In the past two months, I estimate that I’ve been to at least 100 museums in the Midwestern region. That’s a lot of museums. Some of them were even accidental. For example, I pulled over for a quick hike down to the Missouri River and discovered the Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center nearby. Even my smartphone seemed confused (not an unusual occurrence, unfortunately).
Nevertheless, museums don’t have to be the intimidating and school-like institutions that people remember from their childhood. These days, many are ramping up the tech with movies, smartphone audio tours, interactive exhibits (like, want to experience seasons on the Kansas prairie?), and even holograms. Museums are important because they hold concrete objects of ideas, science, and history. You can often immerse yourself in the past and culture of the area and discover that yes, history does often repeat itself.
So, 60 days in. Here is what I have learned and gathered from talking with other museum patrons about how to get the most of your museum trip. (You’ll find that I also have a great ability to laugh at myself. Road trips need humor stops). These lessons can be applied to your standard country or city museum (standard exhibits), interactive and huge centers like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, or even living history museums. Biggest lesson learned? Wear walking/tennis shoes.
This is hard to do if you are on the road and find a unique museum in some small town or state park. (I saw one by the roadside in Kansas that wasn’t affiliated with either!). However, if you do have some time and are planning for a visit, be sure to look online to see what the hours, fees, and restrictions are. Here are a few guidelines whether you plan way ahead or found a roadside sign that looks intriguing.
Do not go on Mondays
Most museums are closed on Mondays. This is especially true if the museum is operated by a city, county, or state. I should start a collection of museum photos with a prominent closed sign in the window. They are usually open on Sundays, however, so weekend getaways are a good idea. To beat the crowds, however, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a weekend.
Call or Google for the busiest time of day
You will save yourself some time and frustration if you can find out what the busiest time of day is for the museum. For the smaller ones, it isn’t usually that much of a challenge. However, some of the national museums fill up fast. The Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, for example, fills up quickly. Your best option is to get there early and get the free tickets to reserve your spot. If it is a more massive museum, you can often purchase tickets online ahead of time.
Try to visit either first thing in the morning or midweek in the afternoon. Summer evening hours, if available, are great times to visit. Avoid holidays if you can. If you are on a road trip over the Fourth of July weekend, then it might not be an option. If you can plan your schedule, do so. Just imagine trying to beat the crowds on the Fourth of July in the Washington Mall. Been there, done that, bought new shoes, and will never do that again.
Figure out parking ahead of time
Parking can be a challenge whether you are at a large museum or some museum inside of a cow pasture (long story). Many of the free museums like Lincoln Home or Nelson-Adkins Museum (highly recommend) in Kansas City are free but do charge for parking. Some of the paid ones have free parking, or you park nearby in a parking garage. The Lincoln Presidential Museum, for example, does not have a standard parking lot but there is a garage across the street.
The Old Courthouse in Springfield also has a parking garage…that is kind of hidden unless you know where to look. Try to figure out where to park before you are heading down 6th street in the right lane going 40 mph. You probably won’t be able to veer across three lanes of traffic. It sounds like common sense, but sometimes we get so caught up in following our smartphones directions that we wind up in the suburbs.
Also, some museums are free but do require that you purchase tickets for a specific time. You have to get the free tickets ahead of time for Lincoln Home tours. (You have to pay $2 per hour for parking if you park there but if you walked there, it’s free). Another great example is the Getty Villa in Malibu, one of my favorite museums with a perfect view of the ocean. Admission is free, but you do get a timed-entry ticket. These can be purchased online to be used when you get there. When I’m in town, I just reserve mine right before I drive up and I have not had a problem yet.
With paid museums, see if there are free days
Some museums or similar venues do have a paid fee but have days where they offer free admission. The Overland Park Arboretum, for example, charges a fee but is free for everyone on Tuesdays. You also need to verify just how busy it will be. Nothing’s worse than seeing something for free only to find it so packed full of people that you need binoculars. (It’s even worse than when you pay to look at the back of 500 people’s head—hello Mummy Exhibit in Denver.)
Check out special exhibits
Many museums have special exhibitions that only occur at certain times of the year or sporadically. Try to view the museum’s website online to see what’s available. You might be surprised and delighted or decide to wait. Some special exhibits also incur additional fees, such as the Dinosaur exhibit at the Flint Hills Interpretative Center. This way you don’t get sticker shock when you arrive at your destination. Most are free and considered part of the exhibit. For example, Getty Villa has a current main exhibition called Beyond the Nile that is part of your free ticket.
Consider Age Appropriateness
This point is probably going to be a little controversial, but it should be common sense. Simply put, please consider whether the exhibit will educate your child or scar them. Some museums offer children’s exhibit or playrooms for a reason.
