Focusing on the Experience: Museums and the Act of Looking

nytimes_museums_valeriomezzanottiA front page article in this morning’s New York Times has given me pause for thought on the topic of looking in museums. Not since finishing a grueling course on vision and visuality in the Art History Department at school last year have I paused to give it a tremendous amount of brain power. This is ludicrous, of course, as I am interning at an art museum and should be concerned with this aspect of my experience and that of the visitor. I pride myself on my skills of observation, after all. So here goes my attempt at giving this topic some thought, within the context of points Kimmelman covered in his article.

1) What exactly am I looking at when I roam around a museum?
That is a good question. There are a half dozen or more galleries to explore at an average-sized art museum, each with equally important pieces of art hanging on the wall, or sculptures, china, silver, and ancient artifact resting on pedestals and nested within glass cases. I am in the habit (sadly) of giving most paintings or objects that I see an approving nod of the head and a cursory glance of the eye before scuttling along to the next room to repeat the process. There are few pieces that stand out to me, and admittedly these are usually the most well-known—a Monet or a Van Gogh.

2) Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement.
Most people will tell themselves this when they visit an art museum. To affect culture, we must do what the cultured do, visit the places those who profess to be cultured go. To an extent, this mindset continues to hold sway, but with an increase in diverse programming and events (of which Brooklyn Art Museum is exemplary), the art museum is no longer just a place we visit to learn something. It is a place we go to experience something, whether this be a music group, a late-night art party, like-minded artsy folks, or to be visually stimulated. In other words, some of us are becoming more comfortable with going to the art museum just to look and in Kimmelman’s words, this can result in a very good time.

3) Slow looking, the “new radical chic,” is okay!
Spending more time with fewer objects suits my visual ADD just fine, and admitting this is the first step, right? I want to say goodbye to the days when a museum visit would send me into a tizzy because I could not quite figure out what was worth looking at first and what I did not have time to see. Perhaps that is why picture taking has become so popular in museums. We want to make the most of our visit (we are paying upwards of $20+ per visit sometimes!), and if we cannot do it while physically present, well, a picture says a thousand words, right? A new way of looking, “slow looking” as Kimmelman terms it, requires a fresh way of visiting museums and a new mentality that, I think, is not easy to come by in an American culture where we want more bang for our buck.

Offering a diverse array of membership options may be the key to giving people this slow looking museum experience. I can see this method creating a tighter bond between art and visitor, as the latter determines to spend quality time with one individual piece rather than feeling the pressure to entertain the whole lot in a single visit. I know that the museum I am currently interning at does not offer a membership just for students. I am not sure what the reasoning for this is, but as a graduate student, I find less-expensive memberships tailored for my income to be a worthwhile investment.

Read Michael Kimmelman’s article and let me know how you experience the museum. What are your thoughts on slow looking?


One response to “Focusing on the Experience: Museums and the Act of Looking

  1. Slow looking, the “new radical chic,” is not new to my life style. I am not a frequent visitor to museums probably for that very reason, too much to see in too short a time. I like the idea of fewer objects in a more relaxed environment. More quality and less quantity. Sounds like that could make for a more pleasant life style too.


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