I’m going to combine the weekend together as it was all free time and quite frankly I was getting a little museumed out by this stage. We arrived in London around midday on Friday and after checking into our student housing in Russel Square we were free to do whatever we liked. I’ll be honest, many of us slept – a lot. We were all pretty tired from the constant moving around, a couple of people had been passing around a cold so weren’t feeling too great and we all enjoyed the few days of sleeping in and afternoon naps.
I think many of us were also starting to suffer museum fatigue. Yes, this is a real thing and I know it seems highly unprofessional for a group of museum and heritage students and young professionals to say they don’t want to see any more museums, but it is clearly an illness which can affect us all. It was first documented as part of a visitor study in 1916 by Benjamin Ives Gilman and is commonly defined as the point at which a visitor begins to feel mental or physical fatigue during their museum visit.
It can affect people who spend a long period of time in one museum, or people who visit a high number of museums in a short time. We had done both, in the space of 11 days we had visited 10 museums and spent an average of 5-6hrs in each one. We were also set up to visit another 6 museums in our remaining 4 days. We needed to pace ourselves. Gradually you stop actually seeing the exhibitions and just start wandering aimlessly through the galleries, drifting between whichever objects catch your eye. Eventually you find yourself lost and confused staring at a case of Victorian medical instruments which look more like the tools of the Spanish Inquisition wondering why people ever thought they were a good idea. Then the nice visitor services assistants come and lead you away to the cafe and try to locate your family,
So here are my tips to combat museum fatigue (now don’t take my word for it, everyone’s methods are different):
1) If it’s a big museum like the British Museum or the V& A – don’t try and tackle the whole thing at once. Check online for any special exhibitions they’re having or any stand-out objects/stories you want to see and head there first. It’s been found that many people will start off in a museums trying to read most/all of the signs and labels in the first few galleries and then as they get tired/bored they start skipping over things or just looking at the pretty objects. So start in the galleries of the things that really interest you and you’ll still be fresh enough to want to read the information and remember it afterwards.
2) Take breaks – many breaks. Most good museums have seating spread around the galleries as well as near the entrance and cafe areas (although art galleries tend to be better at this than many museums). Even if you’re not feeling particularly tired, if there’s something pretty cool in one of the galleries, sit down for a few minutes while you look at it. Take a second to think a bit more about what it is, how it was used/designed/functioned and what purpose it had for people. It can be hard to do – for example there’s that many people crowded around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum that your lucky to see it at all. My favourite type of things are objects which tell a personal story, something that can connect to an individual. I often wonder what their lives were like, did they ever think that their things would survive so long to be stared at by strangers in a museum? Would they have cared? Did they think they were important enough to want to have their things preserved? It’s also helpful to stop for a coffee break every now and then to recharge. You don’t have to go through the galleries at break neck speed.
3) Talk to the people! Text panels and multimedia are all well and good, some people read them and enjoy them but others find it all a bit bland. Talk to the people and the stories come alive. The staff and volunteers at most museums are there because they love their jobs and they are passionate about their subject, they’re also usually a wealth of knowledge which won’t fit onto those small labels in the cases. If there’s something you’re curious about, talk to them. If they can’t tell you the answer, they should be able to find someone who can. They can probably also tell you the more scandalous and interesting stories which may or may not be completely researched, but which make a topic that much more interesting.
4) Skip the queues – many places simply say to mentally prepare yourself for the queues. I say skip them entirely! Many big museums (those that aren’t already free) will have two lines for admissions/tickets. One will be for the people who turn up on the day and want to get in, the other is for people who have bought tickets in advance. Check your museums before you go. If you can buy tickets in advance – do it! That way when you turn up you can cruise past all the other people waiting outside in the sun and head straight inside. Another tip is to check for quiet times, a quick google can sometimes reveal the peak visitor times, so that you can avoid the crowds if you want. Some places will do late night openings once a week or month, they are a good time to get in while it’s quest, and even if it isn’t quiet there will generally be less kiddies around if you feel like avoiding them too.
5) Take a tour – if you’re short on time or not sure exactly what you want to see have a quick look at the tours on offer. They can often be a good way of getting a ‘highlights’ look at the collection, or in the case of Museum Hack tours in the Met Museum in New York, a great way to delve into the scandalous back stories of some of the artworks, you can check out their options here: http://museumhack.com. It also means you can leave knowing you have probably seen a good percentage of the “major” exhibits without wasting time wandering around trying to find them.
6) Don’t be afraid to split up. Everyone likes to do things at different paces and if you are with a partner or group who goes at a different speed to you, don’t feel like you need to keep up or slow down to accomodate them. I happen to be married to someone who will quite happily spend all day in an art gallery, (once we arrived at MONA in Tasmania within 10mins of it opening and didn’t leave until they were kicking us out and locking the doors behind us). I like art galleries, but I’m not as passionate about art as he is, so we have an arrangement where we go our own ways and meet up every few hours to check in and see how the other is doing. There are usually plenty of other things that you can get interested in if you are first to finish (cake anyone?), take a walk in the gardens (if they have them), museums shop or cafe. We recently went to the Picasso museum in Granada, Spain and while I spent a little bit of time looking at the squiggly pictures I later discovered that in the basement they had an exhibition and archeological remains of the early Phonecian building which they had uncovered when renovating the museum, so that kept me happy while the Mr. spent time analysing the squiggly lines. Likewise when I nerd out over a royal palace and spend ages there, Mr. sometimes takes a sketch book and spends some time outside sketching the building, or wandering the gardens.
7) Lastly if you are binge-ing on a high number of museums in a short space of time, alternate them with some fresh air and other things. Depending on your enthusiasm/dedication a museum a day can be a big task, take a day off in between and go and see some other sights. I know many of the big cities, London, Barcelona, Paris etc will have no shortage of museums for you to see but don’t feel like you have to get though them all. Pick one or two of the big ones which have the stuff you want to see and then maybe try a little local museum to get some of the smaller stories. There’s often some hidden gems around and little ones are less likely to give you museum fatigue.
Well that’s it for this one, not much to report museum-wise for my free weekend in London, I did some shopping, explored the markets and caught up with some old friends. I’ll admit I did see one museum (couldn’t resist!) – The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett. It’s tiny, located in the attic of a church and only accessed by a tight spiral staircase but its great. It is one of the earliest operating theatres in Europe, built in 1822, and a fascinating insight into early medicine. The museum officer there who conducted a short talk was amazing, she clearly knew her stuff but didn’t make the medical terms too technical or hard to understand. It’s very much a cabinet of curiosities, and one I’d recommend if you are in London. You can find out more about it here: http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/
That was the last bit of relaxation – strap yourselves in for the final whirlwind week of museums in London coming up in the next posts.