Fighting for a snapshot of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Some psychologists suggest that taking a slower, more contemplative approach at museums could make visitors more likely to connect with the art.
GUIA BESANA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
OCTOBER 9, 2014 / New York Times / http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/travel/the-art-of-slowing-down-in-a-museum.html?referrer=&_r=0
Ah, the Louvre. It’s sublime, it’s historic, it’s … overwhelming.
Upon entering any vast art museum — the Hermitage, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the typical traveler grabs a map and spends the next two hours darting from one masterpiece to the next, battling crowds, exhaustion and hunger (yet never failing to take selfies with boldface names like Mona Lisa).
What if we slowed down? What if we spent time with the painting that draws us in instead of the painting we think we’re supposed to see?
Most people want to enjoy a museum, not conquer it. Yet the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art, according to museum researchers. And the breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspires to make that feel normal. But what’s a traveler with a long bucket list to do? Blow off the Venus de Milo to linger over a less popular lady like Diana of Versailles?
“When you go to the library,” said
James O. Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “you don’t walk along the shelves looking at the spines of the books and on your way out tweet to your friends, ‘I read 100 books today!'” Yet that’s essentially how many people experience a museum. “They see as much of art as you see spines on books,” said Professor Pawelski, who studies connections between positive psychology and the humanities. “You can’t really see a painting as you’re walking by it.”
There is no right way to experience a museum, of course. Some travelers enjoy touring at a clip or snapping photos of timeless masterpieces. But psychologists and philosophers such as Professor Pawelski say that if you do choose to slow down — to find a piece of art that speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds — you are more likely to connect with the art, the person with whom you’re touring the galleries, maybe even yourself, he said. Why, you just might emerge feeling refreshed and inspired rather than depleted.
To demonstrate this, Professor Pawelski takes his students to the Barnes Foundation in
, home to some of the most
important Post Impressionist and early modern paintings, and asks them to spend
at least 20 minutes in front of a single painting that speaks to them in some
way. Twenty minutes these days is what three hours used to be, he noted. “But
what happens, of course, is you actually begin to be able to see what you’re
looking at,” he said. Philadelphia
Julie Haizlip wasn’t so sure. A scientist and self-described left-brain thinker, Dr. Haizlip is a clinical professor at the
School of Nursing
and the Division of Pediatric Critical Care at the .
While studying at Penn she was among the students Professor Pawelski took to
the Barnes one afternoon in March University of Virginia
“I have to admit I was a bit skeptical,” said Dr. Haizlip, who had never spent 20 minutes looking at a work of art and prefers Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock to Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso, whose works adorn the Barnes.
Any museumgoer can do what Professor Pawelski asks students such as Dr. Haizlip to do: Pick a wing and begin by wandering for a while, mentally noting which works are appealing or stand out. Then return to one that beckons. For instance, if you have an hour he suggests wandering for 30 minutes, and then spending the next half-hour with a single compelling painting. Choose what resonates with you, not what’s most famous (unless the latter strikes a chord).
Indeed, a number of museums now offer “slow art” tours or days that encourage visitors to take their time. Rather than check master works off a list as if on a scavenger hunt, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who oversees the education programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
, said you can
make a sprawling museum digestible and personal by seeking out only those works
that dovetail with your interests, be it a love of music or horses. To find
relevant works or galleries, research the museum’s collection online in advance
of your visit. Or stop by the information desk when you arrive, tell a staff
member about your fascination with, say, music, and ask for suggestions. If the
person doesn’t know or says, “we don’t have that,” ask if there’s someone else
you can talk to, advised Ms. Jackson-Dumont, because major museums are rife
with specialists. Might you miss some other works by narrowing your focus?
Perhaps. But as Professor Pawelski put it, sometimes you get more for the price
of admission by opting to see less. New York
Initially, nothing in the Barnes grabbed Dr. Haizlip. Then she spotted a beautiful, melancholy woman with red hair like her own. It was Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a prostitute, “AMontrouge” — Rosa La Rouge.
“I was trying to figure out why she had such a severe look on her face,” said Dr. Haizlip. As the minutes passed, Dr. Haizlip found herself mentally writing the woman’s story, imagining that she felt trapped and unhappy — yet determined. Over her shoulder, Toulouse-Lautrec had painted a window. “There’s an escape,” Dr. Haizlip thought. “You just have to turn around and see it.”
“I was actually projecting a lot of me and what was going on in my life at that moment into that painting,” she continued. “It ended up being a moment of self-discovery.” Trained as a pediatric intensive-care specialist, Dr. Haizlip was looking for some kind of change but wasn’t sure what. Three months after her encounter with the painting, she changed her practice, accepting a teaching position at the
University of Virginia’s
, where she is now using positive
psychology in health care teams. “There really was a window behind me that I
don’t know I would have seen,” she said, “had I not started looking at things
differently.” School of Nursing
Professor Pawelski said it’s still a mystery why viewing art in this deliberately contemplative manner can increase well-being or what he calls flourishing. That’s what his research is trying to uncover. He theorized, however, that there is a connection to research on meditation and its beneficial biological effects. In a museum, though, you’re not just focusing on your breath, he said. “You’re focusing on the work of art.”
