Great Idea for Walking Around a Museum

I like strolling around museums and absorbing the art. But a recent New York Times article, The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum, suggests slowing down—waaaaay down—while visiting a museum:

“When you go to the library,” said James O. Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “you don’t 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 that’s essentially how many people experience a museum…

Professor Pawelski…asks [his students] 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 noted. “But what happens, of course, is you actually begin to be able to see what you’re looking at,” he said…

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…

Professor Pawelski said it’s still a mystery why viewing art in this deliberately contemplative manner can increase well-being or what he calls flourishing…He theorized, however, that there is a connection to research on meditation and its beneficial biological effects. In a museum, though, you’re not just focusing on your breath, he said. “You’re focusing on the work of art.”


Thoughts? Would you do this? I’ve walked though many museums in my life, but I’ve never approached one like this. It makes me want to sneak off to the Met this weekend and see what strikes.

P.S. An art exhibit with swings, and the joy of taking a phone break.

(Photos by @museumbabes, @Beyonce and Guia Besana for the New York Times)

  1. Katie M says...

    I have had the fortune of going to a half dozen or so different museums over the past year. The most memorable experience I had was in front of the Cezanne exhibit in the National Gallery in London. I sat in front of his Bathers for about half an hour and cried. It’s a beautiful painting, and although it may have weirded out people sharing a bench with me, it was a wonderful experience.

  2. That first photo, of the crowd and the Mona Lisa? Yeah, that’s why I have no urge to see the Mona Lisa. This “Instagram proof” lifestyle is not what this art is about, and there’s no way to actually see it up close and spend time soaking it all in with a crowd like that. Yikes.

  3. I love this post. It inspired me to take a trip to the Art Gallery of NSW (here in Sydney) and just take in the paintings. I couldn’t believe how many people were clicking away on their cameras, and not even stopping to actually *look* at the paintings.

    I wrote about it here:

    Thanks for the great post! x Laura

  4. This is why we can never leave New York! It’s going to take us centuries to go through the Met. We spend a few hours there every Saturday, picking one room or area. It’s very therapeutic and fun, as well as informative.

  5. Love this! I do this in every museum I visit and it’s so refreshing and really a “full” experience – art is not a spectator sport!

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  6. I spent quite a bit of time in the room with Rothko’s red paintings at the Tate a few years ago. It was very powerful. And I didn’t need to take a picture to remember ;)

  7. jr says...

    Such a sad striking image of the crowds in front of Mona Lisa. And Beyonce almost has the smile going.
    It reminds me of All the Rowboats by Regina Spektor:
    First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
    “Masterpieces serving maximum sentences/
    It’s their own fault for being timeless/
    There’s a price you pay and a consequence”

  8. I can totally agree with this. I am one of those people that doesn’t always feel the need to see it. If there is one or two “important” pieces that I want to see, then I will try to see those first, then I am free to wander or just stay by something that catches my eye. Plus, if I don’t see it all, it just gives me an excuse for a return visit.

  9. I was in the Art Institute in Chicago a few months ago, and was amazed at how many people would walk up to a painting, take a picture of it with their phone, and then just walk away. Or they’d have someone else take a picture of them WITH the painting…without even looking at the painting at all. Why go out of your way to encounter a famous work of art if you never actually SEE it?

  10. I love this! And that photo of the people at the Mona Lisa is hysterical. My BF and I spent all day inside the Uffizi in Italy last year and you’re not allowed to take any photos. My memories of that day are so clear and it forced me absorb the art that much more.

  11. i would love to challenge myself to this. my husband and i, who both work in the arts and are avid museum goers, have such different approaches when visiting galleries or museums. he stands in front of each piece for a looong time and i like to do a walk through. it would be nice to find a middle ground!

  12. Gah! I took way too many Art History classes in college so now my brain has no tolerance for museum-going.

    My husband however (the research scientist) LOVES museums and was actually asked to “move along” at a museum in Italy because they thought he was loitering. Ha!

  13. yes! it works best when you have access to a free museum/gallery or have a membership to one. In DC all the museums are free so my husband and I would go in one on sunday afternoon and just take in 1 room at a time. If something jumped out, we’d just hang out and discuss it. It’s hard to do if you are paying $25 for a ticket or if you are only visiting the city briefly though because you want to actually get a full flavor of the collection.

