The Restful Museum
At Communicating The Museum Brussels, Raquel Meseguer, who hails from the theatre world, gave a seemingly unassuming presentation that was actually electrifying and a revelation: Dreams of Resting Spaces.
I am what you might call a museum marathoner. This past weekend, for example, I spent 8 hours in the Louvre without a break for food and hardly for anything else. It was an uninterrupted fine art binge.
I’m probably not normal and I certainly would not have been allowed to behave that way had I not been entirely on my own. Art stamina—if that’s what to call it—is something one builds over a lifetime of practice. What Raquel pointed out to me though is the simple fact that the art experience in a museum does not have to be this way. A museum does not need to insist that you demonstrate your endurance. And yet most museums, with a typical shortage of chairs and sofas in the galleries, effectively demand exactly that.
It is almost as if museums were designed with the idea of me—the marathoner—in mind and not really anyone else.
The Restful Museum
Should we not find in museums—especially art museums—a place of respite, rejuvenation, mystery, contemplation, and inspiration? These are all things that are possible at museums, of course, even if nothing were changed, but the idea of the restful museum could be far more actively provided for.
Raquel, who suffers from chronic pain—an invisible disability—needs to lie down often, not sit down, but lie down, prone, in order to recover her equilibrium and go on. This need severely limits her capacity to enjoy a typical museum. What was revelatory for me in hearing Raquel’s thoughts and her recommendations to encourage people to lie down, put art on the ceilings, and think about how to slow people down instead of speed them up, is how beneficial these changes would be not just for Raquel or others with disabilities, but for everyone—the elderly, the young, the expecting or new moms, the exhausted, even the marathoner like me!
I was telling Raquel’s story to a friend who works at an art museum, and she said, “Oh yeah, I can’t be in a museum for more than an hour or two before I have to go elsewhere so I can relax. It’s too exhausting. Sometimes I don’t even try, because I cannot stand up for that long.” She’s in her forties, healthy, and an art lover! We are turning her away or at best making her think twice about walking through our door.
Do we need to hurry?
I realize that there are situations when an institution is interested in moving volume. Obviously the Louvre should not put couches in front of the Mona Lisa. But most museums have ample space where there are rarely crowds and where there would be no harm in showing people that it is OK to slow down and linger. Wouldn’t this allow us all to have a richer experience? Is it not better if I, as a visitor, am encouraged to spend 20 minutes with a work of art instead of 20 seconds? It’s a simple idea really: make it easier to rest with art. Make is easier to sit or to lie down. Make it easier to just be there and take it all in.
Here’s to the pausers, the wanderers, the lingerers, the slow. Here’s to the readers of texts, the thinkers of thoughts, the starers, and the close examiners. Let us celebrate the idea of looking at an artwork for longer, of sharing time with it, and of seeing it from different perspectives, even from the floor.
The changes an institution might need to make are actually quite minor: more comfortable chairs, more sofas, no policy that says you cannot lie down or close your eyes. What would it take to make this the norm, instead of the exception, and what would we gain from doing this? Raquel showed us all last week that the benefits of doing this are not minor at all.
All photos by the author at the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and for the last at the European Parliament as the CTMers lie on the floor after Raquel’s presentation. Painting is a detail of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Les Foins [Hay Making] from Musée d’Orsay.
Watch a short excerpt from a diagnostic workshop in which James Heaton engages with the staff of the Tenement Museum in New York City to answer the question, “What is a brand?”
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