How to get more out of your next museum visit

Kim Parker looks at an exhibit at the ICA titled, "We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85." —Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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Whether you’ve already spent more hours than you can count at Boston’s many art museums or you’ve never stepped foot in one, there’s always a way to get more out of the experience.

Sara Egan, school and youth programs manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, teaches both students and teachers how to embrace a visit to the Gardner museum through spearheading a program for Boston teachers called “Thinking Through Art” and the museum’s teen program, “Teens Behind the Scenes.”


Egan offered the following tips for visitors of any art museum.

1. Map out your visit

It’s a good idea to get to know the lay of the land before tackling an art museum, Egan said. The museum’s website is a great tool for familiarizing yourself with the parts of the place that appeal to you most before you even step foot in the building. That way, you won’t waste precious time figuring these things out the day of your visit.

You can also go online to learn about programs that might be taking place while you’re there, Egan said. For example, on the Gardner’s website, you’ll learn about upcoming museum talks and hands-on activities, as well as special admission deals. (You get in for free if your name is Isabella or if it’s your birthday, and you get $2 off adult admission if you wear Red Sox gear because Gardner was an avid Red Sox fan, Egan said.)

2. Don’t be intimidated

“There’s no right or wrong way to look at art, and there’s no right or wrong pieces of art to be drawn to,” Egan said. “Just let that pressure fall away. We don’t all need to be art historians to be able to get a lot out of the artwork.”

The Sandro Botticelli painting  and the Cassone beneath it in the Raphael Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. —Sean Dungan

3. Don’t give your full attention to every single piece in a room


That’s right. Egan suggested taking a lap of a room first, and then circling back to whatever object or objects grab your attention.

“It doesn’t have to be the most famous thing in the room or by an artist that you’ve heard of before,” Egan said. “It’s not about a hierarchy. It’s about what has personally attracted you.”

For example, in the Gardner’s Raphael Room, there’s a Sandro Botticelli painting positioned at eye level, but perhaps you’re more taken with the Cassone, an Italian wedding chest on the floor beneath it, Egan said.

“While most people would think, ‘Oh, I have to look at the Botticelli,’ the Cassone also has some fascinating details that could lead to interesting conversations,” she said.

4. Give yourself time with a work of art you enjoy

If you’re drawn to a piece of art, linger there. You can get a lot out of a three- to five-minute stop before a work of art, Egan said.

“You’ll start noticing the details, yes, but also noticing the interplay of the characters and the way the composition is drawing your eye,” she said.

At her particular museum, you can also ask yourself why Gardner arranged the artwork the way she did, because the pieces have remained how Gardner herself placed them. For example, you may ask yourself, “Why did she put the Botticelli above the Cassone?”

The William I. Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. —Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

5. Use three questions

Egan encourages her students to ask themselves the following three open-ended questions when examining a piece of art: What is going on in this artwork? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find?


“Using your own observations and your own prior knowledge, you have a lot to say about a work of art,” Egan said.

The questions are also a great way to start conversations about art with your companions, whether they’re adults or children, she said.

6. Avoid “museum fatigue” by taking breaks

Be realistic about how much of an art museum you’re able to see in one day, Egan said. You can always go back.

And if you get tired, Egan said, listen to your body and take a break.

“It’s really hard work, cognitively, to think so deeply about artwork,” she said. “It’s also physically demanding to be in these spaces and standing up. So, recognize that your brain and your body both need nourishment.”

Taking a break could mean heading to the museum’s cafe for a snack or resting for a bit on a museum bench.

“At the end of the day, it should be fun,” Egan said.

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