  14. Have you heard about Alain de Botton’s (author and philosopher) ideas for designing art museums in order to teach coping skills? His book Art as Therapy lays out this incredible concept. It’s really an amazing way to think about the restorative powers of art.

  15. I love going to museums, and actually really quite enjoy spending viewing one painting. But the most I ever stand in front of a painting is 5-10 minutes as it feels weird to stay there for more time…I suppose this is a consequence of our fast-pace culture. Thanks for sharing this! I’m definitely going to go to a museum soon and let myself stand in front of a painting for 20 minutes :)

  16. Love this! Will definitely give it a shot, next time I’m a the museum. Good practice to temporarily un-busy yourself and enjoy the present moment. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I think this is a beautiful idea. I think it’s great to have a membership to a gallery if you can, and then spend shorter bits of time there more often. However I usually take the kids with me. So speeding up is more the goal…before they get bored and cranky! ;)


  18. I used to work at The Met, and it was infuriating to walk through and watch the visitors. Almost every single person blocks his/her own vision of the artwork with a phone or iPad. They take a photo, and immediately walk away.

    No one is actually looking at what they are looking at.

    We are too accustomed to looking at a screen. So sad.

  19. The crowd in front of Mona Lisa – but strangly not when Beyonce and Jay Z visited… – says it all, doesn’t it? This slow method works when you visit a museum in your own city, where you can come back again and again. One would never get through the Louvre that way, especially not while on holiday!

    I like the idea, though, as when you study something more closely you see all the tiny details which are making up the whole, each one a little artistic miracle.

  20. As a painter, I absolutely agree! I usually don’t know whether my pieces are done until they’ve hung on the wall for at least several weeks… it’s as though there is a relationship evolving within that constant observation.

    I once sat and stared at the enormous Rothko on the second floor of the SFMOMA for an hour — it was amazing. The colors had incredible depth and dimension, and the blurred edges created the effect of a subtle, shimmering movement. I wouldn’t have seen that if I’d kept moving after five minutes.

  21. I feel like part of the problem is that we’re kind of being ‘pushed’ to move along. Usually when I go to a museum, there’s quite some people there and there’s this pressure to not dawdle in front of a painting/photograph because the person(s) behind you want to get a proper look too, so you just follow at the speed of the person before you and it becomes a bit like a queue that’s got to keep moving. These days, I much prefer just sitting at home and looking at a photobook with a cup of coffee or tea, even though it’s not the same as physically seeing the original.

  22. haha. I am guilty of this. I really like modern art but whenever I’ve been to galleries like the louvre I have just marched all the way to the mona lisa taken a photo, wandered around (got lost) & left. Its quite boring to me to be honest.

  23. Interesting read. Another great text I would recommend is Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects. “Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art… is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar… We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.”

  24. I totally agree that you have to spend some time in front of a single painting to ” get it”. 20 minutes seems quite a long time though…
    Thank you for sharing such lovely thoughts!

  25. this is what I actually always do! and I swear it works. I decided to slow down 15 years ago when I lived in Paris for a year and at the beginning of my stay there I wanted to see, experience everything at once afraid to miss and sth out. obviously it didn’t work so I tried the trick and never looked back.

  26. as an art historian working in a museum, i can only say go for it! i often see people wandering through the museum a bit list, done with it within the hour. it is such an experience to just actually look at one painting for a longer time, discovering everything it has to offer. It’s supposed to be an insightful, pleasurable, provoking, experience, not just something ‘you have to do’ when your in such and such city.
    xo, cheyenne

  27. That’s why audio guides are ace…they force you to slow down and really examine the art. Gallery guilt (that feeling that you have to see EVERYTHING) should also be ignored…I love the idea of just picking 20 or so pieces to focus on.

  28. I love this and I totally agree. The one painting that I sat and stared at for hours was the starry night one by Van Gogh. Especially for artists, it is so important to observe the brush strokes, it is so inspiring.

  29. I work at a small art museum and it drives me a little crazy when people call and ask how long it takes to get through an exhibition. As most of these callers are older, I understand that they can’t always stand/walk around for hours, but a visit to a museum is so personal that for one it could take 10 minutes and another all day!

