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How to make space and time for slow looking

How to make space and time for slow looking

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I’m talking today about making space and time for slow looking.

If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been practising the art of slow looking for a long time now – the last 12+ years. It’s become very much a personal practice and something that I use frequently with groups of all ages to explore a variety of objects, artworks, situations and places.

Slow looking is at the heart of my practice as a museum educator.

However, all too often I hear museum guides and docents talking about how they don’t have time or space in their programmes and guided tours to incorporate any slow looking.

So today, I’m exploring 3 reasons why you need to make the space and time for slow looking and busting some myths about what slow looking is and how it works. 

Then I’m going to suggest 5 ways you can incorporate slow looking into all types of museum and gallery programmes – even the busiest of highlights tours!

Read on to find out:

  • who inspired my love of slow looking when I first got started in 2011
  • myth-busting: about what slow looking is and how it works.
  • how slow looking is the key to engagement
  • 3 main reasons why it’s important to make space and time for slow looking
  • 5 ways you can incorporate slow looking into your guided tours, your educational programmes or your online sessions, even if you think you don’t have the time or the space
  • the key benefits to including slow looking onto your programmes – whatever format they take

If you’re not making space and time for slow looking, then you’re really missing a trick – listen to today’s episode about making the space and time for slow looking and embed it as a fundamental part of all your programmes.


I was using the term slow looking back in 2011 when it was virtually unheard of. I’m not entirely sure where I first heard the term as I was doing lots of reading at the time for my Masters thesis.

The first book I read on the subject was David Perkin’s 1994 book The Intelligent Eye.

He doesn’t use the term slow looking, but he does advocate for giving looking time and has a chapter warning about ‘audience impressionism’ – looking at paintings for only a few seconds, the so-called ‘wall cruisers’ as he calls them.

He does say that a certain amount of ‘impressionism’ is fine – to look at everything at length would be tedious, but unfortunately most viewers do not get around to looking for any longer. He says that if we are striving towards a richer experience with art we need to slow the looking down. 

Then in 2012 I read a book by Peter Clothier called Slow Looking 

Peter Clothier’s book describes and elaborates on his “One Hour/One Painting” sessions, an idea he developed to practice a different, more profound and more rewarding way of looking at art.

He uses a combination of meditation and contemplation and asks his participants to sit for a full hour in front of an artwork. He says; ‘

 ‘Slow Looking and “One Hour/One Painting” are about learning to drop the baggage of prejudice and expectation at the door and taking time to really examine what is actually there.

Peter Clothier

His ideas really struck a chord – even though I don’t work with any meditative and contemplative techniques as such – and his work inspired me to explore how I could create engaging sessions slow looking with artworks and objects too. And it has become an essential part of my practice. 


I firmly believe slow looking is the KEY to engagement.

And that’s precisely why its at the heart of the VTM approach – not only is it one of the 8 practices, it is also one of the foundations of the method (along with shared visual inquiry and personal discovery).

These 3 foundations are the building blocks for engagement.

It’s when you put slow looking, shared visual inquiry and personal discovery together in your programmes that you can create wonderful engaging experiences with art and objects.


I’m going to bust a few myths about slow looking today too.

💥 For example, you can look for as long as you like – Slow Looking doesn’t have to be one hour/one painting. It can also be 1 minute of focused looking and wondering.

💥 And it doesn’t have to include meditation and mindfulness techniques. It can, but it doesn’t have to.

In fact if you look at some of the broader definitions of slow looking – such as how Shari Tishman defines it in her book of the same name from 2017, she defines it as a ‘mode of learning, a means of gaining knowledge through observation

💥 Slow looking can also take place anywhere – you can make it part of your daily life (I talked about cultivating a daily slow looking practice here), it can take place in a classroom. And yes, in a museum too.

💥 Another myth – slow looking doesn’t have to be silent.

In fact, if you take a group of 7 year olds and ask them to do some slow looking with a partner using a thinking routine, it’s not going to be quiet and contemplative, you’re going to hear lots of chatter and excitement as they make their thinking visible and share what they’re noticing.

So, that’s some myths busted. If you want to dive deeper into what slow looking really is, find out in more detail here


Let’s look now at the 3 main reasons (there are many others) why it’s important to make time and space for slow looking.

First it creates focus, secondly it activates participation and lastly it fires up curiosity. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


In my first forays into slow looking in 2011, we had participants as young as six looking intently at objects and art in the museum for 15-20 minutes at a time. They had arrived at the museum as any 6 year olds would – full of energy, excitement and a desire to see it all.

Yet when we started slow looking at the objects, the group had complete focus on what was in front of them. Similarly with adults – we live in an age of distraction and we have forgotten what it’s like to really look at something.

In today’s fast-paced world, people often have more things to focus on , but focus on things for short periods of time.

Slow looking is a wonderful alternative to life in the fast lane and offers a chance to focus for longer.


