Five Things to Try Next Time You Go to an Art Museum
When you think about it, there aren't actually that many rules at an art museum or gallery. Don't touch the art, no pictures, or no food are often the only official directives given to museum-goers. So why does it often feel like museums must be this quiet, restrictive space? If museum visits have started to feel redundant, try one or all of these things and maybe you can take in art in an unexpected or eye-opening way.
1. Talk to the museum guards
The people who protect the halls of a museum can also be full of amazing insight. Think about it, the people who guard these works are in a museum multiple times a week, around artwork for hours at a time. They've witnessed visitor reactions as well as countless guided tours. Being a guard, especially at established museums (the Smithsonian Institute, for example) often requires extensive paperwork and background checks, so people who are hired stay aboard long-term. Some guards have been working in the same museum for years. Ask a guard about his/her opinion on the works, or the reactions they've witnessed. Many may have even observed exhibit installations and conservation processes. They get access to parts of the museum many interns would kill to see. They basically (and maybe literally) hold a key to the behind-the-scenes of a working museum. Ask them about it, and you'll probably learn something you didn't know.
2. Listen to music
Think about how you feel when looking at a specific piece of art. Think of a song that makes you feel similarly. Put your earbuds in and listen to the song while observing the painting. Does it enhance the art? Maybe try listening to a song that evokes the exact opposite emotions, does it change your view of the piece? Inserting an audio component is a great new way to consume art because you are literally inviting a whole new sense into the experience. It can also put you into your own space, because it blocks out the noise of that one loud group of tourists behind you.
3. Sit on the floor
If you've walked through an entire art museum, chances are your legs are tired. "Museum legs" is an actual studied term, that occurs from the constant stop-and-go walking/standing you do at a gallery or museum (and, there never seem to be enough benches at an art museum). So, sit on the floor. There's no actual rule agains it. Not only will you be more physically relaxed, you can see the art from a new perspective. Most art is hung at eye-level. But, getting low may help you see artwork in a different way. Maybe this is how a small child sees a work. Maybe you can see the impasto better looking up from the floor.
4. Instead of saying "I could do that," try and actually do it
This goes especially for modern and contemporary museums and galleries. The next time you find yourself scoffing at what seems to be a lack of technique, take out a sketchbook and try it. You may find that it is not so simple to capture the agressive passion of a Cy Twombly painting, replicate and organize chaos like Yayoi Kusama, or delicately render precise contours like Joan Miró. This can give you insight on technique and process and/or give you a new appreciation for an artwork that may initially have seemed easy to create.
5. Interact with the work (yes, this can include Instagram pics)
There are plenty of artists that create interactive artwork that encourage participation of a spectator in the piece (think Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Rafael Lozano-Hemmer). Make it a point to fully involve yourself in these pieces and note your experience. However, a lot of art in museums are off-limits when it comes to touching. So take a picture with it. Not only are you memorializing your interaction with the art, the composing of a photo of artwork can be its own creative process. Yes, there has been criticism that aesthetics have overridden the conceptual or historical significance of art in our age of social media, but I don't find this to be necessarily true or even bad (hear me out). If people find aesthetic as a priority for appreciating art, it may be one-dimensional and limiting, but it is not inherently wrong. However, I will end by encouraging museum-goers to at least consider varying aspects beyond visual impact when taking in an artwork. It makes for a more rewarding experience.