    I read this article and was totally surprised by the (generally) articulate comments, because we all know that comments can turn terrible in no time.

  30. I’ve never stopped and spent a lot of time looking at a piece of art in a museum, but i think i’ll give it a try next time i go. really great idea.

  31. The first time I went to San Francisco, I did exactly this at the SFMoMA. I had taken a modern art course the year before and was really vocal about my skepticism about the draw to Rothko. I sat in front of No. 14, 1960 for about an hour and was really pleasantly surprised by the entire experience. It’s my favorite painting now :)

  32. In short, yes, I would, because that is very much what I do. I tend to feel strongly attracted to certain paintings, and I will sit in front of them, under them, to one side, sketch them, stare at them, and just try to absorb them. Some paintings and sculptures have moved me to tears. I feel pretty passionate about experiencing art, though, not just seeing it. I wish more people would slow down and really think about what they are seeing: the composition, the technique in which the artist applied the paint, the subject, the feeling, the inspiration. I studied art history in college, in part because I wanted the excuse to spend more time with art. No regrets there!

  33. I have the good fortune to work in an art museum with a very excellent collection. It’s easy to wander off on lunch break and experience new art or go back and visit some of my old favorites. It’s a privilege that I sometimes take for granted, walking by ancient sculptures as I leave for the night, I should really slow down around work more often and absorb it like I used to when I first started.

  34. I love this!! Any city I’ve traveled I tried to spend a day in a museum. I’ve tried to focus longer time on those paintings that capture my attention and look at it from different angles or different lines/strokes of painting. Thanks for sharing this!

  35. I worked as a high school intern at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library this summer (Check us out- we’re across the street from the American Museum of Natural Museum!). I learned soooo many amazing things about art, including how to look at art. We spent about twenty minutes looking at one painting, and I learned so much during that time by just looking- it’s amazing. By the way, you may be interested in the Madeline (the children’s book ) exhibit that we have until October 19. You will love it!

  36. I took an art history class in college that was held inside the local art museum, and it totally revolutionized how I go about art museums. There are so many questions you can ask about one piece if you look at it long enough! Especially when you start comparing it to others. Ah! So much to learn!

  37. i did my masters in museum studies and spent a lot of time writing labels that i knew would never be read! i’m totally guilty of speeding through museums in a crunch but what i loved about living in DC before we moved was that most of the museums are free and i could afford to spend lots of time in front of the artworks that i loved (some personal faves: the temporary installation song 1 by doug aitken; the HUGE painting watson and the shark by john singleton copley; <a href=”>electronic superhighway by nam june paik</a>). thanks for sharing this article—a great read! i feel like we could apply this principle to modern life in general :)

  38. This is timely., as I did this just yesterday. I was at an art museum that was exhibiting a Jackson Pollock piece called “Mural.” The piece was so remarkable that I sat in front of it for a long time staring and reading the exhibit booklet about it. I felt like I experienced the piece moreso than I would have had I been buzzing by.

    By the way, the painting opposite of Mona Lisa is waaaay cooler. It’s “Wedding Feast at Cana” and it’s huge! Hopefully the Carters appreciated it when they took their photo.

  39. I saw this article and was planning a blog post on it too! Have done this myself – when I was a student I regularly used to pop in to the galleries in London and sit for an age in front of one particular piece….it was so such a source of calm! [I always imagine people in Medieval times being similarly entranced by the art in Churches!]

  40. I’ve been to a LOT of museums and my family always thinks it’s a race. But recently I’ve started stopping and actually looking at the art. I don’t spend 20 minutes though. Maybe I should try it next time :)

  41. I was an art major in college and usually one of my assignments for the week in drawing class was to go to the MFA (in Boston) and pick a painting or sculpture and draw it. It would take an hour or two and it became my favorite thing to do in college. It’s extremely relaxing and I would feel so clear headed walking home from the museum.
    I have two kids now and museum trips have become a whirlwind, but I’ve recently tried to get my 6 year old to sit and draw a few things he sees throughout the museum that he likes and I think he gets much more out of the trips when he does this. I do wish I could go and sit there all day by myself but I’ll probably have to wait – the art will still be there anyway.


