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Learning to Look: Slow Looking

Teaching Looking

3 Hours One Painting

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, asks her students to select a painting from a museum and then go and study it. For three hours. Noting down their observations as well any questions they might have along the way.

How can there possibly be 3 hours worth of details to notice in a single painting?

To explain the reason for the exercise, Roberts gave an example from her own experience – studying the painting A Boy With a Flying Squirrel at length. Roberts noted that it was 9 minutes before she noticed that the shape of the white ruff on the squirrel matches the shape of the boy’s ear.

9 minutes is a long time to be looking at a painting. What this exercise shows is that ‘just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it’. She says her students repeatedly tell her that they have been astonished by what they have been able to see. So, it really is a case of the more you look, the more you see.

However, we know from research (see here for where) that the average time spent on viewing artworks is generally short. The amount of artworks in an exhibition room has an effect on viewing time and that viewing time commonly decreases over the course of the exhibition. So, how can we as guides and educators help people to look longer?

Bringing Together People and Objects (not People and Information about Objects)

Way back in the 1980s Patterson Williams wrote that:

 ‘The primary aim of museum education must be to bring together people and objects not people and information about objects.’

She went on to say that programmes that deal essentially in information are peripheral to the essential experience of the visitor, that of seeing, reacting to, and thinking about an object. 

I agree. I feel that we place so much emphasis on the delivery of content, information or knowledge that we forget that we are also helping to develop skills: observing and describing, comparing and contrasting, identifying and classifying and so on. And for me, one of the most important of these skills on a guided tour is OBSERVATION.

Teaching people to look and that looking is an important part of the experience has been one of my goals since I started Thinking Museum in 2013.

On guided tours, looking is central to the experience. But good observation doesn’t always happen and we certainly don’t prioritise it over the delivery of information. However, I believe it is worth taking the time to notice all the details and to help the participants on our tours to see better. It’s worth slowing down and taking the time to use our eyes more carefully.

As guides, educators and docents, we want participants on our guided tours and programmes to look closely at objects, artworks or buildings. If we give people time to look carefully and slowly, we will all discover a lot more and your participants will leave with newly revived observational skills. We need to set expectations with our participants that we are not going to try and ‘see it all’ and that less really is more.

Teaching Looking

Patterson Williams goes on to say that we also need to teach basic facts about looking, such as:

  1. It takes a long time to see an (art) object.
  2. You can lengthen the amount of time you spend looking at an art object by changing  focus.
  3. Focus requires eliminating information for the sake for getting information.
  4. You can focus on subject matter, colour, shape, line, brush strokes, shading, as well as the arrangement and details of these elements.
  5. Testing your visual memory can help you to evaluate your visual perception.
  6. No two people see exactly the same thing. There is always a subjective element in visual perception.
  7. The possible reasons for individual differences in visual perception lie in physical, emotional and experiential differences in people.
  8. With practice, a person can learn to perceive more accurately and thoroughly.

Looking is the starting point for object-oriented and participant-centred learning. It is an important step and should not be skipped (even with adults, who sometimes feel this part is unnecessary). And it doesn’t need to be long either – even though I use the term ‘slow-looking, it doesn’t mean that I’m always advocating for 3 hours with one painting. I’m always asked the question ‘how long do I need to look for?’ and there are no hard and fast rules for this. It can be anything from 5 to 10 to 15 minutes. But at the same time, you can still encourage good observation with 2 minutes and a stopwatch if time is short but you still want to include observation.

Benefits of Slow-Looking with Groups

  • Slow-looking combined with group discussions results in richer connections and increased engagement.
  • By taking the time to look slowly, we can avoid hasty interpretations and hurried conclusions.
  • Slow-looking allows you to see the ‘whole picture’ and to notice parts they would ordinarily have missed
  • It also encourages people to use descriptive language, which helps to develop language skills.
  • It is also a great way of involving the whole group – you work together to build on one another’s observations.
  • everyone can take part and no prior knowledge is required
  • These discussions should leave participants curious and eager to return and equipped with better observation skills.

Teaching people slow-looking is a skill that once taught is rarely forgotten. It can be used on return visits to the museum or gallery and can also transfer to so many other useful contexts. Aside from that, rediscovering the ability to really look at things, is a wonderful alternative to life in the fast lane.

Happy slow looking!