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Savvy Museum Docents Share Their Secrets About How to Hang With Art

A Group On A Tour In A Museum Listen Intently To Museum Guide While Looking At Painting, Travel Insider Guide To Museums

Alex Segre /Alamy

When visiting a museum (such as Madrid's Museo del Prado, above) a docent can help you take in the details.

En español | Museum docents — volunteers who serve as tour guides and educators — really know their way around a museum's galleries and exhibits. Here, a few tricks of their trade.

1. Dare to Dawdle

For the most rewarding museum visit, be selective, guides advise. "Our tours cover maybe five to seven pieces in 50 minutes," says Anne Bonowitz, a docent at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art.

Make time for works on paper, and textiles. These delicate objects can stay on view for only a few months at a time and may not return from storage for years.

If you visit a special exhibition, double back at the end and stroll the gallery again, suggests Claudia Crable, an interpretive volunteer at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The second time through, look at the pieces and not the labels. "You may see some of the earliest objects in a new light," she says.

2. Outsmart the Crowds

Get to the exhibits more quickly by buying tickets in advance online. Even better, become a member of your local museum. Many have reciprocity with others. That can get you free or discounted tickets, as well as members-only prices at the gift shop or café. Ask your museum's membership office about reciprocity before you travel, then be sure to bring your membership card.

To avoid long lines, seek alternative ways in. At the Louvre in Paris, for example, the famous art museum sits adjacent to an underground shopping mall. This subterranean passage saves you a 45- to 60-minute wait at the museum's main entrance.

For extra elbow room, visit midweek in the afternoon; school groups fill galleries in the a.m. If you must go early, arrive at opening time and make a beeline to the point farthest from the front door, where galleries will be empty. Or, if you're a night owl, investigate evening hours. Some museums stay open late one night a week or month, and the nearer it gets to closing, the thinner the crowds tend to be.

When you need a restroom, use one on an upper floor. First-floor restrooms are almost always more crowded, insiders say.

3. Copy the Curators

Want to get that museum effect at your house? "Don't display all your artwork at once," says Crable. "An uncluttered look allows a few precious objects to shine." Rotate pieces regularly for a fresh feel all year.

Try out different groupings, says Larissa Bailiff, a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: "Curators almost always experiment until they hit the right combination."

4. Delve Deeper

Although docents are unpaid volunteers, their training can be intensive, taking up to two years. The guides learn what makes each object significant and how to bring it to life for you. Take advantage of their education and institutional wisdom. At the end of a tour, ask your docent to recommend another "don't miss" object in the museum's collection. You may discover a hidden treasure.

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