Art Appreciation 101 · Museums

Why See Art in Museums?

With the many (mostly free) virtual art-viewing opportunities that have appeared since 2020, it’s easier than ever to see artworks without ever leaving home. You may wonder if there’s still any need to actually go to museums and see art in person. In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes, since no app or video yet developed has managed to truly replicate the unique experience of being inside a museum. I can think of at least four major advantages of visiting museums in person, and I’ve outlined them below, along with some suggestions for how to get the most out of each one.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely not against virtual art appreciation. Apps, videos, and high-res online photos have made art more accessible than ever before, especially for people who don’t get the opportunity to visit museums frequently. These virtual media even have their own advantages, like giving you the ability to take your time, zoom in closely, and easily access tons of information about what you’re seeing. My aim is not to discourage anyone from utilizing these sources; I simply want you to understand why a real-life museum visit is still an experience worth having and what you’ll miss out on if you do all your art viewing from afar.

The advantages of seeing art in person

Inside the Musee d'Orsay
Photo by Pixabay via Pexels.

Although you may not always realize it when scrolling through art pics on Instagram, seeing art in photos is not at all the same as seeing it in person. It’s like the difference between video chatting with a friend and sitting across the table from them in real life. Both are great, but if you could choose, wouldn’t you prefer to see your friend in person?

I know I’m not the only viewer who has stronger, more compelling, and longer-lasting reactions to artworks when I’m in the same physical space as them. For me, they just feel so much more immediate and real than they do in photos. Maybe you’re familiar with this feeling, too. Nobody is totally clear on why this is. Some commentators argue that great artworks have some kind of auras which can only be experienced in person, while others think that idea is preposterous and even snobby. In my opinion, it has something to do with the overall experience surrounding in-person art viewing. (More on this as we go along.) I also think that we’ve become rather numb to digital images, but seeing physical artworks is less routine and thus more memorable. There are also some aspects of art objects, especially physical attributes like size and texture, that don’t come across well in photographs but make big impressions in person.

Take advantage of the opportunity to meet artworks in the flesh, so to speak. Look closely at their surfaces. Walk around and view them from multiple angles and distances if possible. Pay attention to how an artwork’s size impacts you. Try to connect with the human presence of people in artworks, a quality that I find to be enhanced in person. It’s fun to imagine what it might be like to talk with these people or what they might say to each other. After all, building empathy is a proven benefit of art appreciation. I also like to imagine all the other people who have stood in front of the same artwork before me.

Spend as much time with each piece as you want, but I don’t recommend wasting your limited museum time doing complex analyses. Overthinking dampens the museum experience every time, so stay in the moment and absorb all the museum has to offer. You can always take a photo (if allowed) or record the necessary information to find the artwork online and analyze to your heart’s content later on. You may even find your observations and interpretations become richer when you’ve let them simmer in your mind for a while.

It’s a fun adventure

Woman Looking at Ancient Statue in Museum
Photo by Fer Martinez Gonzalez via Pexels.

Visiting an art museum or gallery is an immersive experience. It’s almost always an adventure, and it can be a lovely change of pace from your usual routine. Even if the trip only lasts a few hours, it’s almost like going on vacation. The very fact of being in a place dedicated to art and beauty puts you in a different frame of mind, as does surrounding yourself with other people who are also there to look at art.

So, shut off your phone or at least put it away and try not to look at it. Maximize this chance to immerse yourself in the museum atmosphere and take a break from your daily concerns. Bring a friend and share the adventure with them. Take a tour. Notice what other people are enjoying and see if you can figure out why they like it so much. If you’re feeling brave, see if you can strike up a conversation with someone else who is looking at the same artwork you are.

Discover new things

One of my favorite parts of visiting museums is browsing – wandering around and discovering new things I didn’t know I liked. Sometimes this involves exploring a whole section of the museum I wouldn’t usually prioritize; other times, it’s as simple as happening upon a display that encourages me to look more closely at an artwork I would normally glance over. I might even notice previously-overlooked details within favorite artworks. (I’m a big fan of searching for hidden animals.)

No matter how knowledgeable you are, give the museum a chance to surprise you and show you something new. Spend some time with artworks that aren’t your typical choices or try to look at old favorites with fresh eyes. While you should definitely save time for the art you already enjoy and look forward to, don’t assume you know exactly what you will and won’t enjoy. The most memorable parts of your visit may come in the most unexpected places. And since museums change up their displays all the time, from subtle tweaks to complete re-installations, a repeat visit will not necessarily result in a duplicate experience. You could even come back to the exact same galleries the very next day and notice or enjoy completely different things because you have a different mood and frame of mind.

marble sculpture busts
Photo by Pixabay via Pexels.

Find some context

Museums let you see a whole bunch of artworks at once, which means that you get to see objects in the context of other objects, both similar and diverse. This adds all kinds of new dimensions to your experience. Some context is very intentional on the part of the curators, who design exhibition spaces to highlight specific ideas, teach key concepts, and tell relevant stories. From the selection of artworks and physical displays to the words on the wall texts, every choice impacts your experience and understanding. You can learn to better understand and evaluate these choices in Be the Critic: How to Evaluate Museum Exhibitions.

Context also happens on a broader and more personal level as you observe subtle connections in the works you see across the museum as a whole. You may discover parallels between works from different centuries, notice how recurring themes appear around the world, or simply see an image and realize that it reminds you of another one in a completely different part of the museum.

Pay attention to trends in what you like and don’t like across all the whole of the museum. Not only does this help you stay engaged, but it also helps you discover your artistic taste. Exploring your artistic taste will be the subject of a future blog post and/or video, but for now, I’ll leave you with a short activity that I’ve recommended before. Start with an artwork that really appeals to you and take some time to consider what you like about it. Then, find other artworks that share these characteristics and see if you have the same reaction to them. Think about why or why not. (I challenge you to look all over the museum, not just within nearby artworks.) Do this for a while, and your understanding of what you react to most strongly will become more and more sophisticated. You can also do the same exact thing with artworks you don’t enjoy and see if thinking about them like this changes your reactions in any way.

Prepare for your next art museum visit

I think we’ve established by now that art museum visits can be wonderful adventures and rich experiences. However, they might also be a little intimidating if you’re not used to them. If you want some extra help, consider enrolling in The Art Museum Adventure Guide, an online course filled with expert advice about having a great museum experience. Topics include planning your visit, museum etiquette, avoiding museum fatigue, tips for enjoying art, and more.

Want to enjoy art more? Take an online course.

Leave a Reply