Slow Art Day: Combating Museum Fatigue

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

“I wanna go plaaaay” was a cry recently repeated throughout the galleries by a group of preschoolers on a field trip to FWMoA. It’s okay, we aren’t offended. We actually totally get it. The museum is big! It’s a lot of walking for little legs and a lot to look at for small eyes when our Learning Center beckons. In fact, even for our adult guests with longer legs and bigger eyes the modest size of our museum can be too much. Therefore, on this Slow Art Day, we’re highlighting a phenomenon known as “museum fatigue”, and how to combat it by taking things a little slower.  

Characterized by decreased visitor interest due to exhaustion, waning attention, stress, information overload, object competition, and human’s innate limited attention span, museum fatigue affects many visitors in museums and other cultural institutions. The mass amounts of information, crowds, and inundation of “stuff” can overwhelm even the most experienced museum goer. First coined in 1916 by Benjamin Ives Gilman, museum fatigue has become a high priority research topic as institutions focus on visitor satisfaction and engagement. When first posited, Gilman believed the cause of museum fatigue was how museums chose to display their collections. Indeed, this may be true as we now take measures to ensure easier access to the objects, such as hanging paintings at (average adult) eye level and using shallower cases to bring objects closer to the eye.

We also recognize that the amount of objects a visitor has to see plays a large part in inducing museum fatigue. When we last visited New York, Alyssa Dumire and I walked 25 miles through the Met and MoMA. I honestly did not want to see ANY art for a few days after that excursion. This is why large museums like the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Met, and MoMA offer “Highlights of the Collection” in their maps, so you can see their “most famous” pieces. Of course, we recommend visiting a museum more than once; but, like us in New York, if you are a tourist you may only have a few hours. Therefore, we suggest taking your time: make use of the benches to stare at an artwork for longer than you would if standing, plan in advance what your “Must-See” list is, use an audio guide or take a guided tour to qualm the inundation of “stuff”, and consider buying a museum’s collection book if they have one.

Due to COVID-19, FWMoA is currently closed to the public. So, I’ve compiled a couple of pieces from our current exhibitions for you to spend some time with until you can see them for yourself again. You can also see more of the exhibits on our online tour here: Virtual Tour of FWMoA.

In this black and white photo, a grandmother with her grandchildren light candles in the monastery. The arches behind them cast shadows of light and dark, sparking the light of the candles to glow brightly.
Michelle Andonian, American, b. 1958. Lighting the Candles, 10th century Sanahin Monastery, Armenia. Archival pigment print, 2019-2020. Museum commission with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

When I first saw this photo, I thought it was a mistake. The right-hand corner is so dark, surely the artist didn’t mean to print it this way? It looks like a panorama gone wrong! After closer inspection, however, I realized the play of light and dark is integral to the narrative Michelle Andonian is telling. Most of the photos in this exhibition are black and white, are they historical? Nope. Many of the photos Andonian took in the last year document the way the country has changed following the genocide that took place from 1915-1917. Why do you think she chose black and white photography as her medium? What are the people in this photograph doing, and why?

A drip painting by Valverde mixes an abstracted background of paint pours with fine-lined drips extending vertically down the composition, of varying colors and thicknesses.
Francisco Valverde, Mexican, b. 1972. Gobemouche. Pigmented resin on panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Evan Lurie Gallery. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The first thing I think when I see Valverde’s work is color! Reminiscent of Stanczak, though perhaps less mathematical in his approach, if I stare at these drip paintings for too long my eyes begin to cross. The background is a mix of the colors poured onto the panel, leaving my eyes searching for a line or shape I recognize. What Valverde concerns himself with, however, is the line. Perhaps the most important, yet underrated of tools for an artist, the line as employed here is the thick drip of resin bisecting the canvas from top to bottom. Valverde has selected colors that don’t match to place next to one another, and the drips continuing off the panel lead the eye from top to bottom. It takes everything in me not to touch the thick resin lines, as I imagine they are smooth and cold. How long do you think it takes Valverde to make his works? Do you think he plans his works? Could you make an artwork like this?

The next time you visit us, consider taking things slow. Pick one work from each exhibit to focus on, instead of trying to see everything at once. Hopefully, we’ll see you soon! Until then, check us out online here: fwmoa.org.

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