Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Me, museums and stamina

Here's my post for this month's Across the Cafe Table: where the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) get together and discuss a travel-related topic over a virtual coffee. This month, the question we're discussing is 'What's your favourite museum?'

The word 'museum' puts me in mind of a school trip. No matter how many interactive, state-of-the-art spaces I visit, I still imagine that museum visits will invariably involve trailing around some fusty gallery pretending to read the explanations of exhibits I couldn't give a monkeys about while secretly thinking about what's in my packed lunch. As attitudes go, I realise that mine is far from cultured, and fortunately I frequently manage to shelve it: for a while at least.

Travel and museums go hand in hand. Pick up a copy of any guidebook and you're bound to find more than one museum listed as a must-see. Art galleries, museums of national or indeed natural history, science museums... they're all lurking between those glossy pages, waiting to be ticked off like answers in an exam. Perhaps this prescriptive idea that museums simply must be explored otherwise you've failed in the cultured traveller stakes is what brings out the teenage rebel in me: after a guidebook-inspired schlep around a particularly dull maritime museum in Dieppe which failed to stimulate any of my senses other than smell (owing to the pungent presence of dried salt cod among the exhibits), I certainly wanted to stamp my feet and whine 'I don't WANT to go to any more museums'.

It wasn't until I met M that I realised everyone has their own museum visiting style. No, I don't mean putting on your favourite frou-frou frock and accessorising with a cute clutch in the manner of Carrie Bradshaw: it's how you visit a museum that makes all the difference. Some people arrive early; a rucksack full of supplies and plan their way around the space, prioritising which exhibitions to see first. Others might pop in to peruse just one or two rooms, returning at a later date to see more. Me? I aim for speed. The ideal museum visit lasts no longer than 2 hours (and is framed at either end by a tea break). That way, I get to see my personal highlights without reverting to my stroppy teenage years. And believe me, that's a bonus for my fellow visitors.

M at the Biennial. I think she's heading for the exit.

M and I met in Seville in 2008. We were both keen to see all the city's sights, even going so far as to write a list of everything we wanted to do during our three-month stay. But it wasn't until we visited the Contemporary Art Biennial that I realised we shared more than just a list of priorities. By the time we'd skimmed over most of the exhibits, lingering longer over those that held particular interest for us, our friend R was still in the first room. When she called us several hours later to ask if we were ready to leave, we were shopping in the town centre. Much like a child on a school trip, my attention span is short: I enjoy museum visits as long as I'm in the right frame of mind and able to choose when to leave.
Me outside the Biennial. I've already exited.

It's no surprise that my favourite museum visit was a trip taken with M a couple of years later. In Bilbao for the weekend, we made tracks to the gallery that has transformed the city's fortunes and made it into a top Spanish destination: the Guggenheim. But we didn't go there to admire the art: we went for the food. At €19 for a delicious three-course meal with a bottle of wine, this was the museum's highlight. Yes, the wine-fuelled visit around the gallery afterwards was entertaining, but the restaurant stole the show. Hey, that's my museum visiting style.

You can read the other Travel Belles' posts on this topic (no doubt more cultured than mine) here.


  1. Oh my gosh, you are making me wonder if we are long lost relatives. As always your writing style just makes me happy (and want to travel to all corners of the globe with you.) Just taking a look around at the hordes of miserable looking people at the Uffizi this past summer, who were no doubt overwhelmed, dehydrated and starving, confirms to me my suspicion that your approach is the way to go :)

  2. I can totally relate to the 'Stroppy teenager' feeling in museums - if I spend too long in them, I am exactly like that! Fractious, grumpy and definitely not enjoying myself. I would love to go to the Guggenheim with you - I might actually like it if I could just run round it after a glass or two of wine!

  3. Brilliant post, I share your views on museum musings, especially contemporary art! I have been to the museum that you refer to in Seville, although I think it's name has changed to Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo (CAAC). I have been a couple of times but only to see my translations brought to life!!
    I will remember the Guggenheim tip for future reference!

  4. After reading this, I would go to a museum with you ANY day!! :-) I'm more of a one-hour at a time sort of girl, otherwise it all just blurs together and I can't remember a thing and start to fidget and crane my neck for the exit. Tea before and after sounds PERFECT! :-)

  5. Thanks very much for your comments! Glad you like my way of visiting museums :)
    Margo, I think we should factor this sort of museum visit into the next Belles Trip!
    Katy, I don't think I'll ever grow up when it comes to museums. And a stomach full of lovely food and wine definitely improved the mediocre exhibits...
    Kim, contemporary art is definitely not my thing as I'vd learned! That was actually a festival in 2008 held at the monastery on the Isla de la Cartuja. That's exciting that your translations have been up at the CAAC!
    Krista, let's do it! I completely agree, which is why it's so great that museums in England are largely free - for now anyway. And tea always helps!

  6. Two things I've learned in lots and lots of years visiting museums:
    1. It's not supposed to be medicine--if you like something, spend as much time as you want, even if you don't see one-tenth of what's there. and if you're not enjoying yourself, move on. You're not getting graded on this!

    2. If there is a tour with a docent, take it. Generally, they are very good and free (plus tip in some places), and you will walk away thinking something more than, "Boy, that's pretty and Boy, that's old."

  7. Good tips! It's definitely true that you get more out of a guided visit.


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