For a long time, I have been working on the diagnosis of an affliction I and many others I know have experienced: Museum Headache. But I also have been hard at work on a cure, which I am pleased to finally share with you, at no cost. Enjoy!

New York City is full to the brim of world-class museums—we all know that. By some counts there are over 80 or perhaps even over a 100 museums in the five boroughs. If you are visiting the city or you live here, you may have a long list of museums you want to see and probably even a list of specific objects to visi

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t in some of those museums. As a visitor you may be tempted to cram seeing all of them into a few days, because who knows when you might return? But even just one single museum visit exposes you to the danger of museum headache.

Museum headaches can come on quick. You will have entered a temple to culture or history or the Ramones and at first you are hurrying along with enjoyment, even after (perhaps a very) long wait in line to get in and after paying more expected for your entrance fee. But after an hour—or even after fifteen minutes or less!—something happens in your brain. It’s all too much. Too many people, too many objects, too many enticing corners to peek around, beckoning you to more objects, more culture, more of the unknown waiting to be discovered! Even in a supposed sanctuary, we are afflicted with our century’s malaise of overwhelm. And then suddenly, the museum headache is there.Throbbing. Its symptoms include a dry mouth, sore legs, irritation, and of course a throbbing head. Total apathy sets in. All the beauty in the world collapses flat in front of your squinting eyes. None of it matters. Your whole being aches. But there is a cure! Life and appreciation of beauty and culture and history can be restored to you. Read on to find out how!

THE CURE:

Full disclaimer: The only sure way to avoid museum headache is to avoid museums all together. Yet I urge you to not immediately take such drastic measures. Museums are often worthy of a visit. They do often contain beautiful or interesting objects, or are even remarkable artifacts in themselves. I want to reassure you that it is possible to visit them with a clear ache-free head, but you must read closely and follow these steps:

  1. First, don’t dare visit more than one museum a day. This was your first mistake, you think want want them all. But no reasonable person can absorb, appreciate and enjoy more than one museum a day. Already, you can erase the extraneous visits off your schedule. Now, all of a sudden, your busy day has a some lovely space in it. Use that time to go for a random walk where you get lost, or go sit and have a cup of coffee, or go people-watching in the park. Feeling better already?
  2. Pick one museum to visit. Big or small, it doesn’t matter (as we’ll see below). If no museum seems intriguing – congratulations! You are headache free, because you should never visit a museum if you don’t want to—Now you have the whole day free! You can eat sandwiches on a bench for hours while you read E. M. Forster and nod off – this is perfectly great way to visit any city, including New York. If your traveling companions did decide to go to a museum anyway, don’t make the mistake of “tagging along” — big rookie mistake! Say: “Have fun! Text me when you’re done!” and go an enjoy the only true modern luxury: time.
  3. If you did decide you really do want to visit a (single) museum, spend some time beforehand selecting one single item of interest (a painting, sculpture, object, etc) that is most exciting, interesting, fascinating to you. It must get your heart fluttering a little just thinking about it. It is to this item that you are going to devote the great part of your purpose and time visiting the museum. Perhaps you are already familiar with the item through some exciting book you read or intriguing documentary you watched or from a story an excited friend told you. Before your visit is the time is to delve a little deeper. Try and get a sense of the object, its biography, the origins of its creation through its journey to the museum. This object is your grand goal. (If you are not willing to pay the museum admission to see only this object, you should probably forget your visit—congratulations! You have the whole day free!) When you arrive at the museum and pay your admission, this object is your FIRST destination (possibly after a visit to the rest rooms, if necessary). Ask directions from the ticket-seller, get them to point it out on the map and head straight there. But don’t rush. Don’t hurry. Savor it. Feel the excitement of discovery, of revelation build as you approach your object. When you arrive in its vicinity, pause at a distance. Without judgement, take in what you see. Then slowly, ever so slowly, begin closing the distance. Perhaps move sideways to vary the angle of your approach. Allow the object to wash over you.
  4. Next, at a comfortable distance stand and observe begin the “Five Senses Check In”. Ask yourself, what does my object look like? Smell like? Taste like? Feel like? Sound like? Obviously, you will be compelled to use your potent imagination to answer most of these questions. After your quiet contemplation, take the time to share the object with someone. Perhaps you dragged an obliging but confused friend or family member direct to this object. Explain its magic to them. Or wrangle a curious nearby stranger and let them into your illuminated world. Or confide in journal or even a social media post if you must.
  5. Eventually find a restful space such as a nearby bench to continue spending time with your object. Become friends, comfortable spending time together.
  6. When it is time to leave you’ll know it by the faint tingle at the back of your neck. Don’t hesitate, stand and stretch your legs, thank the object (silently if necessary), say goodbye and be on your way. However long your time was, 10, 15 minutes, an hour, whatever, it was worth it. You did it and you may happily leave the museum with no feelings of guilt. Go get a coffee or a drink and contemplate the new world that was opened to you through the object, ponder your new reality—with no Museum Headache
  7. Don’t forget to text your companions who insisted on remaining that you’ll meet again later. You will have absorbed so much more than the thousands of visitors who saw hundreds of objects and remember nothing but the throbbing museum headache that followed them around for hours of aimless wandering. Later at the bar or back home when someone asks what you saw at the Met or whichever museum, rather than some uncertain affirmation that you were there, you will launch into a passionate and insightful recounting of the most wonderful, fascinating, intriguing, mysterious, beautiful object — and the ache-free head that saw it all. You’re welcome.

Since you asked, here are six (in no particular order) single objects I have loved to visit under the strict terms outlined above and have enjoyed totally museum headache-free:

  1. The Unicorn in Captivity Tapestry at the Cloisters
  2. The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  3. Thomas Cole’s “Pic-nic Party” painting at the Brooklyn Museum
  4. Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer” at the Neue Galerie
  5. Wapiti (Elk) Diorama at the American Natural History Museum
  6. Diedrich Knickerbocker Wooden Figurine at the New-York Historical Society

© 2019 Bruce Burnside

4 Comments on “Museum Headache – CURED!

  1. I love this! I used to have a free membership to the SF MOMA (came with my art school tuition, very smart of them) and this is how I used it. Just a little bite of museum at a time. The $25+ admission fees encourage gorging, but a museum is like a box of truffles, not a meal.

    I humbly suggest Option B for those who don’t yet have a favorite object to visit: the Walking Speed method. Just walk through the museum at normal speed, letting your eyes slide across whatever is in front of you, stopping only when something really arrests you. I discovered this one in the Louvre and it was very liberating. I didn’t feel I had missed anything- I gave myself the chance to be grabbed- but I didn’t make myself ill trying to force it all in.

    My mom’s favorite museum method is the Art Thief game: pick one room, sit down, and decide which of the pieces in the room you would steal. Little kids are interested and astute art critics if you ask them this way. They also know when it’s time to leave.

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