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Guide to a Guilt Free Visit to the Museum

Today’s post comes from Isa Pengskul, class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent

“Okay, so I’ve set aside an hour and now I’m prepared to experience everything on display in the museum.” This is the deluded thought (I hate to admit) I sometimes have when I visit other medium sized galleries. I often breeze past objects and spend no more than two minutes on the ones I deem interesting. I was looking at Louise Bourgeois’s Crouching Spider at Dia:Beacon the other day and sadly only asked “Why is this so famous? (It’s just a spider!)” I never got to any answers or speculations — partly because it was closing time and I was getting kicked out, but also because I failed to ask any further questions. So in an attempt to enrich my museum experience (and allow myself to leave guilt-free knowing that I tried to engage with the objects on display), I’ve created a list of seven questions to ask myself when I encounter an artwork for the first time. I’ve also provided some guidelines.

Louise Bourgeois, Crouching Spider, 2003. Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York


  • Be real. Each question will probably take 1-3 minutes to answer, so you obviously can’t look at 10 pieces in an hour (that’d be 70+ minutes), and that’s fine if you actually engage with the pieces you’ve chosen.
  • Stick with your choice. Even if you don’t get it, and even if you hate it, make an attempt to answer all of your own questions before walking away from the piece.
  • Look. Sometimes just looking for a long time is good too. If you don’t believe me check out this testimony from another docent.

Time to get down to business:

  1. Why did I choose this work to observe?
  2. What are the prominent elements of this work?
  3. Am I attracted to these elements, repulsed by them, or do I feel neutral towards them? Why?
  4. What is the mood of this work of art? Does it suggest time/an emotion/a place? How do the elements work together to create this mood?
  5. Does this work remind me of anything in my life? How does it bring me to this thought or memory? Do I want to spend more time pondering this thought?
  6. What is the title of this work? Does it change/support/enhance my experience?
  7. Has my initial impression of the work shifted over the time that I’ve been looking at it?

These are seven general questions that can be applied to any work of art, and of course there are many more I could ask. Other ways of approaching a work could include researching the artist, visiting more exhibitions, looking slowly, and many more. In any case, I hope that this guide will work as well for you as it will for me… and now that I’ve written this I can be held accountable whenever I walk away from a work too quickly…

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