A museum where paintings speak to you

When museumgoers strike an art-inspired pose, it gives the selfie-takers a new appreciation for the art .

Ah, the Louvre. It’s sublime, it’s historic, it’s ... overwhelming. Upon entering any vast art museum, the typical traveller grabs a map and spends the next two hours darting from one masterpiece to the next, battling crowds, exhaustion and hunger (yet never failing to take selfies with boldface names like Mona Lisa). 

What if we spent time with the painting that draws us in instead of the painting we think we’re supposed to see? 

“When you go to the library,” said James O Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, “you don’t walk along the shelves looking at the spines of the books and on your way out tweet to your friends, ‘I read 100 books today!’” Yet that’s essentially how many people experience a museum. Psychologists such as Pawelski say that if you slow down – finding a piece of art that speaks to you and observing it for minutes rather than seconds – you are more likely to connect with the art, the person with whom you’re touring the galleries, maybe even yourself. 

To demonstrate this, Pawelski takes his students to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, home to some of the most important post impressionist and early modern paintings and asks them to spend at least 20 minutes in front of a single painting that speaks to them in some way. “What happens, of course, is you actually begin to be able to see what you’re looking at,” he said. 

Julie Haizlip wasn’t so sure. Haizlip is a clinical professor at the School of Nursing and the Division of Paediatric Critical Care at the University of Virginia. While studying at Penn she was among the students Pawelski took to the Barnes one afternoon in March. Initially, nothing in the Barnes grabbed her. Then she spotted a beautiful, melancholy woman with red hair like her own. It was Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a prostitute, “A Montrouge” - Rosa La Rouge. 

“I was trying to figure out why she had such a severe look on her face,” said Haizlip. As the minutes passed, Haizlip found herself mentally writing the woman’s story, imagining that she felt trapped and unhappy - yet determined. Over her shoulder, Toulouse-Lautrec had painted a window. 

“There’s an escape,” Haizlip thought. “You just have to turn around and see it.” “I was actually projecting a lot of me and what was going on in my life at that moment into that painting,” she continued. “It ended up being a moment of self-discovery.”
 Trained as a paediatric intensive-care specialist, Haizlip was looking for some kind of change but wasn’t sure what. Three months after her encounter with the painting, she changed her practice, accepting a teaching position at the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing, where she is using positive psychology in health care teams. 

“There really was a window behind me that I don’t know I would have seen,” she said, “had I not started looking at things differently.” Pawelski said it’s still a mystery why viewing art in this deliberately contemplative manner can increase well-being. He theorised, however, that there is a connection to research on meditation and its beneficial biological effects. In a museum, though, you’re not just focusing on your breath, he said. “You’re focusing on the work of art.” 

Previous research, including a study led by Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, has already suggested that museums can serve as restorative environments. And Daniel Fujiwara at the London School of Economics and Political Science has found that visiting museums can have a positive impact on happiness and self-reported health. 

A number of museums offer “slow art” tours or days that encourage visitors to take their time. Rather than check masterworks off a list as if on a scavenger hunt, said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who oversees the education programmes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you can make a sprawling museum digestible and personal by seeking out only those works that dovetail with your interests, be it a love of music or horses. 

To find relevant works or galleries, research the museum’s collection online. Or stop by the information desk when you arrive, tell a staff member about your fascination with, say, music, and ask for suggestions. If the person doesn’t know, ask if there’s someone else you can talk to, she advised, because major museums are rife with specialists.

 Taking selfies

Jackson-Dumont, who has also worked at the Seattle Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum of American Art, said travellers should feel empowered to “curate” their own experience. 

Say, for example, you do not like hearing chatter when you look at art. Jackson-Dumont suggests making your own soundtrack at home and taking headphones to the museum. “I think people feel they have to behave a certain way in a museum,” she said. “You can actually be you.” 

To that end, many museums are encouraging visitors to take selfies with the art and post them on social media. To some visitors that seems crass, distracting or antithetical to contemplation. But surprisingly, Jackson-Dumont has observed that when museumgoers strike an art-inspired pose, it not only creates camaraderie among onlookers but it also gives the selfie-takers a new appreciation for the art. 

In fact, taking on the pose of a sculpture, for example, is something the Met does with visitors who are blind or partially sighted because “feeling the pose” can allow them to better understand the work. 

There will always be certain paintings or monuments that travellers feel they must see. To winnow the list, Jackson-Dumont suggests asking yourself: What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a New York (or any other city) experience? (Museum tours may also help you be efficient.) 

The next time you step into a vast treasure trove of art and history, allow yourself to be carried away by your interests and instincts. You never know where they might lead you. Before leaving the Barnes on that March afternoon, Haizlip had another unexpected moment: She bought a print of the haunting Toulouse-Lautrec woman. “I felt like she had more to tell me,” she said. 

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