Look With New Eyes? Museums Through the Backdoor?
What does it mean to look with new eyes at museums or to visit museums via the backdoor?
by Susan Marie Ward
Historically, museums are praised and visited because of their art and the number of visitors they get. When visitors arrive, many of them follow the crowd or the prescribed route, looking at the well-known artifacts. I advocate a new perspective - new ways to view, enjoy, and engage with museums.
Know that a museum visit will enhance your wellbeing
A museum visit can reduce stress, spark a sense of awe, inspire curiosity, create new learning, and may even lower our blood pressure. The act of spending time in a museum and of admiring art are known to boost our wellbeing. In fact, doctors in Canada, Belgium, and England give prescriptions for patients to visit museums as part of improving their mental health. So, visit museums knowing that you're not just admiring artifacts, but you're walking out healthier!
Find new ways to interact with the art and artifacts
If you usually wander on your own at a museum, gathering information through labels, take a guided tour and gain a new perspective. For those who like to walk quickly and see as much as possible, spend time doing some slow looking at one or two objects. If you consider yourself not-artistic, take a notebook and pencil and find one object to doodle. Blockbuster exhibits can pull us into the museum; instead, visit when your focus is on the permanent the collection. Admiring art as a visitor is one way to appreciate art, another is to take a class at the museum as a new creative endeavor.
"I had looked at that painting over and over. I never noticed the pattern on the frame until I tried slow looking." – Visitor to a South Carolina museum
Look for the unexpected
Museum visitors often look at museum objects from a fairly standard perspective, focusing on the center or most important part. Change it up! Climb the stairs and look out the hard-to-notice window of an early 19th century Shaker building. Focus on the frame of an Impressionist painting. Notice the grain of wood in a chair made by William Morris. Look at the unusual hinges on the doors of a 19th century historic house museum. Count the shades of purple in the kitchen garden of an 18th century governor's mansion. Stand tall and look down on the top of the teapot in a history of tea exhibit. When we shift our focus to the intriguing and the unusual, we create in ourselves a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Discover the lesser known aspects of each museum
Some museums may have quiet rooms, places where families or those with sensory issues can decompress. A historic house museum might have a behind-the-scenes tour. There might be a fun children's audio tour to listen to. Find out if the museum has a research library that you can use. Ask if there's an object that most people miss but is worth taking a look at. Visit the open storage areas that some museums have.
Visit out-of-the ordinary museums
The biggest and best-known museums tend to get our attention. Try some of the other museums. Small, local history museums and historical societies often provide stories that no other museum tells. Special interest museums often have intriguing information about niche topics: Great Lakes shipping, a local chocolate company, regional glassmaking, the history of educating people with limited vision, or water in the desert. When planning your museum visits, look beyond the big names!
Expect a positive visitor experience
Museum tend to focus on collection and preservation of their artifacts, and education. Some do a decent job at also creating a solid visitor experience. A few do an excellent job at superior hospitality, sufficient seating, engaging narratives, and helpful wayfinding. More museums should be better at providing an excellent visitor experience. Look for and return to those museums that prioritize the visitor experience!
Museum depend on us, the visitors. Speak up and share your experience with the museum. Go to their website or their Facebook or Twitter page and share what you appreciated about your visit, or what irked you. They need our visits and our money. Our voices are what help them be the best they can be!
How will you look with new eyes at museums? What will you try differently when you visit your next museum?