How to make the most of a museum visit?

Art museum? That may not ring a bell for some people. Intimidating. Overwhelming. Pretentious. The list goes on. 

As much as I love museum, I must admit that not all museums are created equal: some merely fail to capture my attention, or make an exhibit coming to life. However, don’t let the stifling feel of an isolated island (aka museum) discourage you. I put together a guide to help you experience museums (yes, I’m talking Museum, not just Art) in multi dimensions. The guide below applies to museum visit in general, with a bit more insights into museums in San Francisco where I live. I came to believe that regardless of your background, or interest in art, there is always something to be seen, heard and felt in the museum.

Before the visit

Plan your trip

Some cultural institution doesn’t only own the museum itself, but also the house of the artist, the recording studio, the research center, etc. These sites can be of walking distance to each other, or it might actually requires advance reservation or driving. Budget time for logistic friction if any (temporary close of a gallery, driving time, parking etc.) 

Visit museum for free or at a discount 

  • Free pass through public library system

Sign up for a library card. If you live in SF, you can have one for free at any branch of the local library, or visit Look for Discover & Go Programs, you can access dozens of museums and other attractions for free.

  • Community Day programs

Participating museums in Smithsonian Museum Day offer free admission for 2 people. Some big museums also open museum free of charge as part of the Culture for Community initiatives (Check out SFMoMa). Other museums also have Neighborhood free weekend (Check out California Academy of Sciences). 

@SFMOMA Community Day
@SFMOMA Space Exhibition
  • Credit card benefits, corporate partnership, corporate sponsorship  

‘Museum On Us’ program by Bank of America, now in its 22nd year, allow BoA, Merrill and US Trust credit and debit card holder to visit more than 225 of the most popular cultural destination in the US for free on the first weekend of every month. 

At Asian Art Museum, general museum admission is free every first Sunday of the month, with additional entrance fees applied to special exhibitions, as part of the sponsorship with Target. Check if your company is a museum partner at Lacquer Level.  

@Asian Art Museum, Tanabe Chikuunsai iV installation
  • Tourist bundle 

City Pass San Francisco offers at least 15% saving on museum admission. Check out local tourism bureau website for updated information. 

  • Extended hours or during events 

Museums in San Francisco offered extended hours (till 9 or 10pm), with alcohol, live entertainment, movie screening for a reduced ticket price. Check out: 

Research on aspects of the museum you’re interested in 

Be it the museum building architecture, the collection, the story, the more context you have, the more memorable the trip is.

During the visit

Get familiar with the museum layout 

Depending on the size of the museum, some giant destination might look overwhelming. Always ask for a map when you walk in. Take a few minutes to see if there’s a particular exhibit/area that you find more appealing and prioritize.  

Join a docent tour

Docent tour is a great way to learn about the objects in a systematic way. I’ve never been a fan of Baroque, mythological style of Peter Paul Rubens. However, a docent tour helps me understand Rubens’ early entrepreneurship journey (hiring friends to be his models, running a studio) and how his background (born to a Protestant-Catholic parents) affect his travel for painting destination. I came to appreciate his artwork more, now that I’m a bit more knowledgeable about the subject than when I entered the museum.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens

Take an audio tour

    • An audio tour, narrated by actor, educator, museum admin, explores stories at a  deeper and more personal level than the limited labels on the museum walls are able to cover.
    • Download Google Arts & Culture on your phone. Type in the name of the museum, a style, an artist, or a period of time, you’ll get some wiki-like knowledge. You can mark artworks as favorite, and create your own gallery online. 

Attend workshops and activities

Museums regularly host educational programs or events. Take advantage of some dance performances, concerts, lectures, film screenings, workshops, gallery talks. Most programs have a theme tied to the exhibition, with guidance for attendees to interact with the artworks. You can participate in physical experiments in science museums (including VR installation), some treasure hunt in art museums, or song recording in music museums. 

Pay attention to the overall aesthetic 

Lots of factors can contribute to a delightful museum visit other than the artwork itself. Think about the lighting, wall color, size of the text on the walls. I once noticed the lighting in a room of sculpture display is totally different from the one in a medieval oil painting display. Some other times, the architecture partakes a great deal in conveying the collection’s idea. 

@Legion of Honor, San Francisco
@SF MOMA, Photography Exhibition
@De Young Museum, San Francisco

After the visit

Take MOOC course 

This could be done either before or after the trip. I personally prefer to dig deeper into a subject after an in-person visit, leaving much room for discovery during the trip. 

    • The Smithsonian Institution EdX courses: Founded in 1846, Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and 9 research facilities. You can learn about Pop Culture or Star Trk controversial topics such as race, gender, sexuality and ethics. 
    • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMa) offers Coursera courses on photography, painting, art teaching, art engagement. 

Allow space for emotional, mental and intellectual connection to settle in

Maybe you rushed through some exhibits, maybe you learned a thing or two. Read up about the artist. Form your own interpretation about an exhibit. Discuss it with others . Or better yet, write about it:

Whether going to a museum is a lukewarm leisure activity, or a serious hobby, I hope my guide helps improve your museum-going experience.  Last but not least, spare some time to leave the Museum some feedbacks (writing a note, filling in a survey, rating online, etc). It’ll help the staff greatly in tailoring the museum experience to your need. 

Back to you: What’s the most interesting museum visit you’ve had? How did you navigate? What would you add to make a museum visit more meaningful?  

On a side note, I’ve been following Museum Hack of their renegade tour since its infancy. It’s a storytelling sort of tour with narratives you can relate with the objects. Would be interested to know if you guys have taken the tour.



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