Studies have shown that if participants are not actively involved in the first 10 minutes of a programme, they start to tune out. People realise that their participation is irrelevant or insignificant.

Slow looking is an inclusive way of encouraging participation right from the start. It offers what I like to call a ‘level playing field’ on which to start a discussion – everyone can take part and no prior knowledge is required.


And curiosity. That magical ingredient that can turn a humdrum discussion into a memorable moment. Looking at something slowly and carefully is a really rewarding process – it’s a case of the more you look, the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes.

Through looking for longer, participants offer interpretations, ask questions and wonder out loud.

We reason together, put forward new ideas, respond to and build on the ideas of others. ⁠⁠The slow looking fires up that curiosity to keep exploring and discovering.


So how can you easily incorporate slow looking into your guided tours, educational programmes and online sessions – even if you don’t think you have the time?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Remember this one rule: Every discussion starts with looking. At the start of every artwork or object discussion you need to allow time for your participants to look first. All too often, I hear museum guides and educators arrive at a stop and then start to talk immediately about what they see, sometimes the educator will start describing the artwork for the group or will start sharing information immediately. Stop. Allow your group to look at what is in front of them. Give some time for looking – 10 seconds, 20 seconds or longer.
  2. It doesn’t have be silent or static: This period of looking doesn’t need to be in silence either – it can be, or you could guide your group through the process, mentioning things that they might want to look out for (ask them to notice the colours, shapes, lines, look at the figures, the foreground, the background etc.) You can guide them to notice things that you want them to focus on especially if it is a large object or artwork. I’ve listed 30 different ways you can approach looking at art slowly in my new guide – I cover 4 different categories starting with static looking, movement, observation by drawing and finally writing.All of these looking activities can be done individually, in pairs, small groups or as one big large group. You don’t have to do it the same way at every stop in your programme. Work in a variety of different ways to encourage looking and be creative.
  3. Build up a description: You then want to build up a description of what you’re looking at. You can use a thinking routine for this (check out free my resource on Thinking Routines for Observation) or use one of Shari Tishman’s 4 strategies to approach it: categories, open inventory, scale and scope, juxtaposition. Describing helps everyone in the group to see all the details in the artwork and as we’ve already mentioned, fires up that curiosity.
  4. Advice for groups who want to jump straight into interpreting: What about groups that are keen to skip this step and jump straight in with interpreting? This is quite often adults who are trained out of the art of observing). First, ask them to take a step back and to say what they ‘see’ not what they ‘think’ at this point. Or suggest that they are looking at a crime scene and need to record all the details for a report. Or say that they are describing it to someone on the phone – how might we describe what we are looking at so that they can imagine if fully? Sometimes I talk about building an inventory of the image. At other times I say why we are observing and describing the image – it helps participants to understand this important first step . So I might mention that observing and describing allows us to move beyond hasty interpretations and judgements. And it also gives us time to see the whole image before we start thinking about interpretation.
  5. Even if you don’t think you have time, you do: And finally, even if you are pushed for time, you can still devote a minute to this. Set a timer and ask everyone to focus fully on the artwork for one minute. They then have to turn away and tell you everything they saw. Or make two teams and see who can write down the most things that they saw. These help to save time, but make the looking focused and fun.


Slow looking has played a pivotal role in the most engaging discussions I’ve had with groups over the last few years.

If you’re not making time and space for slow looking, then you’re missing a trick. It’s a wonderful way to create focus, activate participation and fire up curiosity.

There are so many benefits to including slow looking into your programmes:

  • You’ll help your participants to notice more and you’ll notice more too. You’ll see details that you’ve never even seen before. You’ll be helping everyone to improve their observation skills and their ability to pay attention to details.
  • Slow looking also helps us to improve our ability to describe things and use descriptive language.
  • Slow looking has many educational benefits too – helping to understand complexity, build connections and see things from multiple perspectives.
  • There is also the wellbeing benefit – slow looking is good for you and your participants. Taking a moment to pause on your programmes, to gather your thoughts, refresh your brain and to restore your energy levels. For everyone there will be a lowering of stress levels too.
  • Finally, everyone can take part. It’s inclusive and participatory. You don’t need to know anything about what you’re looking at to do this. And you’re encouraging all of your participants to do this in their own time – having the confidence to visit a museum and understand an artwork or object for themselves. What’s not to like?

I hope I’ve convinced you to make the space and time for slow looking and to make it a fundamental part of all your programmes. What steps are you going to take to make space and time for slow looking?


If you want to get more slow looking into your life and make it a regular practice, join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have weekly themes and monthly get togethers. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly whether for personal enjoyment or for your practice as a cultural or museum educator.

How to look at art slowly

Sign up with your email address to receive my new 17-page guide sharing 30+ different ways that you can look at art or objects in museums. 

It can be used by anyone looking for new ways to engage with what they’re seeing – whether you’re visiting a museum alone or with others.