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

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.

 

Discover hidden worlds in your own backyard

Snail drinking water: a discovery of a world in your own backyard

I ran across this thirsty little fella in Rothenburg, Germany, but it could have been in my own backyard…if I would simply take the time to pay better attention.

How many hidden worlds lie in your own backyard? More than you may realize.

Literally, if you were to pay close attention to all the details of your home or backyard, you’d be amazed by what you find. Xavier de Maistre did just that.

Journey around your own room

In 1790, de Maistre wrote a book, Journey Around My Room. According to Alain de Botton in one of my favorite books, The Art of Travel, de Maistre engaged in a different form of travel. No baggage, carriages or ships to deal with. Simply the decision to observe what was all around him but rarely noticed.

Locking the door to his room and donning a pair of pink and blue pajamas, de Maistre began to see the familiar in new ways, discovering hidden worlds in his own bedroom. De Botton notes that:

… de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of…South America.

That mind-set is essentially one of being receptive which is easy to do when we encounter the new and exotic. Less so in our own backyards. As de Botton comments,

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new in a place we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.

It starts with actually seeing what you see

Paying better attention and truly noticing the wonder in your own backyard is one way to overcome this blindness. Another is to seek out new places in your own neighborhood that you’ve never visited or observed closely before.

If you live in our near a large city, you’ll likely find many neighborhoods you’ve never explored in depth. Living near Seattle, one such area for me is Seattle’s Chinatown and International District.

This neighborhood is one of those places I normally just pass through on my way to some other destination. Or on the few times I’ve wandered through there, I’ve felt adrift, desirous of some new discovery but usually unsure of what to look for. At times, through no hostility but more a sense of disconnection, I’ve felt like I just don’t belong there.

All this changed for me a few weeks ago.

A glance at an article in our local paper started a chain of events that helped me to discover the hidden worlds in my own backyard so much better. I’ll explain more about this over the next few entries here. But for now, think about what it means for you to discover hidden worlds in your own backyard. It may be a neighborhood you’ve never visited before. Or it may mean opening your eyes — being receptive, as de Botton notes — to what surrounds you every day.

And no, you don’t need to don a pair of pink and blue pajamas to see it.