Saturday, February 28, 2009

What should I look At?

Camille Pissarro,
Boulevard Montmartre, morning,
cloudy weather, 1897
oil on canvas, 73.0 x 92.0 cm,
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

I am often asked, “What should I look at?” You are going to a museum you have never been to and do not know where to start, what to do?

What do I do?

Given the best of all worlds, before visiting a museum, I go to the museum’s Web site and review their collections. Then, I make my choices and take notes. I also go over the current exhibitions and write down what is of interest to me. My notation may be a painting I want to see or a particular collection.

Whether I have done previewing or not, when I arrive at the museum, I go to the gift or book shop and take a look at the postcards and museum guide or catalogue. This gives me an idea of the works considered important or the ones the museum is particular proud of. Often I buy postcards of the things I like to compare to the actual object when viewing. I also use the postcards to record my observations and comments.

Many museums have introductory tours but I tend to stay away from them. I’d rather have the chance encounter with works of art by walking about the galleries on my own, often in a random way. I do pick up a gallery map at the information counter and inquire about locations and special exhibitions. I begin with the things I have noted and spend time looking.

I like to read labels to learn about dating and any other information they may impart. I am interested in when the museum acquired the work because I like to know about collection patterns. Sometimes label annotations refer to another painting in the collection and it is fun to go and see the actual work mentioned.

When viewing a specific work, I look at how it connects to the other work in the gallery. I think about the subject –such as portraits next to one another – or the composition – such as the positions of the main components – or the colors – such as relating a primary color used in one painting to colors in the painting adjacent to it. I ask myself if the work I am looking at “talks” to another in the room. By “talks” I mean link in a meaningful way so that the works are enhanced by the juxtaposition. I think about how the paintings relate to the gallery’s wall color or treatment. I look at the gallery’s space. Is it big or small? Are the ceilings high or low? I ask myself if the physical environment affects the works either to the good or bad.

For me, visiting a new museum is an exciting endeavor. You never really know what to expect and there are always discoveries to be made. It is like taking a trip to a new country - you may be familiar with it from your research but you never really know what it will be like until you are there. I urge you to go on an adventure and visit, what is for you, an unfamiliar museum.