The Lincoln Presidential Museum, for example, has an activity room called Mrs. Lincoln’s attic where children from 3 to 12 can play with toys, the dollhouse, etc. The other exhibits are for children in the 4th grade and up (around 8 or 9) who, frankly, need to see it. Kids younger than that will most likely scream, cry, and in one case I saw, throw up all of themselves because they were so upset. After touring the entire museum—and seeing the reactions of some of the children — it made sense. When they state that some of the shows and presentations may be disturbing for young children, they are not kidding. Heck, it’s disturbing to grown adults who understand that the (very lifelike) wax figurines are not real (the child pulling at his mother’s skirt will stay with you), the yelling and angry voices are pre-recorded, and that nobody is presently getting shot at Ford’s Theater.
Try to get the recommended age range ahead of time and look for other exhibits or playrooms. Your children will thank you for it. (They also won’t have nightmares about remember seeing a man get shot in the head, getting yanked away from their parents, etc.).
At the Museum
Okay, so you’ve got your ticket, parked your car (or walked) and you are ready to go. What are some standard tips for making sure you have a good time while not getting kicked out?
Check out the Tour
Some museums, like the Getty Villa or Lincoln Presidential Museum, are self-guided. Others, like the Lincoln Home, do provide tours that guide you through the exhibits. Some require you to take a tour, and others just offer it as a service. I would recommend that you take the tour to get the full experience. The guides will help you understand what you are viewing and can often get you into some hidden areas that a self-guided tour wouldn’t show. You can see the Lincoln Home, for example, with a Park Ranger tour but do a self-tour walking around the street to see the rest of the historic row. Mix it up.
Check Camera Policies, Turn off the Flash, and Silence your Phones
Many of the museums are okay with non-flash photography. The flash can damage some of the exhibits, especially old manuscripts, so you need to turn it off. This includes the flash on your cell phone, so if you want to take pictures, turn it off ahead of time. You also need to check the selfie policy; some (like the Lincoln Library) expressly forbid selfie sticks. Smaller museums, such as the Strawberry Hill Museum in Kansas City, Kansas, ban pictures being taken at all, especially if the exhibits are unique or very old. This could also fall under the planning section, but most post their policy up front and center.
Also, be respectful of your fellow museum-goers and silence your phone. Texting is often okay as long as you aren’t holding up the line. It also takes away from the museum experience of being lost in a different age if you are surfing your phone while walking around. If you are curious about something, read the placards or ask a tour guide. Trust me, they are usually more than happy to give information.
Museum Fatigue is Real
Try not to spend all day at the museum as it can wear you out. There have been multiple studies that show that too much time spending traversing, reading, and so forth at museums can cause physical and even mental exhaustion. After a while, you stop reading the plaques, starting speeding through the exhibits, or even begin glossing over exhibits as you race to get it finished. Visiting Washington DC? I would recommend choosing two or three of the Smithsonian museums a day; don’t try to view them all. Even with the Getty Villa, which is phenomenal if you are an ancient history geek like I am, you begin seeing “just another marble statue” after a couple of hours.
The great thing about some of the more prominent museums is that they give you passes for the day. So, if you want to step out and get a bite to eat, you can just show them your badge, your armband, or another device and get right back in. They understand the concept of museum fatigue, and they are usually flexible with it. At the Lincoln Presidential Museum, you get an armband. The Manhattan Flint Hills Interactive Center gives you a little fob that you keep you with you. If you need to leave, you can always come back that same day.
If it’s closer to home, try taking multiple trips and spend only a few hours reading a few of the exhibits. This is harder if you are on the road but try to keep it at two hours per museum. Take a stroll through nature or get some lunch before hitting the next museum.
To help combat the museum fatigue, try using some of the interactivity of modern exhibits. If you see a button that says press me, do it just to see what happens. Watch the video displays that give details about the time and place or have people talking to you. At Fort Scott, for example, they have interactive exhibits where you can select a person from that period and watch their story. Some will even let you ask them pre-selected questions. Living history museums are another great place where you can not only interact with the old buildings but ask the interpreters anything you would like. The relics are usually off-limits, but you can generally find some interactive device nearby that explains it. Cell phone audio tours are also becoming more and more common, even in remote areas.
After the Museum?
If you genuinely enjoyed a museum, sign up and subscribe to their newsletters. Get exclusive offers, details about upcoming and current exhibits, and learn more about the subject matter. Sign up as a “friend of the museum” or join as a member for additional benefits, such as a magazine. You can even usually get discounts throughout the year on special exhibits.
Most of all, have fun!