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Julia’s Rules for Art Museums

Don’t have a specific something in mind to see. 

I know this may be difficult, especially if you’re the kind of person (like me) who likes to look up what a museum has before going. But if you have a single piece of art that you’re looking for, the universe will somehow get a hold of this information, and you will never find it. You will spend hours wandering the maze, skipping over things you’d otherwise pay at least a little mind to, growing frustrated and feeling like the whole world is against you on this one, like they designed this place specifically to prevent you from being where you need to be. 

Wear your backpack on your front

Standard fare, just be ready so you don’t get called out. You always want to be aware of your surroundings, and having a large object on your back turns you into a clumsy, clunky, walking security hazard. It can feel a little dumb to walk around museums with a backpack on your front though, so most places are also fine if you keep it by your side. 

Pay attention to the sound of your feet on the ground

It may seem like you are the loudest, most intrusive, most annoying person in existence each time your heavy boots clop upon the hardwood floor of a gallery space, especially when others are standing silent in front of other works. As you walk through, each step memorialized and announced by the creaks and the stomps, it may feel like a performance of going slow enough to let everyone in the room know that you are appreciating each work of art enough, that you are not skipping over any important works, that you understand the full psychological depth of each piece and why they were arranged as such. 

Don’t read every plaque

Museum plaque writing is a difficult discipline that people spend years studying for, to encapsulate the themes and history of a work, its place within the museum and the world, and what you, the viewer, are supposed to get from it, all in a few sentences. The best plaques can lead you to wonderful revelations about the purpose and impact of art, but no revelation can top the one you reach on your own. When you enter a room, go towards what you naturally gravitate towards, and see what you can make of it before reading the plaque. You might have an interpretation different than that of the curator, and it may take a couple seconds to reach that, an opportunity you would not have afforded yourself if you went straight to the experts to tell you what to think. And if your interpretation differs, if it doesn’t make sense within the context of the art’s creation or the artist’s knowledge, then congratulations. You just made art yourself. You expanded upon what was originally possible, and brought the whole of your experience to the whole of the artist’s. These are the moments I find the most inspiring, as it proves everyone has the intellectual capacity to create art. 

Play games

When I went to the Met last December, I played a game with my sister where we tried to identify where an artist was from based only on the painting, not looking at the wall plaque. I’ve studied art history for two years now, so I like to think that I’ve gotten a good handle on what identifies different cultures and how that translates into how the artist views and then depicts certain subject matters and symbols. For example, Italian depictions of biblical scenes are intense and dramatic, sometimes with literal lightning striking down from the heavens, while Northern European depictions of those same scenes are more calm and domestic. European artists in Southern countries tend to be obsessed with warm, yellow light, and Americans lean more towards blues. None of these rules are all-encompassing, but it makes a fun game of seeing what you can identify and what it means. If you want it to be a little less intellectual, you can always play the ‘pose-in-front-of-funny-looking-portraits’ game. 

Skip whatever you want

I always feel like a bad art history student each time I skip entire rooms, galleries, and floors simply because I’m not interested in them, but when I’m visiting for the fun of it, I shouldn’t feel like I’m doing homework. I personally could not care less about anything created before 1800. I’m sorry! I do not care. I’d much rather spend more time in the modern galleries than split time between those and trying to find something to care about in antiquity sculptures. Everyone has their own tastes, and I’m well aware that there are people who could spend hours in the ancient Greece wing at the expense of the modern America wing, and that’s why we work so well, and will likely never cross paths.

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