Visiting museums: seeing things in a different way

Ships figureheads

Have you ever noticed the different ways in which visitors to a museum or gallery take in the objects they are looking at? Have you seen how some people stand there, as if in a trance, transported into whatever place or time period they’re observing, while others read a sign, take a photo and move on? 


A few months ago I visited Dennis Severs’ House, a highly original museum set in an ordinary Victorian terrace behind London’s Spitalfields Market. The experience is part-museum part-theatre, with visitors asked to pass through the various rooms of the house in complete silence in order to absorb the sounds and smells that have been carefully and often very subtly recreated to match the visual displays.

The memory I took away most from my visit was the clear desire of the late Mr Severs that the house should inspire visitors to use each of their senses to absorb and appreciate their surroundings. I understand this to mean that when visiting museums or galleries I shouldn’t head straight for the interpretive description of whatever is standing/hanging in front of me. Instead I should stop, take things in slowly and try to make sense of what I can see/hear/smell/feel on my own terms, without the help of an ‘official’ interpretation.

Reading the Boards

As a philosophy it’s a simple one; quite unremarkable in fact. Yet it has stayed with me since my visit and I’ve been reminded of it in almost every old house or museum I’ve been to since. Perhaps I’ve been more guilty of this than most, but if I step into a room with objects that have text next to them my instinct has me heading straight for the text after giving the object little more than a cursory glance. There’s an inbuilt desire to know what I should be seeing before taking the trouble to look properly.

Having started to consciously take a step back and try to observe and absorb before reading the words of the curator or creator, I feel I’ve discovered a new pleasure in visiting museums (the good ones at least). It probably appeals to my fondness for puzzle-solving, but I like to work out what a picture is trying to say, what an object was used for, or what might have taken place in a room, before finding the ‘official’ answer.

Seeing through your own eyes

Perhaps I’m just a bit slow and the experience at Dennis Severs’ House has shaken me out of a lazy habit of letting others do the thinking. Perhaps it’s just me who has passed through so many places and taken little or nothing away as a result of not bothering to look properly.

But if any of this sounds vaguely familiar to you, perhaps you’ll stop and think when you’re next in a museum: do you want to experience it through someone else’s eyes or your own? The latter will require a little bit of work, but the rewards are almost certainly well worth the effort.

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Freelance travel writer

4 Responses to “Visiting museums: seeing things in a different way”

  1. I’m very much a straight to the text person – I always care more about the story behind the object than the object itself. But you make a good point…

    August 21, 2012 at 2:16 pm
  2. I think it depends on the subject. Some exhibitions (eg about history) should teach you something, some exhibitions (eg about art) should inspire you. Whereas it isn’t that good everybody makes his own history it would be excellent everbody makes his own thought about an artwork.

    August 21, 2012 at 7:06 pm
  3. Thanks gentlemen – agree that different approaches suit different types of museum. The distinction that Andreas makes (art v history) is a good one- one is more about interpretation than the other.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:41 am
  4. Sometimes I take in an object or piece of art and with my partner guess what the text will say when we read it. Always interesting to compare our knowledge and imaginings with reality. Sometimes one or both of us is correct, other times nowhere near. Sometimes we come up with more entertaining descriptions that would enable us to become tour guides if we fall upon hard times.

    September 11, 2012 at 8:37 pm