Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Visit a Major Museum Every Day

The great gift of retirement is time - unstructured time you can choose to populate however you wish. If you're married or have a significant other, there are the wishes of the other person to consider, of course, but is he or she is also retired, one can hope the two of you find many HarvilleQuarters to do as a couple. As well as some to enjoy independently.

But getting back to time.... I've visited a few major museums in my life but never spent more than a day at a time in one. A few years ago my friend Doug and I toured Spain for ten days, a few of them in Madrid. We arrived one morning at the Prado, one of the world's greatest museums, just as it opened and managed to get in about ten hours there. Yet I felt I spent the last hour practically racing from room to room to get a glimpse of a few Goyas and El Grecos I'd somehow missed up to that point.

Like many museum visitors, I tend to gravitate toward the big names and well-known pieces, barely glancing at whole sections as I travel through en route to the next blockbuster. I must have overlooked a host of gems because I've been consciously allocating my limited resource - time - to the must-see art, generally defined as what other people, such as guidebook writers, tell me I should see.

I'm really looking forward to spending a whole HarvilleQuarter making daily visits to one major museum and taking time to absorb each room in its entirety. I promise to include those forms of art I perceive as less interesting or impressive - pre-Columbian pottery, native American art, tapestries, furniture and other "decorative arts," Chinese porcelains, and I could go on. I'm afraid I've been too much the typical art tourist - focusing on representational European and American paintings from about 1600 to 1900.

I'm planning to change that.

Here's my approach: I'll pick a museum with a broad collection, arrive five days a week and devote four hours daily to a different room. That could be anywhere from 10 to 40 pieces I'm going to get to know really well. I'll look at each one - really look at it, even if I don't initially find it attractive or interesting - and consider all the variables that make up the piece - its form, composition, texture, materials, color, size, subject matter, history and historical context, patterns, light - anything I can notice.

In addition, I'll think about why this item was selected for exhibit by this museum. What did the curator find compelling about it? Why is it placed in this position in this room surrounded by these particular pieces?

I will start my HarvilleQuarter by familiarizing myself with the museum in total. On the first day, I'll rent a self-guided audio tour to orient myself to the space and hear what the museum staff think about the pieces. I'll also take a guided tour with a docent to get her point of view and engage her in a conversation about her favorite rooms and works, especially those not part of the standard tour.

I'll purchase an annual membership to get free admission and access to the museum library, special exhibits, lectures and other amenities. This museum is going to be my home for three months and I want to end up feeling as "at home" here as in my own living quarters.

Each day, I'll take with me some relevant reading material. Four hours is a long time to spend on one's feet contemplating art. Most galleries have a bench or two for taking breaks. I'll read up on the artist, or genre, or historical period while surrounded by the actual art I'm reading about. After a while, I'll take another look while my new-found knowledge is fresh in my mind. I'll have a journal along for writing down my impressions, both initial and after reconsideration. Which items drew my attention on first entering the gallery? Are they the ones that I'll remember most vividly after spending an afternoon with them? Which will I return to later in the HarvilleQuarter because I've felt a strong connection with them? Which will I include in my farewell tour on the last day of the quarter?

I'll observe my fellow patrons as they walk through, noting the items that draw their interest, perhaps eavesdropping a bit on their remarks. I may even strike up a conversation with one of them who seems particularly drawn to a work to understand the source of their fascination.

By the end of three months, I'm confident I'll be looking at art - all kinds of art - with new eyes. I do believe the only way to acquire a true appreciation for art is to look at it, over and over and over. Reading about it, knowing the historical context, picking up anecdotes from the artist's life - all this color commentary will enhance the experience - but personal growth will come from simply standing and looking, and looking some more, and then looking a third time.

I'm confident I won't get bored. I anticipate that saying a farewell to "my museum" after three months will be sweet sorrow indeed.

The photograph is the St. Louis Art Museum, taken from its Website,

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