Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How museum-going has changed

Why do I keep old newspapers and printouts around for so long that OSHA wants to declare my cubicle a disaster area? Because sometimes I refind something that sparked an interest and didn't gel for a while. Here's an NYT piece based on a writer's morning at the Louvre and some reflection on how people experience museums these days. The headline says much: "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus." He goes way back, noting that before cameras people used to sketch to preserve their trips and experiences, and therefore went through museums more slowly. These days it's more like an effort to get an entire art appreciation course into a couple of hours, and most people zip right through, perhaps pausing a little longer at certain recognized masterpieces, but basically wanting to see as many things as possible in the time allotted instead of looking at anything intensely. After all, you can always buy a postcard in the museum shop if you want to study something. There's probably something to the observation, based on my recent experiences in museums.

It reminds me of an experience many years ago -- in 1967 -- the first summer I spent in Washington, DC. One day I spent quite a bit of time in the big art museum on the mall. As I passed him, one of the uniformed guards said to me "You never took an art appreciation class, did you?" He was right, I hadn't. He explained to me that to maintain interest in the job (he was retired army and had spent some time as an ROTC instructor at UCLA) he looked at the patterns people dispayed in looking at the pictures. He said that certain pictures were generally featured in art appreciation classes, and those who had taken them would spend time on those paintings, sometimes obviously looking at something in the corner or checking for little-seen patterns as they had been taught. He claimed he could tell from the way people looked at paintings and the features of certain paintings they focused on, whether they had taken art apprciation at Vassar, Yale, Harvard, or several other schools. And he could tell by the somewhat random things that caught my attention and made me stop a while, that I hadn't taken a formal class.

The experience struck me as an example of how an active mind could find interest and some semblance of meaning in even the most mundane and boring activities -- I suspect for most of them being a museum guard is supremely boring. But there's something to observe, something to learn, something to discover, wherever you are in life or wherever you look. You just have to be alert to it.

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