“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
One of the things I love about travelling is that I get the time to visit museums and galleries to my heart’s content – something I don’t do often enough in my everyday life. It’s rather telling that I’ve been to the Guggenheim, the Louvre and the Victoria & Albert Museum more times than I’ve been to the McMichael Gallery, which is much closer to home (and doesn’t require air travel to visit).
As a lover of art and history, I’ve seen some amazing works, from the Sistine Chapel to the Book of Kells. And I understand the lure of “Great Works,” and the quest to see as many as possible. What I don’t understand are the people lured only by Great Works.
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a perfect example. It’s in the Louvre, a museum stuffed so full of art, it takes several days to see it all properly. A former royal palace and 12th century fortress, the building alone is a masterpiece. The structure, the rooms, the ceilings, the paintings, and medieval crypt can keep you entertained for hours.
And yet, despite its myriad treasures, you can tell when you’re getting close to the Mona Lisa room because of a) the noise, b) the photo flashes, and c) the lack of elbow room. All to see a relatively small painting behind bulletproof glass. I know it’s a significant piece of art, but with the size of the crowd, and the frenzy of patrons trying to get closer to the work, I couldn’t be less interested. I’d rather go wander through the Dutch masters section and look at beautiful works of art in peace. Or even amble along the outside the Louvre, marvelling at its scale and proportions.
I feel like a lot of people visit the Mona Lisa because it’s famous. Because it’s on their itinerary. Because they need to check it off their list of “things to do in Paris.” Because after Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, and coffee in a cafe on the Seine, they’ve “done” Paris.
Why not instead let yourself find and see something you weren’t expecting? Read the informative panels. Check out lesser known artists. Learn a little history. There are so many interesting things to see in the world. Why work so hard to merely get a frenzied and obscured glimpse of one single master work? You’ll have “toured” Paris, sure. But you won’t have really learned much about it.