  42. I love how Pawelski compared it to a library, it makes so much sense! There’s a story in every work of art and you can’t glance at it to understand it; you’ve got to glare. Love this post!

  43. I did this exact thing in Oslo and felt so much more satisfied with my visit. It really does make sense. x
    Madeleine, The Daily Mark

  44. i try to always watch art this way… but sometimes when you’re in a world famous museum and you’ve only got one day it doesn’t work out so well….

  45. In Beyoncé defense that is what everyone does, it is crazy busy and everyone is taking selfie’s. They more than likely got swept up in the moment, there is no chance to enjoy the Mona Lisa and the surprising thing is it is so small.

  46. Oh and did you see the Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan version) as he sat in front of i think it was “Haystacks”?

  47. I love this, and yes, I could totally do it. My husband hates going to museums with me because I like to read every single plaque and I spend so much time just studying things. He gets bored and antsy. I don’t think I’ve spent 20 minutes looking at a painting, but with this article in mind, I definitely will next time I have a chance. I like the idea of browsing and keeping your eye out for that one special painting.

  48. The Met is my favorite for wondering around and really focusing on the things I love! It’s so big – I feel like I have to limit myself. My favorite is Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien–Lepage near the entrance of the impressionist wing. Could stare at her for hours.

  49. I was in my mid 40’s when I went to study art in Florence. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I really learned to see.

  50. Joan of Arc in the Met is one that I could sit for a long time in front of…

  51. I have always looked at paintings and galleries this way. I never go with anyone. if I am with a friend we pick a time to meet afterward. That way I don’t feel hurried by anyone. When I lived in Paris and in Florence I spent every afternoon in a gallery. This was how I did it. You can’t spend too much time. It is an incredibly meaningful way to experience the art.

  52. Love this! I try to take in the moment every time I am in an art museum. It’s so lovely.

  53. I just talked about the way we experience art in museums on my blog!

  54. This article is so insightful! I love the photo of the crowd Monalisa – I think I could spend 20 minutes people watching that crowd before even getting to the painting!

  55. When I studied abroad in Paris I had a class in the Louvre every Wednesday. 3 months and I still didn’t see it all. Our teacher had us get close to paintings and take our hand like it was a telescope. You see many things you’d normally miss.

    I also love seeing kids in Paris museums with sketchbooks. They sit on the floor and draw what is in front of them. I think we all need to do this!


  56. 100% yes! This is what art historians do. Also, consider viewing it from different angles and distances. That helps, too.

  57. Sometimes it’s just nice to have reminder to slow down. Life seems really fast past these days. (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but slowing down can be a nice change of pace.)

    I do actually do this in museums! One of my favorite paintings- The Fountain of Vaucluse- is housed in the Dallas Museum of Art, and I love to go sit in front of it. My husband knew that, and bought me a print of it for Christmas. It’s hanging in our bedroom where I can see it all time.


  58. My friend’s mom’s advice was to only look at 10 pieces of art when you visit a museum. I try but always find myself wanting to see “it all”! I take the same approach when traveling. My goal is to wander and take in just a few sights, but then I find myself dragging my husband to every single monument, park, museum the city has to offer. Maybe one day I’ll slow down.

  59. I want to take on this challenge! Thank you for sharing. What I like to do in a museum (if I’m not with my toddler) is sketch a piece of art. It gives you the opportunity to look carefully and notice the details.

  60. I can’t do anything stationary for 20 minutes other than sleep. I do like to take my time looking though so I can really see and remember what I’m exploring.

  61. Definitely a supreme idea. I don’t jog through the museums but I definitely don’t spend 20 minutes at a painting. This is a life lesson: slow down so you can really see what’s going on around you. :] // ☼ ☯

  62. When I have time, and the museum is not crowded, I love to do this. It can turn a trip to the museum into a spiritual experience.

  63. We as a culture often don’t ALLOW ourselves to enjoy art anymore. People can feel like it isn’t a productive enough use of their time, or that they can only enjoy it for so long before rushing to fit in as much as possible. Art is meant to be a pleasurable experience, or at the very least a provoking one. It’s a respite from routine, not a part of it.

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