The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

My Way of Visiting Museums

Posted by thearrow on August 5, 2009

I have been reflecting lately on how museum visiting has changed for me since I bought my beloved camera. As the few of you who have been reading this page might know, I’m an avid museum visitor. I can spend 7 hours in a museum in one stretch. Sure, my lower back will hurt, but I’ll go grab a bite in the cafe, get rested, and then start afresh.

I’m a collector at heart (been meaning to write about that, too). If I could, I would have a collection of classical literature and music but this is more a fantasy than anything else. Also if I could, I would have a huge house surrounded by a garden and an orchard, where I could spend my days reading from that huge collection. I actually doubt that I would be able to live such a secluded life, but I like to think I could.

When I visited great museums years ago I tried to imprint in my memory as many of the works of art I saw as possible, in an effort to collect them at least there and hopefully retrieve their polished image later. Of course, very few of them really did get that deep into my mind.

But now we live in a different world, where collecting images is so easy that everyone does it. And, just as I was musing about all this, a New York Times article describes the same phenomenon: “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus.” It got me thinking about how taking pictures has changed my own viewing experience. I still linger quite a bit in front of exhibits I like, but taking pictures of them is like hunting trophy game. Needless to say, it helps me remember what I saw where. And here’s one more thing I do: I photograph the information plates next to the exhibits, too. I realized I remember zilch from what I read and I hated that. Well, now I capture it and I’m very proud of my trick. The little plates as well as the big ones, with info on certain historical periods, geographical areas, cultures, artistic currents etc.

I have yet to make online albums for four or five museums I’ve visited this way this year, though, and I can sense a certain hesitation. My memories of past museum visits are glowing warmly in my heart and part of the reason is that they were one-time intense experiences. There was (still is) no telling as to when or if I’ll see them again. I was also much younger, had not seen as many museums, and was completely thrilled to be in front of an original masterpiece. But because the camera always creates a distance between you and your subject, I inevitably have less of an intense viewing experience even if I do take my time to admire a painting. At the back of my mind there’s the thought that I’ll be able to see it again.

Now, with the pictures taken and (some time soon) neatly arranged in albums, I’m afraid my memories will not be as glowing either. I get to possess the images I love, but the beautiful experience of trying to absorb them with all my neurons and pores is probably gone. I will be able to access them any time but I’m afraid there will be no intensity whatsoever in doing it and that makes me sad. Imperfect memories in smoky shapes might very well mean (a lot?) more than the crisp high-resolution files stored on a hard drive.

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