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

 

Why sunsets move us

Why sunsets move us - Cambria Sunset

Why do sunsets move us?

Just look at the number of photos of sunsets to know that as trite as they may seem, we still marvel at something that happens every 24 hours. In this second of a three-part series on sunsets, let’s look at seven reasons why sunsets move us.

Sunsets move us…literally.

We rarely appreciate sunsets from inside. We have to step outside – or even walk or drive a ways – to see them unobstructed. When I’m inside, I feel I’m missing out on the full effect and so I head for the nearest door to see – and feel – the sunset better. If you look at most photos (your own and others’) you’ll find they usually occur on vacation or at some other relaxed moment when we’re already outside. Since most of us live and work indoors, we have to be intentional to behold the sunset. And in moving physically to view them, we’re also moved emotionally by what we end up experiencing.

Sunsets make us aware of time.

In the first part of this series, I referred to the Celtic concept of “the time in between times,” the twilight hours where the boundaries between this world and the next seem thinner. Sunsets make us more aware of the mystery of time itself as we witness day transition into night. Too often, our lives feel like pure process, a non-stop blur of activities. We note time only as a resource that feels far too scarce. But with sunsets, we stop looking at our watches or cell phones because we feel behind. Instead, we’re aware of time passing in a different way; we appreciate time without resisting it. Odd how something as visible as a sunset can make us aware of something as invisible and powerful as time.

Sunsets are non-essential.

We don’t have to stop and watch that big orange orb drop from the sky each evening. But we do, though usually only when we’re not working or distracted with daily routines. “Squandering” our time on something so useless by all practical considerations gives the event even greater value. It reminds us that the most important moments of life aren’t the ones we measure but the ones we truly live.

Sunsets help us enter into night warmly.

Night is, in most cultures, associated with death. But sunsets help us to recognize that the nocturnal period is bookended with light. In the Christian faith, for example, death is not the end of the story. We need not fear what the night brings. Sunsets remind us of that and make the coming of night just a bit more welcoming.

Sunsets are real.

We can’t manufacture them (though we can mimic them). We’re surrounded by so much superficial beauty that when we encounter the real thing, we get lost in awe even though we may have seen thousands of sunsets before in our lifetime. Never underestimate the power of authentic beauty to touch our souls, even in something as cliché as a sunset.

Sunsets involve waiting.

I won’t begin to count the ways my impatience manifests itself each day. Given how little I like to wait, why will I take long stretches of time to stare at an object that at any other time of day I barely notice? I think there’s something freeing about waiting in situations where we’re not aware we’re waiting. We learn to be present…and learn that waiting is possible. We discover the anticipation that comes with waiting enhances the experience and makes us appreciate the experience even more. Sunsets reward our waiting with more than just a show of color and light.

Sunsets are beautiful.

I’ve saved this obvious statement for last. But why are they beautiful? First, there are all those colors. Warm colors, like a welcoming fire on a cold night, the color of home and hearth and even romance. Second, sunsets are a changing, even surprising beauty. Like snowflakes, they are never the same twice. Third, when clouds are involved, we experience both color and a kind of texture that even the best images can’t replicate. Sunsets are not just multi-sensory (we feel them as much as we see them). They are multi-dimensional and in the best cases, envelop us in their beauty.

That’s my take on why sunsets move us. How about you? Why do you value a beautiful sunset?

And be sure to come back next time when we explore some simple ways to get your best photo ever of a sunset.

 

 

The light at the end of the day

A light at the end of the day - Mal Pais SunsetAt the end of the day, or really anytime, when you get to the “T” in the road, you have two choices. Three if you count continuing straight and driving into the Pacific Ocean.

Turn right and you enter the bustling town of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Small hotels, shops and restaurants line the bumpy main street paved, curiously, only in stretches of about a hundred feet here and there. Along this popular dusty thoroughfare walk or ride – primarily on motor bikes or four-wheeled ATV’s – an assortment of locals and foreigners (mostly surfers). The whole town has a surf vibe due to the quality of the consistent break that lies behind the trees off to your left as you drive into town.

If, however, you go the other direction at the “T” you’ll find only an isolated building here and there amidst the jungle that encroaches on the road. From the trees, howler monkeys gaze down and call out in voices too big for their diminutive size. At the end of this road lies the tiny harbor of Mal Pais (“bad country” in Spanish, a misnomer it seems to most modern-day tourists). Here, you can greet the fishing boats each afternoon as they bring in the day’s catch. If you feel like cooking your own fish, you can negotiate your way to a lovely rockfish or tuna.

Or, you could do what we did and have a fresh seafood meal prepared for you in a setting as astounding as the food.

The light at the end of the day - Our table at CaracolesCaracoles restaurant in Mal Pais has no dining room per se. Sure, there’s a covered area with tables and chairs next to the building that houses the kitchen and bar. But my wife, Kris, and I chose instead one of several tables out beneath the palm trees right on the edge of the beach. At first, it seemed more picnic than fine dining until we tasted the food.

Walk 30 feet from our table and this is the view.

Walk 30 feet from our table and this is the view.

As we neared the end of the day, it was still quite warm so we ordered something light and cool. For me that meant ceviche and a salad, both perfect. Kris, went for the shrimp in mango sauce. We both oohed and aahed our way through every bite.

And then the floorshow began.

We looked out over a strand of white sand between us and a stretch of rocky tide pools backed by the incoming waves. That scene alone, framed by palm trees, would be worthy of a travel brochure cover. But then, out of nowhere, a lone horse meandered down the beach like the opening act.

The light at the end of the day - horse on the beach near Caracoles

The view from our table as the horse casually wandered down the beach.

The real show began as the sun and the horizon met and the sky exploded. Blues and oranges bled and morphed. Pinks and yellows seemed to change by the second in a kaleidoscopic display of cloud and color; raw yet orderly, vast yet intimate.

We experienced one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, a fitting end of the day.

But it made me realize something.

The light at the end of the day: Post sunsetThat same sun rises and falls each and every day. But sunsets usually pass me by unnoticed or at least, unexamined in their routine familiarity or even over-familiarity (after all, what inspirational poster doesn’t have a sunset on it?). But here, on this trip, all the factors aligned to get me to not only notice, but pursue the beauty as it unfolded. As the sky faded finally into a soothing deep purple and then into the color of night, Kris and I did not let the moment go unheeded. We watched. More than that, we were a part of it, consumed by each transition of light and color.

We understood then what the ancient Celts referred to as “the time between times,” the bookends of each day filled with extra possibility, awe and magic. We realized that the end of that day is what made that day. But more than that, we remembered what only beauty or affliction seem to force us to recall; that the possibility of wonder comes around every single day.

We will likely not see such a beautiful sunset any time soon. But at least now I will make more of an effort to look, even if there’s no horse or beach nearby.

For more on sunsets, check out these two entries: Why sunsets move us and How to take better sunset photos