How to walk through a museum

Donald Pittenger offers some observations on how to visit or walk through a museum.  Here are my tips:

1. In every room ask yourself which picture you would take home (if you could take just one) and why.  This forces you to keep thinking critically about what you are seeing.  More crudely, you have to keep on paying attention.

2. Almost all museums (MOMA is one exception) hang large numbers of second-rate paintings by first-rate artists.  Try to find them.  Don’t think it is all great, it isn’t.

3. You are probably better trained at shopping than looking at pictures.  Do some basic research on prices and pretend you are shopping for pictures on a budget.  This will improve the quality of your viewing.

4. Go with a variety of people (but not all at once).  It forces you to see the art through their eyes. 

5. If you are visiting a blockbuster exhibit, skip room number one.  There is too much human traffic, as the people have not yet admitted to themselves they don’t care about what is on the wall. 

A key general principle is to stop self-deceiving and admit to yourself that you don’t just love "art for art’s sake."  You also like art for the role it plays in your life, for its signaling value, and for how it complements other things you value, such as relationships and your self-image.  It then becomes possible for you to turn this fact to your advantage, rather than having it work against you.  Keeping up the full pretense means that you must impose a high implicit tax on your museum-going.  This leads you to restrict your number of visits and ultimately to resent the art and find it boring.

Comments are open, in case you have further suggestions for how to visit a museum.


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