Even the most enthusiastic among us can suffer from museum fatigue - a term coined in 1916 to describe the all encompassing weariness that people feel about 45 minutes into a trip round a museum or art gallery. However fascinating the subject matter, however well rested you may be, exhaustion still kicks in. Here, Slow Travel looks at the phenomenon and the best ways to counteract it.
What is Museum fatigue?
The earliest visitor studies were conducted at the start of the 20th century, and researchers discovered clear cut patterns amongst visitors to museums and galleries, showing that visitor interest decreased as their visit progressed. In 1916, an academic coined the phrase 'museum fatigue', initially to describe the effort people had to make to look at exhibits. Yet even when museums were altered to put everything in a visitor's eyeline, they still suffered fatigue and lost interest as they went round the museum or gallery.
Researchers in the 1980s found that "people’s interest initially reached a high plateau, then remained constant for about 30 minutes, and later decreased to a lower level. Visitors’ orientation changed from initial slow movement around the exhibits, to cruising around halls, and more selective stopping behaviour, indicative of diminished interest towards exhibits"
In layman's terms, museum fatigue is that feeling when exhaustion rapidly sets in giving you an overwhelming need to sit down and take a break, or to rush through the museum to get out of there, however interesting the subject matter.
What causes museum fatigue?
Academics have put forward various hypotheses as to the causes of museum fatigue, from human factors such the physical exertion required or the cognitive processing (brain overload) involved, or environmental factors such as the gallery layout and display arrangements. For most of us it is a combination of these factors and more.
There is usually a noticeable absence of seating in many museums, allowing physical exhaustion to grow. Standing for a bit, walking a bit, standing for a bit can take it out of you and leave you desperate to just sit for a bit.
The larger museums in particular seem to refuse to provide seating, probably to encourage you to buy their overpriced food from their café, just so you have an excuse to sit down.
All that information to take in from the countless description cards, interactive displays, screens, or just looking at the objects fills the mind with knowledge acquisition and an endless internal chatter about what you're looking at, how you feel about it, is it information worth storing or discarding, is it photo worthy etc
Overcrowding in museums is becoming more and more common. An increase in people who can afford to travel from the Far and Middle East added to the rise of influencers increasing everyone's desire to travel, means that museums and galleries are often at breaking point.
The busiest museum in the world, the Louvre, is likely to receive 12 million visitors in 2025, a truly staggering figure when you think about how busy it is already.
Museum professionals are quietly aware of how bad the situation is, and now Trip Advisor reviews are filled with complaints from tourists about how dangerously overcrowded some places are, such as this one about a visit to the Vatican museums:
There were many bottle-necks when the crowds had to squeeze in through the doors - I (seriously) really did feel at several points that we would not make it out alive as the log jam quickly built up behind us. One distressed visitor tried in vain to look for an exit but was gruffly told by a member of staff that there was only one way out.
'Gallery rage' was a phrase first used in 2011 by an art critic for the Guardian who visited one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the Tate Modern in London. The excessive crowds meant people were not only queuing to get in, they were then queuing to look at each individual exhibit, everyone trying to get their money's worth and see everything on display.
People get shoved and pushed around, you queue for ages to look at something and then someone else's phone gets shoved right in your view, tempers fray and tutting turns to angry words. The whole experience of a packed museum can become unbearably stressful and you wonder why you paid good money for such a horrible experience.
Many museums and galleries these days have a very modern aesthetic of windowless white walls, bright overhead lights, shiny floors and high ceilings.
This may improve the look of the exhibits, but it is jarring on the eyes; there is nothing relaxing about such an environment, it is institutional, glaring, antiseptic and divorced from the natural world.
Museums with windows which let in natural lighting and give the visitor a glimpse of the outside are far more restful, yet windows are hard to find in the larger museums. They make me think of the big supermarkets and casinos - keep us in an artificially lit, shiny box, removed from time, in the hope we stay longer and therefore spend more.
How to avoid museum fatigue?
Until museum professionals change the way they present their objects, reduce visitor numbers and provide decent seating, the onus remains on the visitor to try to make the experience a less tiring and stressful one.
Planning is key. Don't pack too much into a day, allow for rest breaks and don't buy the multi-attractions passes which make you feel compelled to visit as much as you can just to get your money‘s worth. Don't visit a place just because you feel you should or because its on the standard bucket lists. If you are not really interested in the subject, it will be harder to enjoy it.
Avoiding the crowds
With the larger museums, try to decide beforehand what your priorities are to see, and see them in the first hour of your visit. Looking at the museum website in advance will tell you which room they are in, so make a beeline for that.
Leave any rucksacks and coats at the bag check, so you are not having them constantly buffeted by the crowds.
Many museums offer out of hours visits which have reduced visitor numbers - you may have to pay extra for them but it could be worth it to actually get to enjoy what you are looking at.
Plan your visit for the earliest or latest visiting times, which tend to be quieter. Try the website waitamoment.co.uk which gives you the quietest times to visit many of the big museums around the world.
Take the toddler approach to museums - just look at what you find visually appealing and ignore the rest. You don't have to read every display label, especially these days when they may come with a heavy dose of somebody else's politics attached. Just admire the object for what it is and move on.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see
Henry David Thoreau
Again, the toddler approach to museums works best here. Comfy shoes, a bottle of water and a snack or packet of sweets in your bag. Sit on every available seat you can find. When you start getting cranky, its time to leave.
If you know you will be visiting one of the big sterile-type museums, do your research to find a green space where you can rest for a while afterwards.
Avoid cafés in the museums - as well as being overpriced, they are usually heaving with people, their loud voices echoing around the cavernous ceilings, the pervasive smell of chips and coffee infiltrating your senses, the uncomfortable vinyl seating doing nothing to rest your weary bones.
Grab a snack and take it to the nearest green space to eat under a tree. You'll feel so much better for it.
Remember you don't have to go to the big museums just because everyone else does - most of them have free online tours and galleries these days anyway, where you can admire the objects close up and in peace.
There are some superb smaller museums out there which are far more enjoyable to visit, places like the Gilbert White museum in Hampshire which has colourful rooms, sunlight streaming through windows, vases of flowers, seating, no crowds and plenty of beautiful outdoor space. Smaller museums cover one subject in detail and you will learn far more, and have far less overwhelm, than you will charging through thousands of years of global history in the vast echoing halls of the British Museum.