Get more from a museum by getting less

Museums: HuntingtonHow to enjoy a museum more

Museums, particularly art museums, overwhelm me. And the bigger the museum, the greater the feeling of being thrashed by a wave of sensory overload.

I want to see it all. But in museums like the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, I simply can’t. Not at least in a few hours. And if I go beyond that, fatigue tends to mar even the best viewing experience. So, what’s the solution to getting the most out of an art museum in a short amount of time? Here are three solutions I’ve found that work well.

Choose your battles carefully

Museum: bust of insane man

As this and the following head shots show, art museums have interesting characters.

The same strategy that works for parenting works for visiting museums. Knowing you can’t see it all, choose only a few sections and concentrate on those. Forget the rest. Maybe you can come back later. Maybe not. But many museums now put their collections online so you can see what you missed when you get home. You’ll at least have seen in person those works of art that seem most interesting to you. I pay special attention to visiting exhibitions knowing that these will be the hardest to see again.

Play reconnaissance

Intentionally go fast just to see what stands out. No one said you have to appreciate every single artwork. Zip your way through until you find something interesting. Then, move into the next approach.

Go deep

Chinese sculptureStop and stare. Then stare some more. If you’ve found something you like, take time with it. This New York Times article from a few years ago recommends essentially the same thing. Peruse the paintings or sculptures until you find something that speaks to you. Then really look at it.

Here are two additional approaches I’ve found to help you do that even more effectively.

Sketch it

I’ve recently resumed an earlier attempt at drawing. I’m still no good at it (if “good” means capturing the image in its exact proportions), but that doesn’t matter. The very act of trying to sketch something helps me see it so much better. You literally see things you miss with a cursory or even extended examination. It’s like learning anything. You learn best when you teach others. Drawing is like that as well. You see best when you have to translate it into a different medium line by line, shape by shape, color by color.

Museums - The Five Senses - Sight painting

There’s a lot going on in this painting, The Five Senses – Sight by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1625). It’s a great candidate for looking more closely at the details.

Snap a detail

Can’t sketch? No worries. Try this. Take a photo instead. You can shoot the whole painting, but lately I’ve found a greater enjoyment of the whole work when I concentrate on just a part of it. Taking a photo of just one section that appeals to me is again, another form of translation. But instead of translating what I see onto a piece of paper, I’m translating what I see into an emotional experience.

Museums: The Five Senses - Sight: Detail

Here’s a detail of the same painting. There’s plenty to keep you interested in this one small section.

Let me explain.

Unless you’re an art historian, student or critic, you’re likely going to an art museum simply for the delight of it. I know this is hard to imagine if you don’t like museums. But somewhere along the line, we picked up this notion that art museums were all about culture and appreciation. They are, but that’s not all.

Let your jaw drop

Greek SculptureArt museums are, to me, places of wonder. Sometimes I’ll come across a work that staggers me. It is usually some piece I’ve never heard of before. Something that isn’t bogged down in expectations or hype. Other times — and this is where the details exercise fits in — I’ll see a piece and I may like it. But if I spend time with it, I find that there is some element that speaks not to my head about technique or lighting or the historicity of the piece, but to my heart.

With these small sections of details, my reaction isn’t to tuck the ear piece of my glasses in the corner of my mouth and nod philosophically. Instead, it is to smile. Maybe even sigh in a happy way. In those moments, I’m completely disarmed by the beauty of that one detail. It triggers something inside me. It connects to some inner longing or interest. I may try to figure out what that connection is. Or maybe not. Often, it is enough to just stand there and be enchanted.

Go slow and small

Roman sculptureSo if art museums tend to overwhelm you, don’t “go big or go home.” Instead, slow down and go small. Find the artworks that appeal to you, but also focus on the small sections or moments within those. Take a photo (where allowed) and capture that section as its own work of art. Some artists hate this. They feel you should appreciate their work as a whole. And quite often, you will. But other times, take the opportunity to find what matters to you in their work. Treat each piece like a “Where’s Waldo?” book or poster: find the secret gem within the bigger whole that resonates with you.

