I Dislike Museums: Here’s Why

The worst part of any trip for me is the day (or days) we’re scheduled to visit a museum. I bid goodbye to any freedom of movement, console my soon-to-rumble stomach, break up with my phone and camera, and pull a wad of cash out of my wallet while thinking of all the other ways I’d rather spend the money. The measly 10% student discount isn’t much of a consolation. 

Once inside I usually feel as if I’ve entered a strange purgatory where everyone is unnaturally silent. Confusion pervades the air. Strange old objects try to seduce me from behind a glass screen that usually just reflects every other light in the place. I stand in line to read a description of something obvious that Google would have given me for free and with half the hassle. My more eager friends clutch their throats at the sight of broken ceramic bowls and moan in delight when something moves on a screen. I push down my yawn, check my watch, and wait for the torture to end. 

It’s no secret that I think museums are overrated, amongst other things. Though the following descriptions don’t apply to every museum in existence and many are trying to break free of such problems, these complaints are valid still in quite a lot of locations around the world. Far from being a takedown of your beloved hangout spot, these are just some idea worth thinking about the for next time you meet someone who isn’t as enthusiastic as visiting a museum as you are. 

[Disclaimer: I don’t detest all museums and do have several favorites. In addition, I believe sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and in general, museums preserving objects from personal family collections to educate visitors about historical tragedies in the hope of creating a less violent world, should be praised and supported. This article mostly addresses natural history, science, art, and so-called exotic museums that primarily aim to show something others might appreciate aesthetically or be entertained by.]

 

So, why might someone object to visiting a museum?

 

1. They’re elitist and exclusive

Any place that formally allows visitors to see a collection of objects is technically a museum. However, the culture surrounding the world’s most famous museums today is one of exclusion (enacted through expensive entry fees). Though not accessible to many of us, those who don’t wish to visit are cast as uncultured or abnormal. Many museums’ marketing relies on presenting what’s in vogue, culturally speaking, and people are encouraged to visit to claim the experience of having visited, rather than the experience of viewing the contents of the exhibition. (Cue the photos of people standing in front of famous paintings at art galleries in the metropolitan cities of first-world countries, with their backs turned to the camera.) Museums, especially for art and photography exhibits of trending artists, make us believe that there is a difference  between viewing an image online and paying for the privilege of seeing it “for real” and that this difference separates the observer from the connoisseur. 

 

2. They restrict freedom and spontaneity

Our ownership over our bodies changes drastically as soon as we enter a museum. Suddenly even minor acts such as drinking water, using our devices, speaking, or even walking where we wish are penalized. This doesn’t sound like a big deal on its own and it happens in plenty of public and private places but to top it off, museums often come set with a certain route to be followed or specific narrative to adhere to in order to get (what the authorities decide is) the most out of the experience. Moving through dark rooms under the influence of highly restrictive rules when an entirely new place waits outside with parks, restaurants, shopping centers, theaters, mountains, sunny skies, beaches, etc. isn’t the way many new visitors with a tight schedule would prefer to spend their time and that’s totally understandable. Next to the prospect of a forest hike to meet the sunrise or even just a walk around the city with a cup of local coffee in hand, a museum visit of 5-6 hours is just a stifling and monumental waste of time for many who are on vacation to enjoy themselves. Or perhaps I’m still traumatized by the time I was in a museum in France as a teenager and a security guard came running to rebuke me because I was (gasp) thirty centimeters away from the painting (the limit was forty, as decided by a nearly invisible line on the floor). 

 

Via Unsplash

 

3. They are problematic

When you see relics and objects from indigenous cultures in the museums located in countries like Britain or America, it’s good to take a moment and check if these objects were respectfully handed over by their original owners as a token of friendship, or if they are the remnants of colonization, genocide, or displacement. If it is the latter, the museum visitor (who, remember, has paid a hefty price to enter) can be considered complicit in making these acts of violence lucrative for the oppressors perpetuated them. On the other side of the world, one sees controversies such as the case of the Yushukan museum in Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine that presents a right-wing coded version of World War 2 wherein events such as Korean sexual slavery (comfort women) and the Nanjing Massacre are either distorted or ignored completely. Sometimes refusing to visit a museum is a political act of boycott, one that sends the message that individuals and communities should not be erased in order to present a popular narrative.

 

4. They are irrelevant

Face it: if you want to quickly learn about a place you’re traveling to, the ideal way to get the latest and verified information is via an Internet search. Museums are a great place to conduct academic/professional research or get a quick introduction to a new field, but I refuse to believe that they are a natural tourist attraction (unless you’re a fan of the architecture alone, in which case also the contents of the place are irrelevant). Often museums exist as the result of a whim of their affluent creators and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s important to differentiate between them and other tourist attractions such as natural wonders or local heritage sites that share a story more relevant to the majority of the local population. 

For a better idea of what I’m talking about, check out a museum I recently visited: a charming place where visitors can admire Italian cottage architecture, dress up as carnival characters for photoshoots, buy authentic Murano glass, drink espresso, eat pizza, and hear live opera…… in the middle of Japan.

You know for certain you’ve run out of things to do in a place when the most well-travelled Japanese tourists around you decide it's time to start dressing up as Italians. 

 

Via Unpslash

Suggestions for Alternatives

Let’s summarize: we’re looking for a place with free entry where visitors can appreciate a new location as they travel, enjoy a reasonable degree of freedom while moving around, and perhaps come away with a cherished memory.

May I suggest…the supermarket?

Before you laugh, hear me out. A supermarket in a new place has plenty to say; it tells you about local produce and labor, about the current economy and trade condition, the kinds of food people who live there enjoy eating, the prized specialities and not-so-popular fruits and veggies. It's a wonderful place to laugh aloud, discover new things, take unique pictures, spend according to your budget, and best of all? Come away with food.

If that doesn't tempt you, check out a cafe or teahouse (NOT Starbucks) and strike a conversation with the owners. Even better is to plan a picnic with entirely local dishes and then enjoy your meal at a picturesque spot, perhaps with a nice tree for company. I don't know about you, but that's a travel memory I infinitely prefer to staring through glass cases at thousand-year-old scribbled calligraphy lit by stark lights that you could download at better quality from online. 

Other unique activities you might check out in lieu of museum are the events at local libraries, one-day classes, bicycling tours, street markets, arthouse theatres, open-mike festivals, and the pub scene. 

So the next time you encounter someone who isn't too excited by the idea of visiting a museum, don't be quick to judge. Stick around, and you might end up gaining a truly original travel experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. 

 

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