The Slow Museum Movement
[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog September 15, 2018.]
The Slow Museum Movement. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Images of peaceful and serene spaces and calm experiences abound at the mention of it. I'm not sure this movement actually exists in museums as a whole yet, but there is certainly a trend in art museums (see for example, the Slow Art Day project). Dubbed the Slow Art Movement which follows other Slow trends such as slow food, slow space, slow exercise, slow professor (Berg & Seeber, 2017), and more, the idea is to focus on experience and observation and to enjoy the moment rather than racing on to do and see everything (Honoré, 2004),.
When I was growing up, I used to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts regularly. It became a comfortable place to go, a familiar place. And it was quiet and peaceful. I looked forward to my regular, quiet and personally meaningful visits. Ironically, it is that very peace that has somehow been taken for elitism in art museums (see a recent Washington Post article on this, Kennicot, 2018). For nearly two decades now, museums have become more and more frenetic, with blockbusters and masses of people coming to check a particular famous artwork off their list or to get a selfie with a well-known iconic object. In other words, museums have succumbed to the “mall” syndrome so famously described by Gopnik (2007) nearly 10 years ago.
I miss the peaceful museum. I am saddened that these potentially contemplative and transformative spaces are becoming a circus—loud, busy, and impersonal. Case in point, I finally saw the Mona Lisa this summer. I know, it's crazy that a museum scholar (who works overseas a lot) has not yet witnessed this work of art. I've even facilitated an exhibition around her (see MLX4). But the first time I went to the Louvre, many many years ago, the gallery to the Mona Lisa was closed, so I was not able to see it. This year while I was in Paris, I put it on my "checklist," but interestingly enough, I was not excited to see it. I knew well about the crowds, about the impossibility of actually getting anywhere near the painting. But I wanted to experience it, crowds and all. And I had another goal. To turn around and look at what the Mona Lisa was looking at. Latour and Lowe (2010) wrote a fabulous article (you should read it!) about Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” and the relationship between originals and copies. In it, they focused on Veronese’s La Nozze di Cana, a HUGE painting taken from a Venetian monastery and installed in the Louvre. Recently, a full-scale digital replica was made and installed in the painting’s original location in Venice. It is the original painting—that was removed from its home many years ago—that the Mona Lisa looks at day after day. And it is this painting, that few pay attention to when they visit the far more famous painting across the room.
My adventure began by trying to find the Mona Lisa in the massive labyrinths of the Louvre (not very good wayfinding there, phew!). When I finally stepped into the stream that was clearly the "way to La Jaconde," I smiled the whole way. The increase in crowds made me laugh out loud; it was so extreme that it was funny. And of course, I got there, and couldn't get anywhere near her. The crowd was thick, the glow of the phones bright. But that didn't matter to me. I took pictures of people taking pictures of her. I wondered, was anyone actually looking at her? Could anyone be having a calming, transformative experience with her? I don’t think so. Maybe the awakened Buddhist monk could have focused on her, but it was a madhouse and for me, there was no way to have a peaceful experience. I purposefully spent time facing the Mona Lisa, before I turned around, giving my full attention to La Nozze di Cana. It took my breath away. The space in front of it was nearly empty. I imagined the tale of the copy told by Latour and Lowe and tried to visualize that giant painting in its original home in Venice, with its tall ceilings and natural light (as opposed to the hideous drop ceilings and canned lighting in the Louvre gallery). I tuned out the crowds and imagined standing in the monastery, feeling the grandness of this huge painting. Even though the crowd was still on the other side, it felt quieter when I was looking at La Nozze. Overall, it was a much nicer experience than the one with the Mona Lisa. [I even sent the MuseLab a postcard from the Louvre with this painting as a focus.]
I tell this story as a reminder that looking, observing, and just sitting are ok things to do, especially in museums. We have become so accustomed to busy-ness that we seem to forget that we need quiet-ness as well. Thankfully, some museums understand this need. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, for example, offers a series of workshops, focused on slowing down—using the senses, silence, poetry, and looking at one single object. And, for many years, museum educator, Annie Storr has been developing her technique for attentive looking in (mostly) art museums, called Exercises for the Quiet Eye where slow looking is often paramount. Art museums are on to something and all kinds of museums would benefit from trying out some slow practices and offerings. Outside of art museums, the examples are thinner but still quite good. For example, the Manchester Museum in the UK, a university natural and cultural history museum, has been offering quiet morning hours for several years now. Initially developed for families with autistic children, the have now launched the Museum of Calm for visitors for find the noisy and busy conditions in the Museum not conducive to engagement.
There is value to slowing down, and the museum can be a particularly good site for such activity. In fact, the issue gives us pause, an opportunity to consider what we expect from a museum experience. Think of a time when you visited a museum that left you feeling rejuvenated, calm, peaceful, and gratified. What was that visit like? Who were you with? What was happening around you? What facilitated your positive experience?
Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2017). Slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.
Gopnik, A. (December 01, 2007). The Mindful Museum. Museum News, 36.
Honoré, C. (2005). In praise of slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. London: Orion.
Latour, B., & Lowe, A. (2010). The migration of the aura, or how to explore the original through its facsimiles. In T. Bartscherer (Ed.), Switching Codes (pp. 275–297). University Of Chicago Press.
Smith, J. S., & Zimmermann, C. (2017). The sanctuary series: Co-creating transformative museum experiences. Journal of Museum Education, 42(4), 362–368. https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2017.1371520
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.