“Great art resides in great goings-astray.” – Robert Walser.
We enter museums because – often with pleasure, awe or irritation – museums are where we encounter art. But how do you make the best of the experience? Is there such a thing as museum strategy?
First off it’s good to remember that there are as many ways to experience a museum as there are types of art, people or public spaces. You may walk through a public museum on a first date, or after a break up. Maybe you go to gather yourself after visiting the doctor or to de-stress on your lunch break. If you take one thing away from this post it’s to remember to do your own thing, and if something grabs your attention, go with it.
It is a mistake to think you will find instant gratification in a museum – the experience of really looking at, and contemplating art takes time. Like taking a holiday, the museum offers the possibility to explore, challenge yourself, maybe even learn new things about the world and your place in it. But it also offers the possibility to stand in queues and crowds, go through security, spend too much money, get very tired and want to escape. Since your eyes are connected to every part of the body, not just the mind, go easy on yourself! Art fatigue is real.
Recommendation: Comfortable shoes. Mini muffins. A convivial companion. A map.
- Does it remind you of anything else?
Personally, the artworks I most enjoy are those that resonate with personal experiences or things I’ve seen. I’m hooked on portraits that look like my mates or abstract shapes that prompt vague memories to rise up from obscure corners of my brain. Building a personal relationship with a work drives you to find out more about it and appreciate it more, so trust yourself. As Robert Walser comments, “Certainly I use my imagination when I am trying to see: it’s my eyes that are imagining.”
Recommendation: A really accessible and quick read, Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward. Also check out two of my fav museum remix insta accounts: @artlexachung for comparisons between the gorgeous Alexa and museum masterpieces. @flyartproductions for rap lyrics inspired by art.
- Watch other people.
In his book ‘How to Visit an Art Museum’ Johan Idema suggests museums are great places to observe humans. People often look to art for inspiration and by watching the pauses, beard strokes or cuddling couples, you see the start of that journey. Of course you also see a lot of people walking around not looking at anything at all (try not to be this person).
- Time is crucial.
A symphony takes forty minutes, but in museums you decide how much time to spend with an artwork. As with mindfulness, meditation or slow cooked food – it’s hard to find the patience. But since public museums are free in the UK you can visit just a couple of works and leave the rest of the museum for another day. So why look for a long time? A good work reveals itself slowly, it will have an initial wow factor but the full impact unfolds with hours of observation. The more you look the more you will see. In fact if you find a work ugly, shocking or repulsive, look at it even more. If you come across a dark room with a projector and think, ‘another boring piece of abstract video art’ try giving it some time and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Museums breed intelligent optimists.
Recommendation: Read Sight of Death by TJ Clark. The book looks at just two works and considers why we find ourselves returning to certain pictures, what is it we are looking for, and how does our understanding of an image changes over time.
- Does it stick in your mind?
Connected to my last point about returning to the same painting, a great artwork should become a sticky memory. Instead of something ‘sterile’ or ‘clean’ hanging in the museum, it should be grubby and in tune with your emotions. As David Hockney comments, ‘What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing. You wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience. A thought.’
- Consider the display.
There is nothing innocent about the museum. Pedestals, vitrines, frames and spot lights are carefully arranged to make you look in a certain way – and that’s not even mentioning the work that goes on behind the scenes in conservation. If you accept that it’s all theatrical you can begin to question what the curators are trying to suggest. Try looking at exhibition displays with the critical but curious detachment of an outsider. And the flip side of this? When the museum is no longer a sacred place, you can start seeing ‘art’ in all sorts of everyday contexts. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘No better way is there to learn to love Nature than to understand Art.’ Visual experiences can to be found everywhere.
Recommendations: Rendez-vous with Art by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford is a series of conversations between the ex-director of the Met and art critic Martin Gayford. More than just discussing the works they consider the theatrics of display and encourage fresh ways of looking. For more behind-the-scenes insights watch The National Gallery documentary and follow @metphotostudio on Instagram.
- Talk to others.
The best way to discover new artworks or see things you hadn’t noticed before is to share opinions with friends, museum guides or even strangers. You probably won’t learn more about the art historical context (you’ve got labels and Google for that) but you’ll get great stories and personal reflections. If a museum label is too formal or boring, find out why it’s actually meaningful to someone.
Recommendation: Watch videos like those produced by The Art Assignment, Tate or Frieze. You might also want to check out the art explanations given on websites Every Painter Paints Himself or Art as Therapy.
- Go with a child.
Children look with no expectations and follow their instinct. If you want to go on a meandering journey and really challenge your art assumptions, ask a child what they think.
Recommendation: Watch John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing and enjoy the moment when the kids point out Caravaggio’s Jesus looks like a woman (25 minutes in). Also read the hilarious We Go To The Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Book by Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia.
- Take a tour.
Guides are there to make ‘civilians’ feel comfortable and confident to make their own opinions. They’ll give you some background to the artist and their context, break the ice between you and other visitors and remove the dilemma of what to look at. Phew.
Recommendation: If you’re in NY, Museum Hack do fun tours aimed at younger generations. Most London museums also have loads of amazing free tours. But why not check out the RA’s VR experience of their Ai Wei Wei exhibition or follow @thomaspcampbell.
- Take a picture.
Some people feel taking a picture is a shallow form of engagement – that you don’t really look. But photography is the number one thing people do with phones in museums and can be a powerful tool to unleash excitement and involvement. Taking a photo is a way to capture your experience of the art and share it with others.
Recommendation: You guessed it … SMARTIFY will use image recognition to identify your photos and display interesting content by the museum and those you follow!
To conclude, museums are changing, becoming more open and accessible to the public – mentally and physically. But you still have to engage your brain and approach with an open mind. It’s a misconception that simply being in a museum, in the presence of great art means you’ll have a meaningful experience. The art museum is what you make it.
by Anna Lowe
ps. Check out this lovely little illustration by Grant Snider.