Paying Attention: How to Endure Spending Time in an Art Museum

[I wrote this in 2015 for a group of college students. But the need to wrangle attention runs through all of life: museum-going is just another instance of practice in daily life.]

Visiting a museum is sometimes hard work—at least, it can be for me.

Not always! Sometimes an exhibit or a single artwork can hold my attention effortlessly and for a long time. But then there are those other times: when I feel impatient, or I’m worried about something else and my mind keeps going to that. Or my mind glazes over from the quantity of material—painting after painting, room after room—and I find myself moving from one thing to another superficially, without really taking anything in.

If you, too, sometimes experience difficulties like these, some attention-management strategies will help. Here are some of my ways of cajoling my mind to cooperate.

People viewing 'Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877' by Gustave Caillebotte. The Ability to Pay Attention

Don’t Try to See Everything

You can’t see everything anyway. Focus on just a few collections, or even one.

Before your visit, identify one or two things you want to see, and do some research on them. Understanding helps us see more, be more engaged. (In contrast, superficial contact is already half way to boredom.)

But roam around a little, too. See what you can encounter by chance—it might just take your breath away!

Take Your Time

If something moves you, spend some time with it, get to know it. Hang out there. If there’s a bench, sit on it. Look at the work from a different angle. It’s absolutely respectable to spend hours on just one artwork!

Vary Your Pace

Variety can help, both in attention and in physical motion. If you get tired of focusing closely, take a faster walk through the museum, with the goal of seeing what exhibits are up that you might want to return to for a closer look. When you begin to feel less antsy, settle into a single collection and focus more closely again.

If you haven’t been reading the information for each artwork and gallery, start doing so. Or if you have been reading everything, take a break from reading—let yourself experience without that filter. Again: variety.

Take a Break

For more serious mental rebellion, or if you decide to spend an entire afternoon or day at a museum, take a break. Have lunch or a snack—low blood sugar does not help attention. Go outside (your ticket should let you re-enter—if in doubt, ask), walk around the block. The point is to come back with a more comfortable body and a refreshed mind—good supports for paying attention.

Take a Second Look

Return to an exhibit or artwork later in your visit. Come back to something that caught your attention, or that you came intending to study. Return more than once. You will probably see more, and see differently, after looking at other works.

Practice Inquiry

Let yourself wonder about things. Be actively curious: what is depicted? are there unexpected details? if so, why are they there? what about larger masses: colors and shapes? when was this created? why was it created? Let questions bubble up in your mind, from your own interests and life experience. Consider possible answers to these questions; consider how such answers could be tested. Some kinds of wonder involve thinking in words: practice this kind of wordiness.

Practice Wordless Wonder

But also practice wordlessness. Sometimes, something strikes a certain kind of resonance and my mind just spontaneously shuts up. Wordlessness is another mode of wonder—and another human growth space—and another way of knowing. When wordlessness happens, cooperate!

Find Your Own Strategies

Remember the times when looking at art is effortless and engaging—interest leads to seeing more deeply, and seeing more deeply leads to further interest in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Notice how your mind actually is right now, and then ask yourself: what could start or support that cycle?

Photo at top by Phil Roeder. “People viewing ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877’ by Gustave Caillebotte.” Published under 2.0 Creative Commons license.

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