The best way to experience a museum exhibit

Lots of people at the Smart Museum of Art

A new museum exhibition is up. You trot on down to the museum to check out the show. When walking through the exhibition, do you walk slowly observing the photos and artwork? Maybe read a couple captions. And then by the time you are done, you are so exhausted, the thought of going through the show a second time sounds like torture. Gimme dinner instead!

Almost 99% of people I observe do the slow march through a new show. Why? Your mind turns to mush at the end.

First loop

Next time try a different method. Walk through the show really fast. Do not stop. Walk fast, look around. Definitely walk a faster pace than others. Get the overall feel for the show and the length. Keep in mind you will be walking through the exhibit a second time more slowly. But this first walk is meant to be fast. Really fast.

Knowing the length of an exhibit will make you feel much more comfortable. Just like before you read a book, you know how long the book is. You know what to expect. If you walk a really fast circuit around a new show, you’ll feel in control. You can handle this. You can digest this.

You can start to think.

Second loop

Then your second walk around, take your time. Savor the artwork. Read some captions. Understand how the art you are observing fits within the context of the entire show. Feel free to walk the same pace as other people looking at the show. Only now you have an advantage. You already know the show.

Third loop

Once you are done with your second walk around, now is the time to go back and really dig deep into the artworks you enjoyed. Stand. Take in an artwork for two minutes. Two minutes. I dare you. Those are the pieces you’ll remember. Take photos of the art. One from far back. One of the caption. And many close-ups. The close-ups make the artwork tangible. When you look back at your photos, you’ll appreciate these close-up shots. The standard shots, yeah, those are ok. But when looking through your old photos, you’ll only glance at them. But those close-ups. You’ll digest those more thoroughly. And don’t forget to photograph the caption. Chances are you’ll want to remember the title and artist, maybe the year.


This year I would like to do a better job of writing about my experiences at museum exhibitions. And to include photographs of what I liked. Perhaps I’ll use my blog as a vehicle for that. I would have loved to have a journal about my experiences with the Calder show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Or the Jasper Johns Gray show at the Art Institute of Chicago.


And then if you want to take this up a notch, you can start creating artworks to leave in the show on your next trip (check out my flickr set, “Left in museums“). No longer just the observer, you are now a participant.

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