One aid in doing this is my guide to seeing the right details. Check it out if you want to get better at noticing and capturing details, either in photos or in writing.

However you do it, finding the works or even the details of the works that resonate with you will enable you to walk away from the museum happier, more energized and more inclined to visit other museums in the future.

 

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Museums: How to get more by getting less

Museums: Get more by getting less

 

Li Huayi: a new take on an old artform

Li Hauyi painting

I recently returned from a trip with my elder son, 23, to China. The theme of our trip was design. We intended to sketch and photograph our way through three different regions of China, getting a better sense of both classical and contemporary forms of design. To refine the concept of design, I focused mostly on understanding the design element of line. From architecture to fashion, room interiors to tea ceremonies, line plays a big role in defining the Chinese experience. But nowhere is the sense of line clearer than in Chinese calligraphy (which is nothing but line) and painting. And no where on our trip did I find paintings that moved me as much as the work of artist Li Huayi.

Li Huayi, born in 1948, learned painting in the traditional style in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, he survived by painting works of propaganda. In 1982, he departed China for San Francisco, working there and delving into the world of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990’s, however, he returned back both to China and to a focus on traditional Chinese landscape subjects and techniques. Today, he splits his time between studios in San Francisco and Beijing.

To say that Li Huayi’s work is merely a modern rendering of traditional subjects would be to miss what makes them so special. His paintings are currently part of a solo exhibition at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. These works, on paper and silk, some shimmering with gold foil, reflect both Eastern and Western influences. But it is less a fusion of cultures and more one of eras that add depth to Li’s paintings. In them, some several meters in width or length, he blends themes going back to the Song dynasty with contemporary sensibilities and even subjects: some of his windswept trees seem more likely to be found in Carmel, California than Huangshan, China. The influence of Abstract Expressionism emerges in the atmospheric perspective of his backgrounds: you’re not quite sure on some what you’re seeing. This rendering of old and new also shows up in the presentation of some of the works with vertical scrolls hanging over longer horizontal pieces but the scenes blending perfectly.

This is contemporary art that surprises because you don’t expect it to be that.

Learn more about Li Huayi and the exhibition at the Suzhou Museum.

Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting detail

Li Huayi painting Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting detailLi Huayi painting on gold foil

Li Huayi painting

Design is…

Design is…what, exactly?

The question of what design is may not be one that keeps you up at night. But it is one that matters. As we move more and more into what author Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind as the “Conceptual Age” (which follows the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Ages) we’re all affected by design. And when I say “design” I’m not referring simply to graphic design or aesthetic functions.

To better understand what design is, take a look at the following graphic. It’s from Warren Berger’s excellent (but quirkily titled – I can never remember it when trying to tell others) book on the subject, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People.

Design is from CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People

As the above definitions show, design:

  • is hard to nail down,
  • applies to problem solving and planning, not just art-related work,
  • is something that all of us can do.

Let me comment on just three of my favorite definitions and look at how these apply to travel.

Design is “The art of making something better, beautifully.

Joe Duffy’s definition contains two key components: better and beautiful. Great design improves the function or use of something. But it can also improve the overall experience. With travel, we can “design” our trips by making decisions to choose wise risk over playing it safe, to stay present when everything inside us wants to shut down due to too much newness or to seek out what is beautiful even in places that, on the surface, may not seem that way.

Design is “The introduction of intention into human affairs.”

Michael Glaser’s definition reminds us that our best experiences – even the ones that seem accidental – usually involve some form of intentionality. For example, once when traveling on my own in Switzerland, I met a young man on a train who ended up inviting me to stay with his family for several days in the Interlaken region. I could never have planned on meeting him but I was intentional about being open to connecting with everyone I met on that train. And because of that mindset, that led to a conversation that led to an invitation that led to an amazing weekend with a local family.

Design is “Hope made visible.”

Brian Collins’ definition captures well the aspirational nature of good design. Great designers don’t focus only on function or even aesthetics. They seek to make the world better, one product, service or experience at a time. Our travel can do the same when we focus our trips on what we can do for, and bring to, others. “Hope made visible,” however, isn’t limited to just what we do on a trip or even to design.

It’s a great definition for travel itself.