How do you visit museums, really?

Posted on May 28, 2010


Museums and I have a strange relationship. They always constitute between 20 to 50 percent of a city’s attractions and neglecting them is not really an option unless I want to look back years from now and think of myself as a cultureless Maltese. Having said that, museums and I have a strange relationship because I feel obliged to go to them but then have no idea how I should go about the whole thing. Seen on their own, most museum exhibits are meaningless, but I often find myself lacking the patience to read their accompanying description. I hover indecisively, cabinet after cabinet, just looking, but not really feeling, if you know what I mean.

The same applies for art galleries. What is the appropriate time to spend staring at a painting? What should I be looking at or looking for? Is ‘I would definitely not hang it in my living room’ a suitable way to evaluate a work of art? Despite all this confusion in my head I keep visiting, although I must admit that my initiation into the world of Swiss museums has been definitely a belated one. In my defence, I did at least, or so the experts say, start with the best.






Museum Rietberg 

12 CHF Permanent collection

5 CHF Temporary collection

Permanent collection free with Zurich Card


There is something very Swiss about the Museum Rietberg – orderly, uncluttered, expensive, quiet and contemplative. There are no hordes of tourists here snapping pictures incessantly. Indeed, on a Saturday afternoon the modern extension was almost empty, and I was the only person discretely taking a few photos. Being about ancient art from across the globe, it reminded me a little bit of the British Museum, but I quickly realised that it was much more subtle, less in-your-face, with fewer exhibits given more space to shine and strategically placed so as to prompt observation. I was quickly mesmerised by the delicate Chinese porcelain, by small cabinet after small cabinet of golden gods and Buddhas, and by that heart-warming pleasure of having an excellent museum all to myself. Since each room was small and cosy, the few visitors dispersed in them and hardly seemed to cross my path. At regular intervals, I came across people seated on canvas stools, busily sketching a mask, a statue or an artefact of their choice.

In the adjacent villa, built in 1857 for residential purposes and at one time the home of Richard Wagner, the feeling was even cozier. Old floor boards screeched as if in pain beneath my feet no matter how lightly I trod, a beautiful stained glass curved window lay shut to the public behind a locked glass door, and artefacts were squeezed into spaces so small I guessed they could have only been originally used as storage spaces.

But besides the elegance of the contents of the museum, I loved its setting and its layout, its fragmentation into a number of buildings each with a different feel and a different character. Binding them together was the beautiful park they were set in, each building linked to the outdoors leaking in from the numerous large windows, which not only framed those exhibits which had been placed in front of them, but also bathed the numerous gilded objects on display in a natural light that, no matter how feeble, gave them an ethereal aura. On sunny days, the park itself is spectacular, undulating as it does onto a gentle hill.

I may not have stopped to read every description of every exhibit. I might even have skipped some sections while, as is usual for me, I walked around somewhat lost yet at the same time fascinated. Having said that, I must say I loved it, though, had I not been a museum novice, I would probably have loved it even more.

How do you go about visiting museums? 


– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @

Posted in: Zurich