Previous research, including a study led by Stephen Kaplan at the
, has already
suggested that museums can serve as restorative environments. And Daniel Fujiwara
at the London School of Economics and Political Science has found that visiting
museums can have a positive impact on happiness and self-reported health. University
Ms. Jackson-Dumont, who has also worked at the Seattle Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum of American Art, said travelers should feel empowered to “curate” their own experience. Say, for example, you do not like hearing chatter when you look at art. Ms. Jackson-Dumont suggests making your own soundtrack at home and taking headphones to the museum so that you can stroll the galleries accompanied by music. “I think people feel they have to behave a certain way in a museum,” she said. “You can actually be you.”
To that end, many museums are encouraging visitors to take selfies with the art and post them on social media. (In case you missed it, Jan. 22 was worldwide "MuseumSelfie" day with visitors sharing their best work on Twitter using an eponymous hashtag.) Selfie-takers often pose like the subject of the painting or sculpture behind them. To some visitors that seems crass, distracting or antithetical to contemplation. But surprisingly, Ms. Jackson-Dumont has observed that when museumgoers strike an art-inspired pose, it not only creates camaraderie among onlookers but it gives the selfie-takers a new appreciation for the art. In fact, taking on the pose of a sculpture, for example, is something the Met does with visitors who are blind or partially sighted because “feeling the pose” can allow them to better understand the work.
There will always be certain paintings or monuments that travelers feel they must see, regardless of crowds or lack of time. To winnow the list, Ms. Jackson-Dumont suggests asking yourself: What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a
(or any other city) experience? (Museum tours may also help you be efficient.) New York
The next time you step into a vast treasure trove of art and history, allow yourself to be carried away by your interests and instincts. You never know where they might lead you. Before leaving the Barnes on that March afternoon, Dr. Haizlip had another unexpected moment: She bought a print of the haunting Toulouse-Lautrec woman.
“I felt like she had more to tell me,” she said.
— Spending an idle morning watching people look at art is hardly a
scientific experiment, but it rekindles a perennial question: What exactly are
we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums? As with so many things
right in front of us, the answer may be no less useful for being familiar. PARIS
Stephanie Rosenbloom is The Getaway columnist for the Travel section. Previously, she was a New York Times staff reporter for Style where she wrote about American social trends including fashion, technology and love in a digital age. Prior to that she was the retailing reporter for Business Day, where she wrote about money and happiness and covered companies like Walmart, Saks and Macy’s during the financial crisis of 2008.
She appears regularly in New York Times videos and is a featured writer in “The New York Times, 36 Hours: 150 Weekends in the
USA & Canada” (Taschen, 2011) and “The New York Times
Practical Guide to Practically Everything” ( St. Martin’s
At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: August 2, 2009 / http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/arts/design/03abroad.html
At the Louvre the other day, in the Pavillon des Sessions, two young women in flowered dresses meandered through the gallery. They paused and circled around a few sculptures. They took their time. They looked slowly.
The pavilion puts some 100 immaculate objects from outside
Europe on permanent view
in a ground floor suite of cool, silent galleries at one end of the museum.
Feathered masks from Alaska, ancient bowls
from the ,
Mayan stone portraits and the most amazing Zulu spoon carved from wood in the
abstracted S-shape of a slender young woman take no back seat, aesthetically
speaking, to the great Titians and Chardins upstairs. Philippines
The young women were unusual for stopping. Most of the museum’s visitors passed through the gallery oblivious.
A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them.
Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute. Only a 17th-century wood sculpture of a copulating couple, from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, placed near an exit, caused several tourists to point, smile and snap a photo, but without really breaking stride.
Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement. Partly we seem to go to them to find something we already recognize, something that gives us our bearings: think of the scrum of tourists invariably gathered around the Mona Lisa. At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity. Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better.
Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.
We could dream about covering lots of ground thanks to expanding collections and faster means of transportation. At the same time, the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.
So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
The art historian T. J. Clark, who during the 1970s and ’80s pioneered a kind of analysis that rejected old-school connoisseurship in favor of art in the context of social and political affairs, has lately written a book about devoting several months of his time to looking intently at two paintings by Poussin. Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.
Until then we grapple with our impatience and cultural cornucopia. Recently, I bought a couple of sketchbooks to draw with my 10-year-old in St. Peter’s and elsewhere around Rome, just for the fun of it, not because we’re any good, but to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be. I almost hesitate to mention our sketching. It seems pretentious and old-fogeyish in a cultural moment when we can too easily feel uncomfortable and almost ashamed just to look hard.
Artists fortunately remind us that there’s in fact no single, correct way to look at any work of art, save for with an open mind and patience. If you have ever gone to a museum with a good artist you probably discovered that they don’t worry so much about what art history books or wall labels tell them is right or wrong, because they’re selfish consumers, freed to look by their own interests.
Back to those two young women at the Louvre: aspiring artists or merely curious, they didn’t plant themselves forever in front of the sculptures but they stopped just long enough to laugh and cluck and stare, and they skipped the wall labels until afterward.
They looked, in other words. And they seemed to have a very good time.
Leaving, they caught sight of a sculptured effigy from
with a feathered nose, which appeared, by virtue of its wide eyes and open
hands positioned on either side of its head, as if it were taunting them. Papua New Guinea
They thought for a moment. “Nyah-nyah,” they said in unison. Then blew him a raspberry.