Typically when I visit a large museum, I feel an urgent need to rush in order to see all the works on view. This practice has often left me with a case of “museum fatigue,” where I leave feeling more depleted than inspired.
And so I’ve taken the period of extended self-isolation during the pandemic as a way to re-examine my habit of rushing—through life in general and at museums. The following are suggestions I gleaned for how to view visits to a museum or art gallery through a more meditative lens.
1. Read Up Before Your Visit
Chuck McCorkle is a docent with the National Gallery of Art who also works with the Shalem Institute’s Assisi Pilgrimage and Visio Divina program. He suggests, when possible, reading in advance about the exhibit you intend to view. “Then you will have sufficient context to relax when you enter the exhibition, and you can focus more on the art and less on the wall text.”
2. Switch to Slow Looking
McCorkle is a facilitator for a National Gallery virtual program called The Art of Looking, which focuses on a single work of art for the entire hour. At a time when people are feeling disconnected and isolated, this program offers a way to connect through close looking and conversation. “Participants routinely note at the end of the experience that others’ observations helped expand their own view of the work. They also comment on how relaxing it is to suspend the day’s obligations to spend some time focused on beauty.”
[Read: “The Lyric Mind: Stephen Sondheim and Steven Pinker at the Rubin Museum of Art.”]
The Portland Art Museum
introduced the idea of slow looking into their tour experiences over a decade ago, notes PAM’s director of Learning & Community Partnerships, Stephanie Parrish. “We began to emphasize slowing down, conversation with visitors, listening, and deeper looking over more traditional tour formats that perhaps looked at dozens of objects in a short period of time.” And with the pandemic, they moved their in-person meditation tours online. According to Edie Millar, who leads PAM’s monthly virtual Slow Looking tours, these provide visitors from around the world the chance to slow down and experience art. PAM also participates in Slow Art Day, an annual event with participating museums/galleries all over the world.
3. Shorter Visits, Longer Looks
When possible, Parrish and Millar encourage visitors to minimize their time at a museum, looking at only two to four works of art. They recommend spending at least 15 minutes with a single work that draws you in. “Don’t worry about knowing all there is to know,” Parish advises. “In the moment, just be curious and look, wonder, ask questions about what you are noticing.”
McCorkle stresses the need to honor the amount of time you can spend in a museum before your eyes get tired.
“If you see something that really grabs you, spend some time with it. Then perhaps go someplace more quiet and meditate on that a little bit. Then return to see if there’s anything new that the work has to offer.”
If you’ll be near a museum for an extended period of time, consider purchasing a membership that will allow you to enter the museum on multiple days. Another option is to ask about the museum’s reentry policy. This will allow you to take a lunch break or go for a walk, and then return to view the artwork refreshed and renewed.
4. Avoid Group Outings
While events such as local art walks that involve multiple galleries do afford ample opportunities for socializing, immersing yourself in the art can be tricky when surrounded by a party-going crowd. For Pamela Sue Johnson, mixed-media artist and creative provocateur, a visit to an art gallery or museum can be a more meaningful meditative experience if she goes alone or with just one or two friends. “We talk beforehand about giving each other space to tour the gallery at our own pace.”
5. Bring a Journal or Sketch Pad
Johnson brings a journal and pen with her when she goes to a museum or art gallery so she can pause and write down short thoughts evoked by what she’s viewing. “If there are places to sit, I do so and fix my gaze on one exhibit at a time. I pay attention to how a work of art makes me feel or what it makes me think about, and I write it down.” She also recommends moving slowly to read the placards for the exhibits in order to learn more.
[Read: “Art Journaling for Relaxation and Release.”]
Along those lines, be sure to check a museum’s resources to see what tools they may have for connecting with their collection on a deeper level. For example, Write Around Portland and PAM create weekly, art-inspired writing prompts, which they share on social media and the museum’s blog.
6. Reflecting Post Visit
If you visit an exhibit by yourself, you might want to sit alone with your thoughts and journal in a quiet coffee house or park. Allow the visit to soak in before having to reenter everyday life. If you go with a friend, spend some time asking each other what you took away from the visit, which pieces spoke to you on a spiritual level, and why.
McCorkle of the National Gallery emphasizes the importance of easing back into your busy world. “Giving yourself adequate time is the most important component in allowing a work of art to truly speak to your heart.”
After you return home, museum experts also suggest looking up artists whose work inspired you. If they’re a living artist, see if you can find a print interview or video to hear them speak about their work.
Want more on museum meditation? Discover how one woman finally succeeds at meditating thanks to an evening at the Rubin Museum of Art.