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How Should I Look at Art When I Go To A Museum?

Learn what two experts have to say about how to approach and what to pay attention to when we visit a museum

Going to a museum is a special experience. We know we will find a lot of information there, a great deal of beautiful and historically significant stuff, but we don't always know how to manage all the stimuli.

If you are not an art student or specialist, you may feel unsure of doing this right: are we able to appreciate the most important aspects, or have we missed something crucial? Often, we may feel we have not retained all the information we should at the end of our visit.

Maria Lightowler (@maria_lightowler) is a museologist and lecturer of museum studies and art history. She is also a consultant for collectors. Julius Wiedemann (@julius_wiedemann) is a former senior editor of design and pop culture at Taschen and one of Domestika's chief curators. We asked them for tips on ensuring our museum visit is the best possible experience.

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How do you visit a museum correctly? Foto: Unsplash.

Prepare beforehand, or let yourself be amazed?

María: Prepare. Checking the museum website beforehand can make the visit easier. At present, museums provide 'extended visit' models, whereby you can begin the experience before entering the museum, or even after, by accessing online catalogs, photographs, commentaries, and interviews with the artists or the curators. The visit is no longer a simple in situ experience but is complemented by other features.

Julius: Prepare. Knowing what we are going to experience optimizes the learning process. We must not worry about missing out on the surprise factor: looking at something on the internet or in a book doesn't compare with looking at the artwork in person. Use your smartphones, reading info on Wikipedia, on the way there. We must explore. If we can familiarize ourselves with the era in which the artwork fits in, we can make connections with other fields, like literature or politics.

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Go to the museum armed with knowledge. Photo: Unsplash.

Hire audio guides, or follow the information in the rooms?

María: Going around the exhibitions with an audio guide is one way to visit it, but not the only one. Generally, the routes of the exhibitions are designed so that each room provides sufficient information without the need for an audio guide.

Julius: They are not indispensable, but I love audio guides. Their most significant advantage is that we get to hear the commentary from someone who has in-depth knowledge of the artwork and tells you about the world in which the work was created. Furthermore, many details are not so apparent in the artwork. For instance, the colors and the shadows are elements we do not usually analyze but are historically relevant.

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Audio guides can enhance our experience and expand our knowledge. Photo: Unsplash.

Should we be guided by our senses when looking at the artwork or actively try to understand it?

María: Both. Ideally, you should try to balance the intuitive visual impact of a piece and the effort to understand it without favoring one or the other aspect. All artworks derive from a specific historical context and artistic paradigm. Therefore it isn't easy to satisfy a unique vision and approach to art history.

Julius: I love the idea of being impressed by the first visual impact of a piece and then try to understand why I am feeling what I am feeling. Art is the message. First, we are affected by the emotions the artwork stirs in us on a visual level, and then we have the opportunity to try and understand what is happening. We need time and information to process all this, and we need to use everything we have at our disposal to achieve it.

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To think or to feel? Both! Photo: Ken Laminto for Unsplash.

Should we go by ourselves or with a friend?

María: In my professional role, I prefer to go solo, at my own pace. When I am not alone, I suggest each person take their own route and meet up later to discuss what we've seen. If you decide to go with someone, make sure you choose the right friend.

Julius: A good idea when you go with friends is to make sure everyone feels free to explore at their own pace and preference. Art can be experienced as a group or individually. I don't think there is a better way in which to do this. The main thing is that everyone can gain some learning from it. At the end of the visit, we can all go for coffee and talk about what we've seen.

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Choose the right friend to visit an exhibition with. Photo: Ryan Stefan for Unsplash.

Should we go all the distance or stop when we lose concentration?

María: When spending a whole day visiting an art space, some establishments, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, suggest you intersperse and differentiate the art intake with other activities: visiting the gift shop, have some refreshments, and revitalizing coffee, or watch a music performance. This is the best option for those who are not professionally involved, have a shorter attention span, and want to be in and out of the place quickly. Another solution would be to visit over different days.

Julius: We are going to lose our concentration at some point or another. I prefer to go to specific exhibitions and not so much look at a museum's permanent collection. Viewing minor exhibitions is easier because they are curated and studied to provide a new vision of the work. We can focus on the works much better in this way. When there are fewer pieces, we also learn more about them.

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A quick and comprehensive visit or a slow experience, split up by other activities? Photo: Unsplash.

Should we come out full of knowledge or with a general impression?

María: In 1965, Argentinean artists Marta Minujín and Rubén Santatonín inaugurated an exotic labyrinth at the Torcuato di Tella Visual Arts Center in Buenos Aires for the office workers that walked through the area, which submitted them to various situations and settings. When asked the objective of the experience, young Minujín replied that she wanted the visitors to feel transformed as they exited the area. I believe that her reason, which is one of the contemporary art aims in general, is still the dominant element when we are faced with artwork or an exhibition. We should come out of an exhibition a different person than when we entered it and feel that the experience has provoked some questions.

Julius: In reality, if we manage to remember 10% of what we've seen, that's already a lot. I believe that if the impact of the work we've seen stays with us for a long time, then we've had a good experience.
If we can talk about it to friends and link it to our daily lives, the artist has achieved what he needed to.

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The objective of an artist or museums is that we leave the exhibition transformed by our contact with art. Photo: Unsplash.

Extra tips

María: Look at the environment, not just the artwork. Pay attention to the labels and texts attached to the artwork to put what you see into context. Don't take photos of the work; they are all included in the museum's website and catalog, at better quality. If you want to take pictures, it is better to photograph a few pieces relating to one another and include their surroundings.

Julius: It's essential to have all the time you need. You should not think that 15 minutes are sufficient to take it all in. We need time to assimilate all that information and material. Then, consider how our daily lives and our relationship with the world have been affected by it.
What are your thoughts on these tips from the experts?

English version by @acesarato

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