21 November 2017




We all have our own strategies and preferences for touring museums, but if someone came up to you and said they had the "BEST" way to tour a museum, would you take them seriously? Would you be willing to step out of your comfortable traditions to try something different?

When the statement comes from CEO of Museum Hack, Nick Gray, I personally am willing to give it a try and see what we may learn for museum practice.

The Strategy: 

Gray outlines his strategy in the following video:

The four steps:
  1. Get a map
  2. Walk the entire museum floor plan and do not stop! Notice things that interest you but don't read the text. Gray warns you are going to feel like you are missing things, but not to worry! You will come back. 
  3. Take a break. Decompress and build a plan of areas you want to visit when you re-enter. 
  4.  Go back and explore the museum. Spend some time with your favourite objects and look closely. 
But don't simply take it from me! Watch the video for Gray's comical delivery and best explanation.

The Night Before:

I've chosen a museum I have never visited before, the Textile Museum of Canada (TMC). I just watched Gray's video and I am mentally preparing myself. Honestly, I have never been more anxious about a trip to a museum.

Well said, Luke. #badfeelingaboutthis Source.

I am, as I expect many museum-goers are, very set in my own ways. Depending on the visit, I typically wish to see the entire museum start to finish, reading as much text as I can. Unless it's a large museum, I usually don't pick out beforehand the galleries that I wish to see or ignore. I expect walking the entire floor plan will make me worried about the time I am losing.

Upon re-entry, Gray says to explore the museum at your own pace and spend time closely with the objects you like. Will I feel stressed if I can't see it all, working the museum in this fashion? Or will the touted benefits of less fatigue, better retention, and memorable experiences make this an enjoyable strategy?

The Visit:

At the front desk I was unable to receive a map of the space, but I was given two rack cards, one for each exhibition currently on display. I started on the third floor and made my way through the exhibition galleries without stopping, noting objects and areas I found intriguing. After my quick walk-around I found a chair to sit on and decompress, as the TMC does not have a cafe. I wrote on the back of my cards the areas I wanted to visit or avoid upon re-entry. 

My tiny scribbles on the back of the TMC exhibition materials noting my plans for re-entry. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.
I made my way back to the third floor and started with the exhibition Diligence and Elegance: The Nature of Japanese Textiles. On my initial walk through I was enthralled by the designs of the kimonos and the variations in design. I also caught glimpse of the word 'indigo' in regards to colour dyeing and I knew I had to come back to learn more about the technique. Making my way through the space I tried to spend time closely looking at the objects I found most intriguing, reading text only when I had a questions I wanted to answer, when I wanted to learn more, or when a title caught my interest. 

Spending more time with objects than I normally would, I found the experience had quite the effect on me. Whether it was the nature of the material culture or the attention I was giving to the objects I will never know, but I felt a strong urge to touch the objects. I wanted to lift the edges of the jacket and see the pieces of the scene hiding beneath. I wanted to feel the threads of the kimono to understand how the weaving created the intricate black and white floral design. I wanted to hold the cloth made from paper to better understand how it might feel.

My favourite formal kimono on display in Diligence and Elegance: The Nature of Japanese Textiles. I spent a long period of time examining the feathers of the birds and how they wrapped around the piece. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.

Down on the second floor, the objects in the exhibition Tied, Dyed and Woven: Ikat Textiles from Latin American didn't appeal to me on my initial walk through, save for one object which reminded me of a blanket we have at home. Thus I decided to limit my time in this space.

Instead I planned to focus on the education gallery, FibreSpace, located on this floor. Here I was able to learn about weaving through the interpretive panels and usable objects provided for visitors. I weaved with the TMC's floor loom, learned about the terminology and technique, and strengthened my understanding of dyeing on display in the text and objects of the current exhibitions. 

I might have become obsessed with weaving after using the TMC's floor loom in FibreSpace. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.
Leaving the museum, I felt more refreshed and satisfied with my visit than I have had in a while. I didn't feel upset that I hadn't seen and done it all because I had made cognizant decisions about what interested me and what did not. I wasn't exhausted because I limited the amount of text I read and the objects I looked at. I remembered more concepts and had more fun after using this touring strategy. During my visit,  I felt comfortable in the space because I had taken some time to familiarize myself before diving into the content. Although this test felt successful, the TMC is quite small and the initial walk through took less than five minutes. I'm not sure how the strategy would scale to larger, busier museums but I would be interested in finding out.

Applications for Museum Practice:
  1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable -  we tend to get set in our ways because we know how they work and what the end product will be. Doing something new in our museum programs and exhibitions is going to cause anxiety and stress but we will never know if something will be better if we stick with what is safe. 
  2. Help your visitors fight fatigue and have fun - find ways to encourage visitors to focus on what is interesting to them instead of what they think the museum wants them to learn. Provide opportunities for visitors to spend time and have fun with objects. As Gray mentions in a past Tedx Talk, you need to entertain visitors before you can educate them.
  3. Structure text to support visitors, not to overwhelm them - try to anticipate your visitors' questions. Our interpretive plans insist we have our own educational agendas but visitors are their own agents with their own thoughts and perspectives. What information do you think they will be interested in? Has a museum label ever had subheadings to allow visitors to target their reading to what really matters?
This is my final post for Beyond Tradition. It has been an honour and pleasure to support the creation of a new column and contribute to its inaugural posts. I hope this column will remain an area for authors and readers to push the boundaries of museum practice and find the next great thing for museums of all kinds.


  1. I love this Emily! It's so good to go in open-minded and try new ways of interacting with objects. I'm gonna try this next time. :)

    1. Thanks Kristen! I definitely recommend trying the method! I think walking through the entire space helped me feel comfortable and able to focus on spending time with certain objects when I went back. You are definitely right - so good to be open-minded :)