For some people, setting foot in an art museum can feel like dropping your phone in the toilet or showing up to a party not knowing a soul: a source of dread above all else.
It’s not without reason. For all of their enriching attributes — showcasing art as creative expression, art as protest, art as therapy or proxy for cultural understanding — art museums can be intimidating. To someone without an art background, they can seem like aloof, pretentious ivory towers or puzzles uninterested in being solved. And learning how to be comfortable and engaged in an art museum isn’t exactly something that’s widely taught.
Which is too bad, because the ability to navigate one is a skill in itself — and learning it can make the experience more approachable, and even enjoyable, to those who might otherwise shy away. Below, museum curators offer tips for beginners who want to appreciate an art museum but don’t know where to begin. Consider this your primer on how to think about thinking about art.
As a first step, remember that there’s no “right” way to experience art. It may sound like a cop-out, but the art museum experience really is yours to create. It’s a personal endeavor, and it’s totally acceptable to leave a museum without having been profoundly moved by that collection of Flemish masters or sculptures made from upcycled materials.
It’s also totally acceptable to go in blind. “You don’t need to know anything before you go to an art museum,” says Lisa Çakmak, associate curator of ancient art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “I’m 100 percent positive no one who walks into the zoo thinks, ‘I should know something about hippos before I go to the zoo.’ No, you just go and look at the hippos.”
In the same way, a visit to an art museum can be guided entirely by what sparks your curiosity in the moment. “Do you love the color red? And do you see something where the artist used a lot of red and that really moved you?” Çakmak says. “That’s great. You can stop there, and you don’t have to ask any more questions if you don’t want to.”
Notice What Grabs You
If, however, you do want to ask more questions during your experience, try turning your focus inward. Before delving into the artist’s intent or trying to puzzle through technique and what it all means, start with what you have a visceral reaction to, Çakmak says, whether that reaction is positive or negative. Probe your own response to figure out more specifically what has caught your attention: If it’s a painting, do you like that its brushstrokes are articulated or that you can identify a familiar figure or landscape? If you’re listening to an audio description or guided tour, what details resonated?
Or consider the interplay between a piece and its surrounding environment, says Anita Feldman, deputy director for curatorial affairs and education at the San Diego Museum of Art. At her workplace, for example, Francisco Zúñiga’s bronze sculpture Mother and Daughter Seated is situated beneath a tree, creating an intimate setting for the viewer. “It’s a quiet piece,” she says.
Similarly, challenging yourself to explore works you don’t like or understand might mean seeking information on the artist. It can be an interesting entry point to why a work’s aesthetics are the way they are, Çakmak says.
Above all, “don’t be afraid to develop your own opinion or interpretation,” advises Kathryn Hall, a curator at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. It’s a worthwhile exercise to examine your reaction to a piece of art, but you shouldn’t feel the need to try to change it.
Ask for Help
Still, what if you just don’t get it?
“Connect with a museum staff member” who can expand on context, like why a piece is important and what the artist’s message is, Hall says. She also suggests chatting up your fellow museumgoers for a different perspective — or, if you’re alone or on the shyer side, using technology to help you out. “If I see something I like and there’s no blurb there, I’ll just Google it. There’s no reason why you can’t use the technology at hand to enhance your visit,” Çakmak says.
Ultimately, the goal should be to leave the museum more curious than you were going in. “You may come in to unwind and look at something beautiful, but you might stumble across something that surprises you that you can explore further,” Feldman says. “I think it’s good to stretch ourselves.” It takes willpower to sit with something you don’t understand and work through your discomfort.
And that persistence can pay off, Hall adds, by giving you a new way to express yourself or understand the world around you. “Some situations are hard to articulate — an emotion, idea, experience. Art can succeed in this space.”
Although plumbing the depths of your psyche gets exhausting, even for experts. “I have a threshold of two hours,” Çakmak says, “and then I need a snack.”