Planning to visit a new or unfamiliar museum? The lines, the hard-to-read maps, the crowds, finding the restroom, can be daunting. Fortunately, we know those in the know — the docents. Their job is not only to know a museum’s collections, but what makes each object significant and be able to bring the art or history to life for visitors. Docents are the Sacagawea of a museum, helping you get your bearings. So we asked them for the 411 on visiting a museum. Here are some of their top tips for saving time and money.
1. To skip entrance lines, purchase admission tickets in advance online. Always ask for senior or student discounts. Even better, become a member of your local museums. Many have reciprocity with hundreds of others. That can garner you free or discounted entry at museums across the country. Ask your local museum before you leave town about which museums you get a discount.
Says Sunny LeBlanc, a docent at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, “I use my iPhone and photograph my art museum membership cards. Sometimes there is reciprocity and you just have to show the desk the photo of your cards. They may also offer you a discount at the museum gift shop or cafe.”
2. For extra elbow room, visit midweek afternoons (school groups fill galleries in the a.m.). Or, arrive early and make a beeline to a point farthest from the front door. Those galleries are usually empty. Avoid weekends, school holidays and the first and last two weeks of any special exhibit.
3. Large museums may have multiple points of entry (New York’s Museum of Modern Art has four), such as subway or parking garage entrances. Check an unfamiliar museum’s website for alternative entrances. A museum with a front facade facing a major street often has the original entrance open to foot traffic and may be less busy. “One of my favorite shortcuts at the Louvre in Paris is to enter from the underground mall. Buy tickets at Civette de la Carrousel (a smoke shop),” advises LeBlanc. Entering from the underground saves you a 45- to 60-minute wait at the Louvre’s glass pyramid entrance.
4. A museum visit is not a marathon. Don’t try to see everything. You’ll be exhausted. Spend more time looking at a few works or artifacts. Typically docent tours are free and help you drill down on a few specific works. “Our tours cover maybe five to seven pieces in 50 minutes,” says Anne Bonowitz, a docent at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art. Or try an audio tour. This route may cost a few bucks, but will slow your pace and let you look at the objects while listening, so you spend more time looking than if you were wandering through on your own without a guide.
5. Take breaks every two hours. Bring a small crossword or Sudoku puzzle for a lightweight distraction, suggests Claudia Crable, an interpretive volunteer at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Most large museums have cafes, where you can decompress and map out the rest of your visit. Museum restaurants often serve up savory fare and won’t break the bank. But if want to scoot out and grab a bite from a nearby spot, ask about a re-entry pass. Some museums will either stamp your hand or give you a ticket to use when you return.
6. Consider some philanthropic shopping. Need a unique gift? Visit a museum gift shop. Items bought at a museum store are unique and fairly priced, plus store staff often provide a personalized shopping experience you won’t find at your local department store. Prices remain competitive if not downright bargain-basement, because these stores typically carry lower overhead costs than for-profit retailers. Best of all, museum shops are like specialized boutiques. Items reflect collections — so expect to find dinosaurs and space stuff at a science museum, “wild” and nature-oriented goods at a zoo and posters, jewelry and other fine objects at an art museum.