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« Ken Kewley Exhibition | Main | Me on Visuals »

September 28, 2005

Museum-Viewing Styles

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Even though I can boast a pre-Sesame Street childhood, I suffer from a short attention span when visiting museums.

Well, not always: last summer The Fiancée and I spent about five hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- a lot longer than the one or two hours I normally tolerate even in museums I like such as the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The Met held my attention because (1) I hadn't visited it in decades and it was interesting to see how much it had been improved, and (2) we broke up the visit by taking snack or coffee breaks at the cafes that had been added since my previous visit.

A year earlier we were in the Louvre for nearly four hours and I recall feeling nearly brain-dead and almost crazed to get out at the end of the ordeal. (For some reason I immediately perked up once we got to the museum shop.)

I find it interesting that The Fiancée and I have different approaches to museum-viewing. She is methodical, starting at a gallery's entrance then heading around it in the same direction reading each caption in its entirety.

I, on the other hand, flit. If it's a museum dealing with something I'm familiar with, I'll head for specific objects that I especially want to see. Otherwise, I'll zip along until I notice something intriguing where I'll pause and soak things in until I feel I've learned or experienced enough. If the museum deals with something I don't know much about (such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just west of Tucson) I'm more methodical, but not totally so.

Our viewing styles result in the following: I spend a fair amount of time fidgeting at the door to the next gallery while she slowly makes her way along the walls.

All of this probably has to do with personality type leavened by education and experience.

Are there other museum-viewing styles? What is your modus operandi? Am I impatient, uncultured or simply weird? Please comment.



UPDATE: Tyler Cowen spotted this post and offers thoughts on museum-going from an economics perspective, giving it a flavor that you might well find interesting. Check the comments too.

posted by Donald at September 28, 2005


My museum-visiting style is very similar to yours. Trying to read all the captions takes just too long, unless it's a very small museum.

Posted by: Peter on September 28, 2005 8:58 PM

It took me years to get honest with myself and admit that my attention starts to collapse after two hours max. Living among the museums in NYC, that's fine -- I can visit, see one or two shows, leave, and tell myself I can always return some other time to check out the rest of the displays. Out of town, when I can't feel certain I'll get back, I'll try to push on through and usually wind up feeling grateful but very cranky. I guess, though, that over time I've come to see it more as a matter of seeing a specific show or two within a museum instead of actually doing the entire museum. Makes it finite and manageable, anyway.

I have an art critic friend who's seen zillions of shows. He swears the best way to do an art show is in two stages. 1) Take a fast walk through, beginning to end, barely pausing, and only to get oriented. Then 2) go back to the beginning and bounce through as you see fit. He claims that this approach helps him kind of both hover above and yet sink into the stuff on display, and that he leaves feeling refreshed rather than tired. I've tried it out a few times, and it works for me too. Has anyone else given this method a try?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 28, 2005 10:24 PM

Good museums are like chocolate; delicious and rich - meaning a small amount goes a long way. I can imagine the Louvre being just that way. (Although I would give my eye teeth to have the opportunity to "taste" - well, almost.)

I am most definitely a flitter patron. My eyes are drawn to certain pieces and I just follow that pull. I find I can't be methodical even with Georgia O'Keefe, whom I love as an artist.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 28, 2005 10:55 PM

Art museums aren't my thing, and maybe it's because I've never gone alone. I feel like quick appraisals are fine when it comes to throwing out the stuff you're not willing to immerse yourself in, but the immersion is the whole point. Covering more than a couple distinct sets of work in a day makes me feel vaguely as if I'm insulting the concept.

Anyhow, my preferred art form doesn't require big buildings.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 29, 2005 4:39 AM

I consciously try to stick to my gut reaction with visual art and not try to rationalise/analyse/understand. So I'm quite happy, if I see something that makes me think "wow!", just to have that wow moment and move on, instead of sticking around trying to get at how and why. This can lead people with me to think I'm galloping around not taking much in, which isn't the case.

Posted by: Alan Little on September 29, 2005 6:09 AM

2-3 hours is about all I can tolerate, too. Three-plus if you break for lunch at a museum cafe. When I lived in the Capitol Hill section of DC, where the majority of the museums are free, I would fit various museums into my daily walk. It was such a pleasure to nip in for 20-30 minutes and then be on my way, knowing I could come back the next day or week and pick up where I left off.

Posted by: Rachel on September 29, 2005 7:02 AM

Rachel beat me to it. If you really love paintings and you find one that has deep appeal - that speaks to you - standing in front of it for ten or fifteen minutes can be thrilling but also completely draining. After that why wander around the museum any longer? You've had "the moment," the rest is, to quote Lawrence, "a post-mortem experience."

