Five Ways to Get More Out of a Museum Visit in the UK

Considering the program I study and the place I chose to study it, I can’t even count the number of times I have heard someone say, “Wow, you are doing Museum Studies in London? What a great place for that!” I can’t argue with that; one of the main reasons I chose my program and school was precisely because London holds some of the best museums in the world. The follow-up question I usually get (”What is your favorite museum in London?”) is a bit harder to answer. Every museum has its pros and cons, and my favorite one depends on whether I’m more interested in fine art or science or history that day. Regardless of the size or type of museum you visit in the UK during your time of study, here are a few tips to help you get more out of your museum experience.

1) Research the museum’s history before you go. The UK is a fascinating place to study museums for multiple reasons, but mainly because it is one of the founders of the Western museum world as we know it. Many of the major institutions in the country have origins that are centuries old; wealthy aristocratic academics and scientists putting together collections of interesting art, artifacts, and specimens; donating the collection to an academic institution, and eventually putting the collection on display for the public. However, my simple explanation of the above is problematic. Much of the collections in the major UK museums (The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean at Oxford to name a few) were obtained during the British colonial period—and the collectors didn’t always ask nicely, to say the least. Britain is at the center of the current debate on decolonializing museums: the how, the why, and the “should we” of returning other countries’ stolen historical artifacts and acknowledging the sordid past of colonial powers. You don’t need to read a whole book on an institution’s background, but a quick look at the “About” page on their website could give you a better idea of the context of your museum visit.

2) Decide on a few key things to see. One of my greatest regrets is that I went to visit Bruges, Belgium, and didn’t see the Bruges Madonna, one of the few carvings by Michelangelo which left Italy during his lifetime. It’s not a big deal, you might say, but if I had just spent a few more minutes researching things to see in the city, I might not have missed out on that experience. Most people wouldn’t want to go to the British Museum and not see the Rosetta Stone, even if they had to peer over the shoulders of a crowd to see it. This piece of advice is twofold: decide on a few things to see both so you don’t miss something you were looking forward to and so you don’t waste your time looking at objects you don’t care about. The blockbuster museums in London have millions of objects in their collections and thousands on display; strategize your visit for the areas you are most interested in.

3) Take breaks during your visit. This may sound like a no-brainer, but even the most determined museum-goer is affected by what we call Museum Fatigue. You may find yourself going through a gallery and feeling like they don’t have enough benches to sit on; feel free to put that on a complaint card! This is another reason why you need to strategize your visit. Hit a few galleries you are interested in, then make a stop at the museum café before you move on. This is a great way to support the museum financially, especially those that are free to enter and have high running costs. Make sure to give your brain and body a few breaks so you can enjoy your museum experience more fully.

4) Take the time to read a few labels. Speaking from a museum producer point of view, I can tell you that the people who wrote the museum labels have done their very best to A) give you enough information without shooting a fire hose of everything they know at you and B) share that information in a way that will appeal to a lot of different audiences. You may not think they are successful. There might be too many words on a text display, or not enough of the information you wanted to know. But I remember once taking the time to read a small little display at the Roman Baths in Bath and discovering a tin plate with an untranslatable Celtic language carved into it, an astounding linguistic treasure that I would have completely missed if I hadn’t read the fine print. Museums are all about education, and you’ll be glad you took a moment to delve a little further into the information they have to offer you.

5) Relate what you see to what you know. Now don’t get too worked up about this, but I have actually had people tell me to my face that they think museums are boring. Can you believe that?! I’ve thought long and hard about this subject, and I’ve concluded that people think museums are boring only when they don’t feel the museum can relate to them personally. Maybe you’re not interested in Mesopotamian archaeology or chipped Grecian marble; okay, sounds like the British Museum isn’t right for you. But have you seen the lifelike portraits on the lids of the Roman sarcophagi (does that one look like Aunt Linda?), and do you remember how much you liked the movie The Mummy? Maybe you can find something in the building that piques your interest. And if you still don’t like the endless white marble, you can head over to somewhere like the Science Museum, where their technology displays include retro Nintendos, and everyone can relate to video games in some way or another.

Bonus! 6) Make a stop at the gift shop. As Doctor Who fans can quote with me, “Everyone loves the little shop.” Personally, nothing can improve a museum visit for me like a bit of friendly consumerism. My corkboard is currently covered in postcards from the various London museums I have visited, and I love my Rosetta Stone socks. When you’ve made it through an exhausting (but interesting!) museum, give yourself a little treat.

I hope these tips have given you something to think about next time you make a museum visit! No matter what subject you are studying, the UK is definitely a great place to do it, and your study experience will be made all the better for the occasional trip to the museum.

If you would like to find out more about studying in the UK, please fill out the “Contact an Advisor” form on the bottom or side of this page.

Published Originally: April 28th, 2020
by Ellyn Cardon, ATP Student Ambassador
Studying at: SOAS University of London