that it’s recommended (or even required) that you pre-purchase tickets. For museums that don’t require it, you’ll be please that often there’s a discount if you pre-purchase online. Also, museums like many businesses, are struggling with staffing issues. Some are closed on Mondays, some are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—be sure to check for open days and hours.

Some of these larger museums may take four hours or even all day to see everything. I love museums, but I have limits on how long I want to spend in one museum. Use the website to plot out a tentative agenda or read How to Visit a Museum for tips.. Do you want to see one specific exhibit and then hit a few highlights? Do you want to see a couple highlights and then wander at your leisure? On the website, the “Visit” tab will often tell you what you need to know. Also, you can look at “Collections” to see what the museum specializes in to help you decide what you want to explore.

Timing can improve your visitor experience

Front facade of the Victoria & Albert Museum
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK

First thing when the museum opens in the morning is often the quietest and the least crowded. Except during the school year! Mornings are often when school field trips are most prevalent. Some museums admit school groups on certain days of the week; you might check ahead of time if this is a concern. If you or someone in your family is neurodivergent (autism, anxiety, etc.), the quieter hours will be most comfortable. Some museums now have “quiet” times, hours or days when visitation numbers are limited, the lights are lowered, and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful regarding visitors with differing needs.

Selective wandering throughout the museum

Even if you have a plan for your museum visit based on your pre-visit research, it can be fun to ask staff about their favorite artifacts. They often point out objects you might miss, or they may share behind the scenes stories that expand your knowledge. As you wander, stop and sit occasionally. Not only will it rest you from cognitive and visual overload, but you may gain a new perspective when sitting. You’ll be looking at the artifacts from a different vantage point. And you can people watch and people listen!

Meals in museums

Many large museums have several food options, some even allow you to bring your own food. The restaurant options can range from small cafes to larger, more formal menus. A few years ago, I went to a casual self-serve café with a limited menu at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The benefit was that I sat in front of floor to ceiling windows looking onto Central Park! And, an intriguing food venue is at the African American Museum of History & Culture. The menu covers African American foods from four regions of the country—decisions were hard! Museum meals are often expensive, so if you don’t want to spend a fortune, consider getting coffee and a dessert to tide you over.

Museum gift shops

At the end of a long visit to a large museum, gift shops may be a welcome alternative or an overwhelming distraction. You might go in with an item in mind that you want to purchase as a memento. I often buy postcards to use as bookmarks. I recently pulled out a postcard from the Courtauld in London which brought back happy memories of a trip several years ago. Don’t feel obligated to purchase anything. Only spend as much time as your feet and stamina will last.

Do you have any plans to visit large museums? When was your last visit to a large museum?

[Photo appreciation: V& A by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0, Field Museum by Sea Cow, CC BY-SA 4.0]


Aug 15, 2023

We usually go to the "big ones" with a specific exhibition or gallery in mind. Otherwise, after two or so hours I get "museum eyes" which simply is a glazed-over feeling while you meander aimlessly around, no longer with purpose or clear mind. However, a quick stop at the cafe usually helps get me back in shape for another hour or two.

Aug 23, 2023
Replying to

"Museum eyes," great phrase! I, too, love a stop at a museum cafe.


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