Visits to museums are fraught with anxiety, writes Pamela Wade

You trail through hall after hall, trying — and failing hopelessly — to take it all in.

It's a strong-willed (or single-mindedly hedonistic) traveller who doesn't feel compelled to visit a museum at least once on their journeys. But there is a downside to this ostensibly laudable activity.

Museum guilt: it's a thing.


What, you hadn't noticed it was in there among all your other sinking feelings about eating, drinking, exercise, sleep, cellphone dependency, social media use, parenting, managing money, bingeing on Netflix and not having read The Luminaries? Add it to the list; and know that it comes in two varieties.

The first is positive, in a sobering, taking-responsibility sort of way. Venturing into the natural history section inevitably faces you with undeniable proof of environmental destruction and species extinction: go to Mauritius, and there's a dodo skeleton; in Hobart, it's the Tasmanian tiger; here, the moa is just the biggest on a depressingly long list — but one that hopefully also inspires determination not to let it happen again, anywhere. (Hint: the rhino may be next.)

In the human history halls, though, the guilt is a lot more personal, especially if you're a white person. No matter what nationality, if you're walking through the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, there's no escaping Caucasian shame about the hideous things done by others sharing your skin colour. It's just the same at the Smithsonian's new African American Museum in Washington, DC. You look at the rusty slave shackles, the advertisement for "The Great Negro Mart", the photo of Martin Luther King jnr and Rosa Parks, and your shoulders sag. Just across the Ditch, Adelaide's Migration Museum also pulls no punches.

It's inescapable, even back at home: make your obligatory visit to Waitangi, or to Parihaka, and even though the injustice and atrocities were inflicted on Maori generations ago, the guilt is still there. It's like being German.

It is still, however, a good and grown-up sort of guilt: a recognition that throughout history many wrongs have been done. It's a reminder, especially for non-Twitter users, that constant vigilance is vital; and an acknowledgement that aggression, dominance and injustice have been, and can be, inflicted on anyone by anyone, given the right (wrong) circumstances.

The second kind of guilt, though, is unintentional, irritating and inescapable. The grounds for it have been laid for all of us at school, when the initial excitement of a routine-breaking outing to the museum was sapped by the dishing out of worksheets; and then followed up by long sessions in the classroom working on the associated project, to prove we actually paid some attention.

This ingrained training is, years later, exacerbated by museum curators doing their jobs too well. Gone are the days of long dull rows of glass cases covered in dust and greasy noseprints. No more thick ropes and glaring attendants keeping the exhibits pristine and protected. Now it's all about being mixed-media, interactive, hands-on and inclusive.

Frankly, it's exhausting. Everywhere you look, there's something interesting, colourful, intriguing, drawing you closer to read the entertaining storyboard, click on the next video, look under the flap. Hours pass as, feet swelling, back aching, you trail through hall after hall, trying — and failing hopelessly — to take in all this information that so much thought and effort has gone into presenting to you so accessibly.

In the end, you give up. It's all too much. Things are starting to blur, information is being rejected by an already-full brain. You slink away outside, all too aware that hundreds — thousands — of items remain in the museum, not given their due attention. So much fascinating stuff you will never learn! All that effort, wasted! You almost wish you hadn't even tried ...

But here is some reassurance that you're not alone. The New York Times has published an article declaring that trying to do it all is a grave mistake. Quoting Natasha Schlesinger, art historian and founder of a museum tour company, they instruct that museum visits should be limited to two hours, maximum. Don't go there hungry, is the advice, and be selective: focus on just 20 objects, perhaps a single gallery. Read the information, listen to the audio tour, and then leave while your brain is still alert.

It's official: we're saved.

Having to acknowledge historical responsibility for environmental crime and social injustice, though? Sorry, those you're stuck with.