Why I Love Museum Tours

Listening to the tour guide at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

The first time I fell in love with a museum guided tour was at the National Gallery in London.  I don’t even remember the theme of the tour–though I think it was of the impressionist works, if I know anything about myself–but I do remember the feeling.  As we were led from room to room and shown how each artist used light, color, texture, and perspective, my face relaxed, my heart rate slowed down, and I got this calming tingle on the top of my head.  As someone who is typically anxiety-ridden during most of her day–especially when traveling, especially to cities–this was a pleasant sensation.  I wanted it to continue.

And so I became a museum guided tour junkie.  I went on every one I could find; my first stop at every museum I visit is the info desk to find out when and from where the next tour leaves.  Each tour was different from the next, some far superior to others.  I did two tours in one day at Tate Modern, and months later a perfectly awful tour of the Egyptian gallery at the Met.  If there’s no live narrated tour available, I’ll pick up an audio guide even if there’s an extra cost involved.  On my most recent trip to DC, a few spare hours in the afternoon led to an impromptu visit to my favorite Smithsonian, the west wing of the National Gallery of ART.  It was here, on a live narrated tour, that I started to realize why, exactly, I so love museum tours.

Better than a Map

Have you ever tried to use a museum map?  I have–exactly one time.  They are overwhelming and confusing.  I’ve even downloaded museum guide apps–they aren’t any better, though they do waste less paper and take up less room in your bag.  I can’t think of a worse way to see any kind of artistic or cultural artifact that over the edge of a crumpled, useless map.  Put the map away and queue up for the guided tour.  It’s a much better experience.

Prevents ‘Highlight Hopping’

Don't sprint through museums--they are frequently lovely in their own right.

My husband got pissed off in the Louvre.  He saw so many people using the museums-as-to-do-list method of touring–Mona Lisa, check.  Venus di Milo, check.  Winged Glory, check.  It was that last one that really got him–he had his little breakdown on the steps surrounding Winged Glory and then we got the hell out of there.

But to be fair, it’s easy to end up highlight hopping if you don’t have any guidance.  But a tour provides that guidance and, better, always includes some lesser-known works that you may have just walked past on your mad dash to the Mona Lisa.

Improves Focus

You’ve all been there–wandering around a museum, glancing here and there, not really taking anything in, slightly overwhelmed.  It can’t just be me–though I do have a bit of ADD, which I will admit to.  On a tour, you will visit specific works in a specific order–depending upon the theme of the tour.  You won’t see as much, but you’ll appreciate it more.  Think of it as quality over quantity, if you will.

Feels Like Class

I’m thirty-two years old.  I spent thirteen years in grade school, four years for my undergrad and an additional three years getting my master’s degree part-time while working as an adult.  That’s a lot of schooling, but unless something magical happens in the future (involving me becoming independently wealthy) I am probably done with most forms of formal education for the rest of my life.  And that makes me very, very…sad.

I love school.  Sure, my master’s program occasionally made me want to die, but that’s because I was trying to fit it in between cooking dinner and grading papers and still finding time to sleep.  In an ideal world, I’d be a forever-student.  Museum tours are one small way that I can work learning into my somewhat-everyday life–and they are free.  I’ll take whatever free education I can get, thank you very much.

Puts Things in Context

I would have strolled past Autumn on the Hudson–show above–in mere seconds.  I would have glanced at it, a calming, landscape scene rich with fall colors, and found it dull–looking rather like something my nana would hang over her couch.  But when the tour guide stopped in front of it and we all gathered around, we learned so much about the time period in which it was painted–just at the beginning of our nation’s short history, when American was barely a term nevermind a type of art.  And also at a time when people only heard descriptions of the colonies–they never really saw the images, given the expense and difficulty of producing sketches or copper plate photographs.  In fact, when shown in London–where, oddly, it was painted–Cropsey had to have actual tree branches flown in to place around the painting so people would believe his accurate–but shocking to Londoners–portrayal of the autumn colors.  How cool is that?  All from a painting I would have breezed past had I not been on a guided tour.

Reminds me of Story Time

While all of the above reasons are completely valid and accurate, I feel this last reason is the true root of my love for museum guided tours.

There is nothing more calming than sitting (or even standing) somewhere and having someone tell you a story.  And that’s basically what you get on a museum tour–several interesting stories.  And as a bonus, the stories have pictures!  Or statues or photographs–you get the point.  I think this might account for the tingly-headed, droopy-eyed feeling of relaxation that washes over me when listening to a museum docent speak about brush strokes, use of light, or perspective.  I’m three years old again, and my pappy is telling me a pre-naptime story.

Do you love museum tours?  Do you hate museum tours?  Why?  Have you been on one particularly great tour–or, as in my experience at the Met, one particularly awful one?  Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

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