Have you ever walked into a museum, excited to see the installation acclaimed by Conde Nast as ‘mesmerizing’, or a “curatorial tour de force’ by The Art Newspaper? Only to find yourself, 20 minutes later, glazed over, rocking listlessly in front of what you thought was a blazing critique on our throwaway culture of fast fashion, then realizing it was just someone’s t-shirt left behind on a bench?
You’re not alone.
What you feel is Museum Fatigue, and it’s a real thing. Wikipedia describes it as “a state of physical or mental fatigue caused by the experience of exhibits in museums and similar cultural institutions.” Beverly Serrell’s research found that in less than 20 minutes people become apathetic towards a museum.
You can, however, change how you see a museum. How you experience it, sense it, with all your perceptual abilities awakened and engaged, and most of all, how you will remember it.
Here are a few tips to make your next museum visit an amazing one, and one that will get you excited about discovering the next.
When we travel, we tend to gorge. We gorge on everything. The food, the shopping, the events, and the attractions. This means we usually show up to a country, pack our itineraries full of appointments, and run ourselves ragged from sun up to midnight.
This is my plea to you: slow down. Schedule a museum, a landmark, a monument, and then relax. The next day, do a tiny bit more. But slow down enough to enjoy the trip.
This holds true for museum visits as well.
Most people are going to lose their focus after about an hour and a half. For those of us addicted to social media, that attention span is even less. So think small: check out the museum guidebook, or that TimeOut review you saw, and choose 6 - 9 objets d’art to really dive into.
There will literally be thousands of items calling for your attention as you enter and browse the museum; let yourself drift, be lightly caught, then move on and stick to the ones you’ve chosen, dive deep into them (see tips below), and if afterward you have more attention, stay on.
Art History & Academia
If you choose to have a tour guide lead you through the museum, see if you can catch a snippet of their tour before committing. Tour guides with advanced degrees in art history tend to throw a lot of academic jargon around, and it can lead to passive listening, and you may find yourself starting to fade.
If you do want a guide, opt for someone who is more well-rounded (knowledgeable on the city’s history, the cultural landscape, etc), and most importantly, engages you.
The key to a great tour experience is having a guide you feel comfortable asking questions of and interacting with. The guide should weave a story, paint the historical context, and pepper in some critical analyses of the art itself & how it measures up in its genre.
‘Be with’ the object
The key to seeing - really seeing - a piece is having the time and attention to “be” with it. This means looking at the piece, of course, but also moving around it, seeing it from every angle, witnessing the colors, textures and light refraction, as well as noticing how the museum curators planned for you to experience it.
I recently attended an art installation in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The exhibit was the work of Trine Ellitsgaard, a textile artist who utilized many both ancient and original techniques in textile art to create her collection. The pieces had a whimsical feel, in some cases, and others bold, and surprising.
To take it all in, I settled into the gallery for an hour, pacing from piece to piece (there were only 12 in the whole show), and getting up close and personal with the ones I loved.
One of the pieces, a felt banner with punched holes of varying sizes, was interesting on its own, but when I got up close to it, next to it, and peered at the wall behind it, I saw a second, wholly different piece: a pattern woven in light and shadow!
The museum curators - presumably with the feedback of the artist, had utilized the lighting to create this effect as it passed through the piece to the wall behind it. My unexpected discovery of the second piece was surprise and delight.
The photos here don’t do it justice, but the effect on the viewer, my entire group included, was wonder and glee.
This is how we can get to know an artist, her or his creativity, and understand what is possible in art: by stopping and truly attempting to experience what the artist was going for. How far their imagination stretched, how interactive, or not, they chose to create their work.
It’s our focus, our curious and awake attention that rewards the looking. An overload of vague impressions may exhaust us, but an in-depth, close and personal moment can refresh and excite us.
A final, unconventional, approach
I will preface this section by saying that I have not been a regular museum-goer. I am, however, one now. But my method herein may sound a bit odd to seasoned museum visitors.
Hear me out.
When I visit museums today, I like to let the pieces see me. This was an activity I learned in a writing class not too long ago, and I find it fun, quirky, amusing, and most of all, it makes my museum experience highly memorable.
What I mean is this: I first choose a piece that stands out to me. It might not be the one the New York Times calls “an entirely new take on the visual lexicon to Western art history”, but it is something that sings to me as I’m walking through the museum.
So I stop, and I take it in: every side, every color, every material, every texture, every angle.
And then, I let it see me. By this I mean I imagine what it must be seeing when it looks at me. In this way, I experience it in a whole new light.
In my last visit to the Fabrica Aurora, a restored fabric mill in the middle of central Mexico, housing 41 galleries, workshops, classrooms, and the original machinery that used to be in daily operation there, I happened upon a bust of a goddess, I assumed, carved out of wood, perched on a marble pedestal.
The piece was about 3 feet high, not including the pedestal. It was an exaggerated, majestic woman’s head in walnut, sealed with a semi-gloss shellac. It had long, wavy hair, and one eye slightly more downcast than the other. It looked, to me, longingly at the floor, and simultaneously at me.
And I imagined a story. I imagined what she must see, in all her time on the gallery floor. How she must feel looking at all the passers-by.
Did she fall in love with one of the men (or women) who stopped to gaze at her? Or did she love the short glances, reveling in the repeated attention, never having to commit to staring back at anyone for too long? Did she get jealous of the massive dark-green dappled Michoacan pineapple urns behind her, their textures beaming reflected light around the room and surely drawing eyes away from her? Or did she know she was the most glorious object in the room?
Did she wish she had a body, and legs, to venture out of this room? To see the world, to climb inside a plane, train, or possibly just short jaunt on a Tuk Tuk?
Or did she love the hundreds of admirers who paraded in day after day, never having to leave her spot to find someone interested in photographing her, exploring her lines, the wood she was made of, the shape of her lips? Does she fear the day she’ll be sold to someone, never getting to look at the changing tides of humanity, hear their whispers as they point and discuss and wonder about her, and everything around her?
I had my own conclusions, but I throw the questions your way to see what you might feel the next time you visit a museum or gallery. What if you came up with a story of how it viewed you? Maybe even how you felt being viewed?
There are so many ways to experience the work that artists put into their creations. If you can take the time, you can see, maybe for the first time, or simply in a new way, all their creativity and their vision is offering you.
Wishing you a joyous, fully-engaged journey on your next museum visit!