Posted by: ricpic on September 29, 2005 8:33 AM

So, Donald, was I right about Hermitage?
How much energy you had after that? And what you actually remember from the visit now?

Posted by: Tatyana on September 29, 2005 8:45 AM

Tatyana -- At the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and at the Tretyakov in Moscow I played total hookey from the tour group (with the tour director's knowledge, of course), walking the streets to and from them totally on my own aided by a map and the ability to sound out the street-sign words writtten in Russian text.

The group visited the Hermitage as part of its schedule, but here too I bailed out, doing what I wanted to.

And what I did during the allotted time was first focus on the galleries where Rembrandt was to be found and then up to where late-19th Century French art was. I purposely avoided the rest, but kept alert as I aimed for my targets. Plus, I spent some time in the galleries dealing with the 1812 war and those at the top of the staircase featuring 18-19 century czars and czarinas.

I'll do detailed postings on the other two museums later. (Hint: I concentrated on 19th Century stuff,)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 29, 2005 9:33 AM

I just had family in from out of town and just did the major museum thing---both historical and art---and am exactly the same as you. Two hours is my max, and I flit. I think the description of being able to nip in at lunch for 20-30 minutes sounds wonderful, and just right for me. I am sort of desperate to leave after a couple hours---expecially if we are at the "Korean ceramic art" section of the museum by then, as we were on this last visit!

Posted by: annette on September 29, 2005 10:11 AM

I'm a combination of speed visitor and slow looker. I do most museums at a brisk walk. (In part this is because my back and knees simply cannot take too much time standing on marble floors--when will museums put a little padding down?) As I've gotten older, I find my tastes are more eclectic today--I will often spend more time on the art of periods and places that I don't know much about. As a result, I often get more pleasure out of "minor" works of art these days than the "accredited masters"--goofy provincial hybrids, odd nooks and crannies. But when I see something I really like, I very much enjoy planting my fanny down on a sofa or a bench and taking 10 or 20 minutes to really sink into it (or even make a drawing from it.) I wish museums would have a spot to sit down in every room, no matter how small, and multiple places to plunk down in the grand halls.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 29, 2005 1:33 PM

Two hours? I'm lucky if I manage just the one. That plus the monologue I have to do while walking round drives friends etc crazy, but if they weren't there slowing me down I'd probably be in and out in ten minutes flat.

Seriously, I'm glad you wrote this post because everyone in museums always looks so serious and methodical, it does make attention deficit-ers like me feel freakish.

Posted by: Alice (Texas) on September 29, 2005 1:43 PM

Yes, visiting a museum can be exhausting, but a well-designed museum can be a joy to explore, even if its collection isn't first-rate. I wrote a blog post last month about how the Getty Museum achieves this.

Posted by: Dave Munger on September 29, 2005 2:37 PM

Does anyone have a specific strategy when they go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

I was talking to a friend of mine who was going to visit the Met for the first time and he asked me how much time he should allot to it. I know my way of going there from opening to closing and reading every caption and listening to the audio descriptions is not really an option for him - or any normal person really.

Posted by: grandcosmo on September 29, 2005 7:38 PM

My husband and I have learned over the years to split up and meet at specified times and locations. I recall a visit to the British Museum where I spent the entire time in the manuscript room looking at the manuscripts of Austen, Dickens, Woolf etc and he explored the antique clock exhibit. At the National Gallery in DC, I somehow lost 45 minutes in front of tritych of medieval art that fairly glowed and he wandered thru another room. On the other hand, on a trip to the Museum of Science and Industy in Chicago, I got a good two inches knit on a sock and a fair amount of people watching done while he wandered the museum.

Posted by: Deb on September 30, 2005 7:36 AM

I do a variant of what Michael's art critic friend does, I make sure I have a look at everything, but only slow down for those things that interest me. Then, if I have time, I do a "greatest hits", I'll revisit the few things that really interested me, try to memorize names and styles so I can research more of that artist's work later.

In the future, if they allow digital cameras in, I'll get my own copy.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 30, 2005 9:00 AM

I flit and I float. What determines my stay in a museum is the throbbing pain I get in my head. I make sure I have a cup of coffee before I enter, so that I eliminate the chance of a need-for-caffeine headache. My one time at the Louvre left me with a head-splitting migraine of a headache; I ended up sitting on a curb in a well-shaded negihborhood for a good hour or so. That was the Mother of all art museum visits. I promised myself I'd never go on an Art bender like that again. Aside from the head pains, too much of a great thing turned into a mental melange that I couldn't sieve through to get any seperate visual memories. Jsut an overall sense of awe and ow!

Posted by: DarkoV on September 30, 2005 12:15 PM

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