Museums can be intimidating spaces for some visitors. They’re full of artifacts you’re not supposed to touch, a lot of unknown information, and a lot of reading. On top of that, most people feel they have to act a certain way when in a museum: namely, quiet. But museums are created for the public, to preserve and communicate important information about the past. And the people who work in them want you to enjoy the experience! As an avid museum-goer myself and as a public historian, I have a few tips on ways to make a museum visit enjoyable.
1. Ask questions! A lot of research and work goes into building an exhibit, so museum staff always know more than what’s written and displayed. If you see or read something that sparks your interest or doesn’t make sense, just ask. This is especially important if you see something that looks “weird” or “funny” to you. There’s probably an interesting story or thought process behind it! This is why the breeches buoy is my favorite object in the museum. It’s often a completely unfamiliar object to visitors and they have no idea how it works. When they ask, it sparks several minutes of conversations about how it works, its impracticalities, and the decisions the keeper would have to make about keeping his own surfmen safe while rescuing distressed sailors. Asking questions leads to a deeper—and often more interesting—understanding of the history on display.
2. Don’t feel like you have to see everything. Museums, even small ones, are chock-full of information. Most people visiting museums feel like they have to start at the beginning, follow a set path, and make it all the way to the end. Don’t. Focus on what draws your eye and interests you the most, rather than trying to take in every detail. That will exhaust your body and your brain, and you’ll just want to get out of there. In a historic structure like ours, I think it’s important to get a general sense of the history, but that’s not absolutely necessary if your main interest is Prohibition in Hampton Roads.
3. Try anything interactive. Get involved in anything the museum has to offer! Museums are changing. Many want people to interact with their exhibits. That doesn’t mean picking up any artifact that you want (please don’t—that’s bad for them!). But, find what interactive activities they offer and do them! I distinctly remember visiting the Museum of American History as a nine-year-old and participating in a kid’s activity that involved separating seeds from cotton by hand and then by a replica cotton gin. That stuck with me even as I went through undergraduate and graduate history courses and came to understand the broader consequences of the invention. On top of that, doing hands-on activities is just plain fun and a great way to get kids involved. Trying on costumes, handling a replica, or taking pictures is a great break from all the reading and looking, gets the brain involved in a different way, and can build life-long memories.
The overall key to enjoying a museum, in my mind, is to be an active museum-goer. Follow what piques your interest, ask questions and engage, and enjoy your time!