[Jump straight to our Museio manifesto]
THE STATUS QUO
Imagine you’re in an art gallery. Not a giant leap of imagination, seeing that across just the United States, many more people visit art galleries and museums than sporting events and amusement parks combined.
Watch as the crowds pass from room to room, pausing here and there to tilt their heads or exchange a whispered word. As they glance at the artworks hanging on the walls, how much attention is really being paid to them?
It’s been recorded that visitors spend 6–8 seconds on average looking at an artwork in a gallery. That goes up to 17 seconds if they are in front of one of the masterpieces. And that includes the time spent reading the label.
Is this really the ideal way to discover and experience our artistic and cultural legacy?
If people approached television the way they do art galleries, a viewer would just channel-surf through a few hundred channels (or scroll through their Netflix) and then visit an overpriced cafe without watching anything.
If we approached reading a magazine in the same way, a reader would leaf through it from start to finish with barely a pause, only to buy a postcard with the illustration that’s on the cover.
In popular culture, the blame often falls on our shortened attention spans, fiddled away by TV, blogs and Twitter to practically nothing. In other circles, the critique centers on the elitism of the modern artworld and gallery administrators looking to prod as many tourists as possible through the pens of gallery rooms.
And yet… with all the laments about the millennial attention spans, we are living in the age where long-reads, hours-long podcasts and sprawling, serialized TV series are more popular then ever. There is clearly an audience willing to read, listen and watch in-depth stories, if they are interesting enough.
At the same time, art historians and curators are always eager to jump on a podcast or a YouTube channel to have deep discussions about their ideas and discoveries.
So art gallery visitors are eager to hear interesting stories and those within the art establishment want to share them. Yet these two efforts just don’t seem to connect.
Today, as in the 1800’s essay by critic Giovanni Morelli, “the modern tourist’s first object is to arrive at a certain point; once there, he disposes of the allotted sights as quickly as possible, and hurries on resignedly to fresh fields, where the same programme is repeated.”
All this came to a head last time I visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art, just after I discovered the work of Nate DiMeio (of the memory palace podcast), who was an artist-in-residence there in 2016/2017.
Nate spent his residence researching the stories behind a number of works in the American Wing and then recording ~8–20 minute long podcast episodes about them.
Each episode was linked to a specific gallery where the listener can stand, in an often empty room with headphones on, immersed in the story.
Beyond just describing the art, these stories delved into world history (“The Temple”), mysterious identity of the artist (“The Portrait”), art’s role in the colonial past (“Recent Acquisitions”), the original location of the objects on display (“If You Have to Be a Floor”), artistic ambitions and failures (“Full Circle”), and the banality of it all (“One Bottle, Any Bottle”).
How strange it was to be standing in an empty replica of an Alexandria Ballroom from Boston, overcome with emotions, imagining Ben Franklin sitting in the VIP booth over there, barely able to walk at the end of his years, watching younger crowds dancing on these exact floorboards.
At the time, I drew the parallel between my experience in The MET and the Slow Food movement, which beyond appreciating dining solely for it’s nutritional or social value, focused on slowing the experience down… allowing chefs to curate their local ingredients and cuisine in a way that provided a unique experience depending on the season and location.
What if galleries could offer visitors another way to experience the art in their collections? Sure… the first time you’re at the Louvre or MoMA, you can get lost and explore all that is on display (a certain fast-food metaphor comes to mind), but that should be just the fist step.
As we finish scrolling through our Netflix recommendations, we usually stop to enjoy a show that caught our eye. And when we’re done leafing through a magazine, we often go back and read the stories that we found most promising.
Yet after our initial visit to a gallery or a museum, there’s no easy way to go back and dive deeper into the stories of the art we saw. What if there was?
To me, this is the main promise behind the Slow Art movement. While in it’s traditional sense, Slow Art usually refers to the act of pausing in front of the works and studying them intently, the stories within museio.org provide another dimension to the experience and another reason to stop and pay attention.
Writing about the topic in his book “Slow Art: The Experience of Looking”, Arden Reed said:
“Slow Art is a double good. There’s a good for objects, in that artworks need us to bring them to life with our attention…. But it is also good for the observer. Maybe in a secular age Slow Art can give us the kind of consolation that everyone is looking for.”
Museio.org is my first attempt to answer this question… What is out there for the audience that wants to dive deeper into the art that they often pass by with barely a glance? What if upon entering an art gallery, I could pull out my phone and discover that there is a dozen audio stories in here, recorded by historians, philosophers, poets and artists themselves, all linked to a specific place within the gallery where I could listen to the story, while looking at the artwork?
With that goal in mind, I started to collect all the long-form audio stories and discussion that I could find online. To help link these stories to the physical locations within the galleries, I developed museio.org.
You can spend half an hour listening to the artistic and true crime history behind the Mona Lisa, as you inch closer and closer to that tiny frame.
Or see how anxieties of the encroaching WWII involvement reflect in the faces of Hopper’s nighthawks.
Or follow along to the biography of Basquiat while walking through a retrospective, connecting stories of his childhood traumas, artistic collaborations and later tragedies with the paintings in front of you.
Or perhaps squint to see the abstracted meanings behind the figures in Picasso’s “Night Fishing at Antibes”.
THE MUSEIO MANIFESTO
- Most visitors to art galleries leave unaware of the stories behind the art that they saw
- There are no tools or resources to easily discover these stories
- We propose two ways to visit an art gallery:
First visit: explore everything to discover what connects with you
Subsequent visits: explore 8–12 pieces in depth
- Listening to stories while looking at the art is preferred to reading
- Telling the viewer why a piece could be interesting is preferred to just telling them what is being depicted
- Alternative perspectives are preferred to the official story
- New stories about obscure art are preferred to the known stories about famous pieces
- Ideal story length is 4 min — 20 min, to be experienced while standing in front of the art work being discussed
But that is just the beginning.
You can visit museio.org now, and if you find a gallery that’s in your hometown, try it out!
The idea for Museio was always to be an open-source project; connecting art historians, podcasters, curators and gallery administrators in one place, to help nurture and promote this alternative way of experiencing the wealth of art and culture that’s collected in our institutions.
We are a growing group of volunteers working together across the internet, but if any of these ideas connect with you, there are many ways for you to contribute:
- Museum Curators: Make recordings of your discussions about the favorite pieces in your collections
- Art Historians: If any artworks in your research have fascinating stories that the public would enjoy, write short scripts that we can record and share
- Art Podcasters: If your episodes have any interesting anecdotes about specific artworks, let’s cut them into self-contained audio files and link them to a location where the audience can hear them while admiring the art
- Art History Students: If you have to write an essay for a class and you think it’s something worth sharing more widely, let’s turn it into a script and record the story
- Radio / Journalism Students: There’s lots of fascinating art stories that are not yet recorded, we can produce and record pieces based on that material
- Developers: The initial museio.org is the most basic of all possible web applications. Help make it more flexible and usable! You can take a look at the project on GitHub
- Art enthusiasts: (that’s all of you if you made it this far) Search far and wide for any interesting audio stories that have already been shared online (I’ve been mainly scouring Soundcloud, YouTube and Podcast directories) and submit them into the system
- Gallery Administrators: Do you want to build up the library of in-depth stories about your collection? Let’s work together to make it happen!
- Artists: I was going to suggest that maybe you can record stories talking about your own work, but I read enough artists statements to know that this might be a dangerous proposition. Still might be worth a try though…