Much has been written about the power of different forms of visual expression – art works, objects, artefacts – to inspire, provoke curiosity and interest. It is generally accepted that looking at objects stimulates critical thinking through comparing and contrasting, identifying and classifying, describing and summarising and son on. Indeed, museums are using objects and art increasingly to help individuals learn what Philip Yenawine, museum educator and VTS founder, calls ‘viewing-skills’. This often happens quite naturally, although all too often the process is unstructured and messy.
Looking is central to the museum experience as visitors are presented with an array of objects all requesting their understanding or approximation thereof. However, good observation does not always take place. How long does the average visitor spend looking at an object or art work? When I ask this question in our training workshops, the answers generally vary from 5 – 30 seconds and most people agree that the natural tendency is to have a quick look, make a quick interpretation or judgement, look at the wall text or object information and move on.
However, in order to truly understand an object or art work, time needs to be spent quietly observing and thinking. Some objects do not inspire an immediate sense of connection until they have been properly and thoroughly observed. Shari Tishman explains that looking at something slowly and carefully is essentially a rewarding process:
‘The more you look, the more you see; the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes’.
In ‘The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Look at Art’, David Perkins states that looking at works of art or objects requires firstly long and thoughtful looking to understand its truth and beauty. Secondly, thoughtful looking at art or objects helps to develop better thinking. Perkins goes on to suggest that art provides a natural context especially well-suited to developing thinking skills:
‘Looking at art invites, rewards and encourages a thoughtful disposition, because works of art demand thoughtful attention to discover what they have to show and say.’
I am not alone in thinking that we need to slow down in the museum. Peter Clothier runs one hour/one painting sessions and has written a book on the subject. James Elkins has written about how long it takes to look at a Mondriaan. And Phil Terry started Slow Art Day after spending hours at The Jewish Museum viewing only Hans Hoffman’s Fantasia and Pollock’sConvergence. Now in it’s 4th year, there are now 147 venues (and counting) taking part around the world. This year I decided to volunteer with Slow Art Day and work to encourage more Dutch museums to sign up. This is Slow Art Day in a nutshell:
‘One day each year – April 12 in 2014 – people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience. That’s it. Simple by design, the goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.’
Time is very important in the museum environment. By slowing down and viewing fewer objects in a more controlled and careful way, less really is more. The slow exploration of objects allows visitors to become absorbed, to scrutinise and investigate and to find out and construct meaning.
If you would like more information about or are interested in signing up for Slow Art Day, please contact me by email.