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.

1 comment:

Eleanor said...

This is simply wonderful advice! I wish that I had read this two decades would have allowed me to gain so much more enjoyment from museum visits. It would also have stopped my feelings of guilt at obsessively visiting the gift shops before the actual galleries, hehe.

By the way, I live in Sydney and visited Melbourne a mere two weeks ago.