Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What 60 Museums Have Taught Us

We’ve just finished our 60th museum, and have thus completed one third of our 180 museum goal.  Seeing 60 museums in 9 months has taught us a great deal; we’ve learned many things about art, some things about museums, and a little about ourselves.  In the hopes that what we've learned can help future museum-goers, we offer this list:

Always, Always, Always Get the Audio Guide

Museum goers are often idealistic.  “It’s art.  It should elicit a response on its own.  It shouldn’t need explanation.”  Then you find yourself standing in front of a stack of Tupperware (Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum), three nearly identical pictures of goldfish bowls (Matisse exhibit at MOMA) or a basketball suspended in an aquarium (New Museum of Contemporary Art), and you suddenly realize, you’ve got nothing…. 

It so much better to dial a number and have some erudite curator murmur in your ear, “Tupperware was revolution in food conservation, leading to changes in kitchen design and the way meals were prepared after WWII.  Also, its all woman sales force and home marketing was an influence on women’s liberation and a radical change in marketing strategy;” or “Notice the use of white paint in the first painting, creating luminosity in the fish bowl, while the painting on the left uses dark shadows in the room to emphasize the bowl.  Matisse was experimenting with the abstraction of light, which can never be painted, only represented.”  We didn’t get the audio guide at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, so we’ll aways wonder about that basketball.

Start at the Top and Work Your Way Down

Most museums are designed to be seen from the top down.  Detailed, high profile exhibits are placed on upper floors, and the lobby floor is generally the least interesting.  Paul and I have learned that, when in a multi-floor museum, take the elevator to the top, then work your way down; if possible, use the stairs to move between floors as you descend.  It’s the most efficient way to see a museum.  If you don’t believe us, try it some time.

Small Museum Does Not Mean Small Amount of Time

When we started this project, we assumed two things about the 180 museums of New York: 1) that while New York City has several very large, very famous museums (i.e. the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum), the bulk of the 180 would be much smaller affairs; and 2) that we could get through these smaller museums quickly.  “We’ll breeze through large swaths of them in 30 minutes or less,” I naively assumed.

We were right about the first assumption.  Outside of a few famous behemoths, most NYC museums aren’t very large (NYC real estate prices being extremely good motivation for small floor plans).  However, we were completely wrong on the second. Small museums have to fight for both patrons and financial survival, and as a result many are focused and captivating places with jewel-like collections: small but breathtaking.  Also, they’re often staffed by zealots.  People who have given up their Saturday, spending the entire day on their feet, without pay, just to talk to you about one particular subject.  These are not the sort of people you ignore. 

Free Times: Not Always a Good Idea

At small museums, free times can be a nice bargain, but at larger, more well-known museums, you should weigh the worth of a good deal against the inconvenience of standing in long lines and fighting through the crowds that will lie between you and every painting.  Sometimes it’s best to pay full price.

One addendum to this: if you’re looking for a bargain, there are other ways.  You can usually find coupons to the popular attractions like Madam Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and the Discovery Times Square Exposition on the web, and many other museums post discounts or coupons on their websites, particularly during the off seasons (spring and fall).  Additionally, students often receive significantly reduced admission, and even get in free at some museums, so it pays to ask if you happen to have a student ID.  Lastly, for the daring bargain hunter, several of the largest, most expensive museums (i.e. The Met, The Museum of Natural History and The Cloisters) are actually “suggested donation” museums.  You can pay just a penny, if you’re brave enough to push the coin across the counter.

Don’t Bring Knives to a Jewish Museum

Most museums put a guard at the door, a few guards in the rooms, cover the place with cameras and leave it at that.  However, Jewish museums can be more serious about security (for understandable reasons), and add metal detectors and purse/coat searches to the gauntlet.  Paul’s pocketknife does not go over well.

Be Prepared to Pay More Than the Admission Price

Transportation, parking, coat check fees, snacks, drinks, programs and souvenirs- it all adds up.

Maritime Museums: The Museums of the Common Man

New York City has a port city since it’s creation and salt water runs deep in its veins.  The city has a number of maritime museums (8 at last count), and most are built, staffed and maintained entirely by volunteers.  These are not members of the rich upper crust behind so many Manhattan museums, these are ordinary people with jobs and busy lives who give their time, their sweat, and their personal collections, making these spaces feel both passionate and intimately personal.  Maritime museums are not the prettiest museums, but in a world of expensive, polished, high profile collections, they stand out as being more honest, and have an emotional resonance that cannot be ignored. 

Modern Art and Contemporary Art May Sound Like the Same Thing, But They're Not

The exact definition may be debatable, but generally modern art means art produced 1860 – 1960, while contemporary art means art produced 1960 – present.  The two are VERY different.  Modern art involves the exploration of unique styles and a trend toward abstraction (Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc), while contemporary art breaks down the borders between all styles and media, and anything goes.  Don’t walk into to a contemporary art museum like the Whitney or P.S.1 and expect to see anything as mundane as a “painting,” and the impact of a Picasso painting at the Guggenheim is going to be very different from a pile of life-like male genitalia (Black Narcissus) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.


You Don’t Know What Kind of Art You’re Going to Like Until You See It

Paul:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed his love of photography and iconography.  He’s realized that he doesn’t particularly like modern art, and to his utter shock, has discovered that he enjoys a great deal of contemporary art, particularly performance art.

Pauline:  Seeing 60 museums have confirmed her love of modern art and architecture.  She’s realized that she doesn’t hate medieval painting as much as she’d thought, and to her utter shock, has discovered that she enjoys some contemporary art, particularly sculpture.


Worst Borough to Drive: Brooklyn 

Worst Borough to Park: Manhattan 


Best Museum Café: Café Sabarsky at the Neue Gallery 

Best Pizza in New York City: Deninos on Staten Island (in our humble opinion) 


Images in this post, from the top: In the upper collage, listing the museums from left to right:  Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy; Whitney Museum of American Art; Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; Paley Center for Media; The Guggenheim Museum; Rubin Museum of Art; Museum of the City of New York; Austrian Cultural Forum; Morgan Library and Museum; Wave Hill House; Scandinavia House.  Images below the collage: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), by Jeff Koons; New Museum of Contemporary Art, with diagram; interior of the Guggenheim on Pay-What-You-Wish Friday; no pocketknives; Before the Mirror (1876), by Manet; Supper Sister (1999), by Lisa Lou.  Lower museum collage: Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens; Jewish Museum, Museum of Biblical Art; Neue Gallery; Valentine-Valerian House.


  1. What a wonderful thing to do, checking out all the various museums in NYC. The tips are great. I am in DC, where we also have many museums (no idea how many), and will definitely save this as a general guide. Thanks.

  2. As a museum professional its always interesting to hear what the audience feels is important about their experience in a museum. Thanks for the post.

  3. These are terrific tips. Thanks for posting! I look forward to more insights from the rest of the 180 museums.

  4. I enthusiastically affirm that these are great tips for visiting museums. I'm planning on following your advice in future. Nice way to celebrate the 60 museum mark!