It's a common scene, we go to a museum or gallery and we're bowled over by the immensity of what's on display. We either retreat into ourselves and quickly lose interest in anything but the main attraction of the day or over-enthusiastically venture off and whistle-stop as much as possible. Both approaches can be down to a lack of confidence. When we feel overwhelmed, we react in a way that makes our brain resort to basics. We're not really at the museum any more but navigating a mouse-maze or hiding in a hutch. It's time to slow down, savour the corridors and forget the stuff that doesn't get seen. It will probably still be there next time.
How do we approach an art museum or gallery and get the most out of our visit?
Reserve judgement. Let go of your ideas of what good and bad are and look at the piece from an ambivalent position. Then, from this orientation allow the art to move you. Describe to yourself or others how it moves you, what does it do exactly? Find its lines and angles, feel how they make impressions on your mental processes. If it's music, listen to the elements of it and feel how they influence your mind. If it's a painting, what are the colours saying to you? How do they speak to each other on the page?
Take your time. We can't get to know something intimately in a few seconds. Even a seemingly plain piece with just a few colours and lines has all kinds of allusions hiding between the image. Once we begin to invent a story behind it, the piece evokes a myriad of commentary. Let it do this and learn to appreciate this effect. It's a subtle bite on the daydream of madness not to.
Find the secrets. Some artists design a piece to stand out and get your attention. Others are more subtle. When the two are in the same place, it's easy to overlook the less noisy works. They perhaps have more to say when we draw back the covers. These 'secret' pieces are hiding in plain sight, when your eye is drawn to one particular piece, look to the left and to the right and make use of the time in that spot to fully address all of them. You might find something really invigorating.
Let your feelings guide you. When we're at ease and not anxiously running around or loitering in the lobby, we get the sense that we ought to go this way or that. It is a kind of magnetism, perhaps instigated by subconscious symbols and guidances laid down by the designers, or maybe it's just what you had for breakfast. Trust your instincts and allow the journey through art to be a fully immersive one.
Choose wisely. It's okay if the brief description doesn't tickle your fancy. We can say no to art and no-one will think there's something wrong with you. Sometimes it just doesn't reach us and that's fine. There will be plenty more. Sidestep the stuff that feels dry to you or the concepts you find vain or unimportant. They're made for someone else. Maybe next time you visit, you'll think differently. Until then, enjoy something else.
Are you in teaching? Find out how to use inquiry to make the most out of museum trips.
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