Some people like to read all the wall labels. For others, wall labels might be the very reason they don't like going to museums. A better option is taking a guided tour which can open up entirely new perspectives.
Most museums have lecturers, guides or docents who give tours at a set time every day. The best tours are given by scholars who are paid. More frequently, museums are cutting the cost of paying their lecturers and using volunteer docents who go through a training program. While many of these docents might be quite good, they often work from a script and may not be able to broaden the topic or handle specific questions. The best museum tour experience will always be found with an expert for whom the topic is their specialty. Museums like the Cloisters Museum & Gardens in New York hire only MA or Ph.D. level medieval art specialists. Each lecturer draws on their own areas of expertise and offers their unique perspective.
As museums shed paid specialists, there has been a spike in independent museum tour guide companies. To help you find the tours that best suit you, here's my round-up of five innovative museum tour companies.
Context Travel began in Rome and now has docents in cities around the world. Small, expert led walking tours are like "walking seminars" and all of Context's guides are Ph.D. or MA level historians. You can book a general tour of a major museum like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston or take a more focused tour like "American Biography" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.. In addition to guided museum visits, you can take city tours like "Tasting the Immigrant Experience" in New York's Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods or "Markets of Istanbul".
If you're looking for a completely renegade, non-traditional tour with lots of cursing and a glass of wine, you'll love Museum Hack tours in New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C.. Tours include "Big Gay Met" and "De Young Un-Hightlights Tour". Among their best tours is a custom tour based on the movie "Night at the Museum" at the American Museum of Natural History.
Madrid Museum Tours
Madrid, Spain is one of the great museum cities of the world. Madrid Museum Tour is a collective of local historians with specialized and focused views of the museum and city including "Mysteries of the Prado". You'll learn how artists secretly snubbed the pope, the secrets behind hidden symbols in paintings and myths and taboos of the Renaissance.
Even though I told you to feel free to skip the "Mona Lisa", you may still be really curious about it because of "The Da Vinci Code." The highly rated tour company Paris Muse has a "Cracking the DaVinci Code" tour among it's many focused views of the Louvre collection and other museums and sites around Paris.
Big Onion Tours
Begun by Seth Kamil while working on a Ph.D. at Columbia University, Big Onion's docents are usually graduate students who also complete a rigorous in-house training program. Their only museum tour is a deep dive into the history and making of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead of an artwork focused itinerary, guests learn about the plundering ways of "General" Luigi Palma Di Cesnola and the Met benefactor who was eaten by a cannibal.
Leave feedback at the museum
If you go on a particularly good museum tour led by an in-house guide or docent, be sure to leave a comment with the admissions desk or via the museum's website. Your feedback is taken very seriously behind closed-doors. What you report affects how people are hired and fired, how budgets are created each year and what kinds of programs are kept, cultivated or discarded.