The art of slowing down in a museum

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 19 2014, 08:19am hrs
AH, THE Louvre. Its sublime, its historic, its overwhelming. Upon entering any vast art museumthe Hermitage, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Artthe typical traveller grabs a map and spends the next two hours darting from one masterpiece to the next, battling crowds, exhaustion and hunger (yet never failing to take selfies with boldface names like Mona Lisa).

What if we slowed down What if we spent time with the painting that draws us in instead of the painting we think were supposed to see

Most people want to enjoy a museum, not conquer it. Yet the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art, as per museum researchers. And the breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspires to make that feel normal. But whats a traveller with a long bucket list to do

When you go to the library, says James O Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, you dont walk along the shelves looking at the spines of the books and on your way out tweet to your friends, I read 100 books today!' Yet thats how many people experience a museum. They see as much of art as you see spines on books, says Pawelski, who studies connections between positive psychology and the humanities. You cant really see a painting as youre walking by it.

There is no right way to experience a museum, of course. Some travellers enjoy touring at a clip or snapping photos of timeless masterpieces. But psychologists and philosophers such as Pawelski say if you do choose to slow downto find a piece of art that speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than secondsyou are more likely to connect with the art, the person with whom youre touring the galleries, maybe even yourself, he says. Why, you just might emerge feeling refreshed and inspired rather than depleted.

To demonstrate this, Pawelski takes his students to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, home to some of the most important Post Impressionist and early modern paintings, and asks them to spend at least 20 minutes in front of a single painting that speaks to them in some way. Twenty minutes these days is what three hours used to be, he notes. But what happens, of course, is you actually begin to be able to see what youre looking at, he says.

Julie Haizlip wasnt so sure. A scientist and self-described left-brain thinker, Haizlip is a clinical professor at the School of Nursing and the Division of Pediatric Critical Care at the University of Virginia. While studying at Penn she was among the students Pawelski took to the Barnes one afternoon in March.

I have to admit I was a bit sceptical, says Haizlip, who had never spent 20 minutes looking at a work of art and prefers Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock to Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso, whose works adorn the Barnes.

Any museum-goer can do what Pawelski asks students such as Haizlip to do: pick a wing and begin by wandering for a while, mentally noting which works are appealing or stand out. Then return to one that beckons. For instance, if you have an hour he suggests wandering for 30 minutes, and then spending the next half-hour with a single compelling painting. Choose what resonates with you, not whats most famous (unless the latter strikes a chord).

Indeed, a number of museums now offer slow art tours or days that encourage visitors to take their time. Rather than check master works off a list as if on a scavenger hunt, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who oversees the education programmes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says you can make a sprawling museum digestible and personal by seeking out only those works that dovetail with your interests, be it a love of music or horses. To find relevant works or galleries, research the museums collection online in advance of your visit. Or stop by the information desk when you arrive, tell a staff member about your fascination with, say, music, and ask for suggestions. If the person doesnt know or says, we dont have that, ask if theres someone else you can talk to, advises Jackson-Dumont, because major museums are rife with specialists. Might you miss some other works by narrowing your focus Perhaps. But as Pawelski puts it, sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.

Initially, nothing in the Barnes grabbed Haizlip. Then she spotted a beautiful, melancholy woman with red hair like her own. It was Toulouse-Lautrecs painting of a prostitute, A MontrougeRosa La Rouge. I was trying to figure out why she had such a severe look on her face, says Haizlip. As the minutes passed, Haizlip found herself mentally writing the womans story, imagining that she felt trapped and unhappyyet determined. Over her shoulder, Toulouse-Lautrec had painted a window. Theres an escape, Haizlip thought. You just have to turn around and see it.

I was actually projecting a lot of me and what was going on in my life at that moment into that painting, she continues. It ended up being a moment of self-discovery. Trained as a pediatric intensive-care specialist, Haizlip was looking for some kind of change but wasnt sure what. Three months after her encounter with the painting, she changed her practice, accepting a teaching position at the University of Virginias School of Nursing, where she is now using positive psychology in health care teams. There really was a window behind me that I dont know I would have seen, she says, had I not started looking at things differently.

Pawelski says its still a mystery why viewing art in this deliberately contemplative manner can increase well-being or what he calls flourishing. Thats what his research is trying to uncover. He theorised, however, that there is a connection to research on meditation and its beneficial biological effects. In a museum, though, youre not just focusing on your breath, he says. Youre focusing on the work of art.

Previous research, including a study led by Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, has already suggested that museums can serve as restorative environments. And Daniel Fujiwara at the London School of Economics and Political Science has found that visiting museums can have a positive impact on happiness and self-reported health.

Jackson-Dumont, who has also worked at the Seattle Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum of American Art, says travellers should feel empowered to curate their own experience. Say, for example, you do not like hearing chatter when you look at art. Jackson-Dumont suggests making your own soundtrack at home and taking headphones to the museum so that you can stroll the galleries accompanied by music. I think people feel they have to behave a certain way in a museum, she says. You can actually be you.

To that end, many museums are encouraging visitors to take selfies with the art and post them on social media. Selfie-takers often pose like the subject of the painting or sculpture behind them. To some visitors that seems crass, distracting or antithetical to contemplation. But surprisingly, Jackson-Dumont has observed that when museum-goers strike an art-inspired pose, it not only creates camaraderie among onlookers but it gives the selfie-takers a new appreciation for the art. In fact, taking on the pose of a sculpture, for example, is something the Met does with visitors who are blind or partially sighted because feeling the pose can allow them to better understand the work.

There will always be certain paintings or monuments that travellers feel they must see, regardless of crowds or lack of time. To winnow the list, Jackson-Dumont suggests asking yourself: what are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didnt have a New York (or any other city) experience

The next time you step into a vast treasure trove of art and history, allow yourself to be carried away by your interests and instincts. You never know where they might lead you. Before leaving the Barnes on that March afternoon, Haizlip had another unexpected moment: she bought a print of the haunting Toulouse-Lautrec woman.

I felt like she had more to tell me, she says.