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Are museums overrated? (Photograph by ICP/Alamy)

Are Museums Overrated?

I’ve been to Paris three times and never once put a foot inside the Louvre. I skipped the Colosseum in Rome and gave only 10 minutes to the Hermitage during the entire five weeks I spent in St. Petersburg.

I’m sorry if this is disappointing. But I’m not sorry at all.

Too often, we travelers let good old fashioned guilt seep into the decision-making process when we’re building our itineraries. Rather than following our inherent interests (canoes, Rococo, hockey), we let the expectations of friends and family–or what we’ve read in some magazine–serve as some proxy  “travel conscience,” guiding us toward things we should or shouldn’t see.

Often this leads us to household-name museums, those divas of travel that prompt exhortations along the lines of “In Madrid, you simply must go to the Prado.”

Let’s start with a new travel rule: If we find ourselves going to any site only because we feel we “should”–say the Tower of London, the Getty, what have you–let’s give ourselves permission to find something else we want to do more.

Travel time’s limited enough without self-imposing a “need” to see a Picasso, an ancient pot, or the frayed knickers of a Wright brother–unless that’s your thing. (And century-old knickers are actually kind of my thing.)

This isn’t meant as an attack on museums. They’re great, and play a vital role by preserving objects, places, people, and events that shape our world. At their best, they leave us wanting to know more–even about subjects we didn’t think we cared about. A museum’s existence can be a powerful symbol too. Frequently Russia is criticized for not confronting its ugly gulag history–by establishing a museum dedicated to the subject. (I’ve long felt the U.S. is overdue for a museum on slavery as well.)

But I wonder how museums will fare as people travel more, and farther, looking to take a deeper dive into the places they visit? Will museums survive in an era where it’s less about seeing things than doing things? You know, that whole “travel like a local” thing.

I’ve visited well over a hundred museums, and usually find the experience overly passive. We dutifully file past old tunics or jawbones sealed behind glass, read a few words on panels, watch looping videos on a screen in the corner.

The world’s most visited museum, after the Louvre, is the Met. It’s the quintessential “should see” museum–and one I once felt compelled to join while living in New York City. It’s superb, world class. But other than its rooftop view of Central Park, I can’t say the Met ever moved me much. And as far as “New York experiences” go, particularly for those who’ll only spend a few days in town, I’d call it overrated.

For me, maybe it’s the museum’s oversize reputation, the crowds, or the simple fact that I find New York City too interesting to settle for Greek columns.

It might also be that I’ve found other city museums that are “more New York”–not to mention more fun. I have particularly fond memories of making a flipbook at the Museum of the Moving Image (where the Marx Brothers filmed), listening to a DJ at the MoMA’s PS1, and picking out my apartment building from a full-scale model of the city at the Queens Museum of Art.

And that’s just in Queens.

The Met isn’t to blame, ultimately, for being a “should see” museum in one of the world’s greatest cities, where an overabundance of options can easily consume hours of a day or years of a life.

So here’s a second new travel rule: Museums aren’t overrated, but putting them on a checklist is.

When we reduce museums to check-off experiences–and we are going simply to see the crown jewels, American Gothic or The Mona Lisa–we’ve lost sight of what they’re for: to instill some sense of open-ended wonder and, at best, to strike an emotional chord, too.

I unexpectedly found both at the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest. Though located in a giant old palace on a boulevard patterned after the Champs-Élysses, from the inside it’s clear that the museum has bare-bones budget. Hand-drawn signs identify folksy items from the country like hand-carved chairs, woven gowns, and wicker baskets.

I was ready to write the place off as ho-hum when I spotted an arrow scrawled on a closed door. I followed it to a cramped windowless space, where I found a placard that gently reminded visitors (in Romanian, French, and English) that, yes, our lives are busy, but when our grandmother dies, we should keep one of her belongings as a remembrance. Filling the tables behind were framed portraits, floral vases, antique clocks, knitted tablecloths–a grab-bag of keepsakes that museum staff had brought in to honor their own grandmothers.

I stopped in to that museum thinking I’d probably see a bunch of old beads and left feeling like I’d been hugged.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever make it to the Acropolis, but I can’t imagine it could ever make as much of an impact as did that Bucharest surprise.

That’s why I can never quit museums.

Because I continue to explore with this restless belief that out there, somewhere–perhaps looming in the darkest obscurity, and found only by following a side road on the way to somewhere else–lives another little museum without much means, but cared for and loved. Waiting, ever-ready, to hug us like the long lost grandma we never had.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.