Monday, July 6, 2009

Museum Monday: Art History for Non-Art Historians

Mona Lisa Photo courtesy of sergeymk

Several times, I've heard people say that they find art museums intimidating.  Definitely something like the Louvre is intimidating to anyone just because it's freaking huge; but the art in it shouldn't be! 

This month I'm planning a series of posts to help non-art people navigate art museums and talk about the art in them.  Hopefully this will encourage people to visit an art museum this summer, or help them enjoy the museum more when they go.  If you have a question about art or museums you want me to answer (anything from the specific, broad, or mundane), e-mail me at [kitty fischer at gmail dot com], message me on twitter, or leave a comment, and I will reply to you on my blog.

This post focuses on how to navigate through a museum.  There are usually so many things to look at, it can be overwhelming, especially for a first-time visitor.  So how do you know where to start and what to look at?

How are art museums organized?

Short answer:  It depends on the museum (very helpful, I know).

Long answer:  Most art museums are organized by time period and country of origin, especially ones with a wide variety of art like the Art Institute in Chicago or the Louvre.  But if you go to a smaller museum (which I definitely recommend), it could be organized any which way.  The Musée d'Osay, for example, has academic art on the right side of its long gallery, and modern art on the left side (political correlation, perhaps?).  Historical houses that house art collections might not be organized at all.

So how do I know where to go?

There are several answers to this question.

Most museums offer guided tours to their most famous pieces.  The good thing about tours is that you learn stuff about the pieces in the collection and you can move through the highlights easily.  The bad side of tours is that you can't really look at your leisure or explore on your own.  Oh, and they can cost money.  You should check your guidebook or the museum's website for guided tour options.

Other museums have maps with specific works highlighted.  These allow you more autonomy; however, the maps aren't always the easiest to read (I'm looking at you, Art Institute of Chicago). 

If all else fails and you really want to see a specific work of art, just start asking random people where it is. :)

Do I really want spend most/all of my time looking at the famous pieces?

Maybe not all your time, but definitely yes--you should focus on seeing the major works.

Famous art is famous for a reason.  You'd feel like kind of a n00b if you went to the Louvre and never saw the Mona Lisa, wouldn't you?  That's why I think it's really important if you're going to a truly huge museum like the Louvre or the Met to have a game plan.  Neither of these collections can be entirely viewed in one day.  You need to know exactly how much time you want to spend in them and what you want to see.  This will save you a big headache at the end of the day.

Most smaller museums can be walked through in an hour or two, so with those I wouldn't worry so much about finding specific things to look at.  Just enjoy yourself and browse.

Can the guards tell me about the art?

The guards should be able to help you navigate through the museum, but most museums make an effort not to hire art lovers to be guards.  They want the guards to look at the people, not the art.

Can I take photographs?

Again, it depends on the museum and how greedy they are.

You won't be able to use flash anywhere.  Just put it out of your mind.  But many museums let you take non-flash photographs of their pieces.  Why do some let you take pictures and others don't?  Not to be a bitch or anything, but it really boils down to how much they want you to stop in the gift shop and pay for reproductions of works you like.

With the advent of digital cameras, though, this is really hard to regulate.  For example, the only piece of art in the Louvre Museum you're not allowed to take a photograph of is... the Mona Lisa!  And look at how well that's working out!^

I definitely recommend taking pictures of pieces you like (but only if it's allowed, of course *cough*).  Then you should buy postcards or posters or shot glasses, or whatever.  You don't know if the museum is going to have reproductions of the work you like available in the gift shop; but if they do, it will be of a higher quality than the photo you took.  And postcards are pretty cheap.

That's it for this week's Monday museum post.  Next week (hopefully maybe), I'll be writing a post that will focus more on the art itself.  Until then, keep jumping in art museums!

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