Museums are not novels

Why visitors do the museum shuffle and leave disappointed

I’ve worked in museums on two continents and beeline to them everywhere I travel. And I’m here to report that the “museum shuffle” happens the whole world over. This is the customary way of going through a museum: reading each sign, spending an appropriate few seconds in front of each object. Repeat room by room until you’ve covered the whole museum, or you’re out of time, tired, or feeling like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Who knows if you’ve absorbed any of it at all.

Keep an eye out for the museum shuffle. I still do it all the time, even though I should know better.

The reason this happens, I’m convinced, is because we assume that museums are like novels. “Eh, I don’t love what I’m seeing now, but the order matters. If I don’t pay attention now, how will I follow what’s happening later?” With novels, you can afford to sit and wait for the story to eventually pull you in. But that might never happen in a museum.

Instead, a way better analogy is treating a museum like you would a nonfiction book. Pick specific chapters and only look at those. Rifle through the index. Come in with questions you want to answer. Sure, museums are certainly designed to be viewed in an order. But it’s far more important to listen to your own level of interest than any intended order. Without your interest, the best-plotted museum in the world has no hope of drawing you in.

This is not at all to disparage exhibits! They take so much work to put together, there are such talented curators, and they’re often (duh) genuinely the best way to understand something. But I worry that they inadvertently breed the museum shuffle, and that this actually causes harm. How so?

Well, when you’re reading a novel and can’t get into it, you think, “Oh, I must not be in the mood for this right now.”
But when people walk through a museum and can’t get into it, that’s not what they think. Instead, the reaction is way more critical: “I’m not smart enough for this. This world is inaccessible to me. Museums will never be my thing.” That’s scary. It forecloses ever experiencing the coolest parts of art and history.

Know what I’d love to see, instead of the museum shuffle? More people purposefully power-walking through the bulk of a museum, then standing, entranced in front of something for 20 minutes. Feeling the way you only can in the presence of the object itself. Feeling that it was worth leaving your house, forking over admission, braving the crowds. Feeling how vital museums are.

But how? Here are 5 ways to topple the museum shuffle.

  • Participate in next year’s Slow Art Day. Museums encourage people to pick ~5 work of art and spend 5–10 minutes in front of each. This might not sound like a lot, but when I hosted an event in Cambridge, MA, all my attendees were surprised how radical it felt. I’m willing to bet that most people have never spent 5 minutes in front of a single work of art.
  • Think in “playlists”. In 2005, the Tate Modern had 10 pamphlets narrating suggested tours. But instead of grouping by historical era, they were arranged by visitor mood. I’ve Just Split UpI’m Hungover. Etc. I didn’t get to check these out, and reviews I’ve read were mixed. Still, I love the intent here. Visitors always have different things on their minds; why not engage with them accordingly?
  • If there’s a free museum near you, visit as often as possible. When I worked in London, my biggest treat was going to the National Gallery on every lunch break and popping into their Dutch Golden Age rooms. This is how lots of art was intended to be seen — with the assumption that you’d see it daily and spend significant time getting to know it, instead of seeing hundreds of works all at once.
  • Try to find ties to your existing interests. Did anything in this museum inspire your current favorite artists? Look for topics you like today, like pets or cooking or gardening, peeking out in the background.
  • Honestly, if nothing else, there’s never shame in shopping: “If I got to pick one thing from this collection to keep, what would it be?”

I know that museums can seem dull and stodgy, as unopinionated as their endless rows of artifacts. But that’s never true. They’re never neutral. They’re never dispassionate observers. Creating a museum is hard! Someone had to care a great deal, enough to figure out funding, amass a collection, etc. Figuring out why they cared enough for all this effort can tell you a great deal. They had something to say about what’s important and what’s worth paying attention to. The best, most fun thing you can possibly do is participate loudly in that conversation. Were they right? Do you care about what they have, and do they have what you care about?