Reading Stephanie Rosenbloom’s article, “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum,” recently published in The New York Times, has reminded me of the importance of “deep looking” in the museum and ways to enhance visitor experience at MoMA. As a museum educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about the visitor and how to help improve their interactions with art. Like Italy’s slow food movement, it’s about improving quality and savoring the moment. I come to the Museum for work every day, but I also visit other arts institutions and museums around town nearly every weekend and try and put myself in the visitor’s shoes. I often come across the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die in museum gift shops and I can’t help indulging myself by flipping through and keeping track of which works I’ve seen. This checklist can be daunting and I often question the validity of it. I want to believe that real connections with paintings or artworks are more important than a bucket list, and I’ve always envied the moment in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the Art Institute of Chicago where the teenage truant Cameron has a true revelation looking at A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 by Georges Seurat. These moments are hard to come by, sometimes once in a lifetime, but there is a lot we can do to slow down in the museum and allow ourselves to feel art in a new way. The next time you visit MoMA or another art museum I challenge you to try the following exercises.
1. Write your own wall label. We may take wall labels for granted, but it drives many of us crazy when the curators don’t include them. Don’t they know we desperately want to understand the artwork and get answers? However, in this activity I encourage you to find a piece of art you’ve never seen, resist looking at the label, and write your own. What would be the title of this work? Why? Who made it? Was it a man or a woman? How do you know? Is there a distinct style you recognize? What year do you think it was made? What tells you that? Are there indicators? What material or medium? Does it matter? What’s the provenance of the work? How did it end up here? Did someone gift it to the institution or was it purchased by the museum? After taking a moment to jot down your own label, compare it to the real label. How close were your answers? Does it matter if you were way off? Do you have a better understanding of the work now?
2. Visit your favorite artwork. Good artworks are like good friends, they are always happy to see you, and they always help you remember something about yourself. In this exercise go visit an old friend. Reacquaint yourself with it and ask yourself the following questions: What made you like it in the first place? Was it the subject matter? The color? The composition? Who were you with the first time you saw it? Now look at it again, and try to find something new. Are the colors just as you remembered them? Does it still evoke the same feeling? Did you miss something the first time?
3. Visit an artwork you hate. Much like artworks works you love, works that you hate also stay with you. Find a piece of art you truly dislike or can’t understand why the curators would possibly display it. If you can tolerate it, look at the work and ask yourself the following questions: How did this piece end up here? Who made it? What was the artist’s intention? Did they intend to irritate you? Do you know anyone that might like it? Can you find any value in it? Are we meant to like all artworks? Is it okay that we hate some and loves others? These are all valuable questions and if you can begin to answer them you will be far ahead of the crowd.
I hope this new approach helps you digest your museum visit, and as Ms. Rosenbloom writes, “There is no right way to experience a museum, of course.” Just enjoy yourself.