The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Great discussion of a simple yet crucial element for any gallery visit: a place to sit and ponder.

Art Museum Teaching

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll…

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The Ideal Museum: Reflections on European Institutions

I recently spent two weeks in Europe visiting family and friends, and had the opportunity to be a tourist as well! Experiencing several museums, galleries, and historic sites in London, Amsterdam, and Rome in quick succession allowed me to compare and contrast my visits. I began wondering if there were such a thing as an “ideal” museum. If so, what would such a place look like? Are there qualities all museums should possess? Are there aspects that no institution should have? Although there are no definite answers to such questions, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a list of four characteristics that all modern museums, in my experience, should possess.

Opportunities for immersion (and explanation!)

One of the most common things people want when visiting a museum or historic site is to experience a sense of escapism and immersion – to feel that they have entered a different time period. Historic sites obviously have an advantage over museums and galleries in this regard, but institutions such as the British Museum have done an excellent job of designing exhibits that resemble historic spaces as diverse as Greek temples, Sumerian palaces, and eighteenth-century libraries.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

On the other hand, immersion in the sights, sounds, and textures of the past needs to be tempered with historical context and clear explanations through audio guides, info boards, and interpretive staff; a challenging balance that highly-protected historic sites such as the Roman Forum have difficulty achieving.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

One of the most successful combinations of immersion and explanation that I encountered was The Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The museum is comprised of two halves; the first half is the original house belonging to seventeenth-century artist Rembrandt van Rijn, expertly restored to its former glory with knowledgeable interpreters and hands-on demonstrations to boot. The second half is a modern gallery which features more detailed information about Rembrandt’s historical context and methods, as well as a large collection of his etchings.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at Rembrandt's House Museum.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at The Rembrandt House Museum.

Effective, sensible use of modern technology

The ubiquity of smartphones, tablet computers, GPS, and other technological innovations has permanently changed the way people learn and experience the world. This has created unprecedented opportunities for visitor engagement in museums, but is not without pitfalls. Touchscreens, apps, or audiovisual displays that are faulty, ill-placed, or difficult to use won’t be tolerated by an increasingly techno-savvy public. The use of modern technology in museums is a great way to connect with new audiences and keep exhibits relevant, but is best avoided if it cannot be well integrated or maintained.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

One excellent example of technology used effectively that I encountered was at Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum. Re-opened in 2013 after 10 years of renovations, the institution is now a shining example of modern design and technology in a world-class museum. For example, their impressive collection of historic ship models are brought to life with detailed moving holograms, demonstrating the many activities that took place on a vessel.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

Opportunities for rest and refreshment

Museum fatigue is a phenomenon that affects almost every museum visitor, even heritage professionals and museophiles such as myself. This combination of mental and physical exhaustion prevents guests from being able to enjoy and learn, often cutting visits short. That is why it is so important for large museums and historic sites to offer opportunities for rest and refreshment (especially outdoor space) which can be accessed at anytime during a visit. Some of the best examples of these amenities I found were in Rome.

Although this was not my first time in the Eternal City, I was thrilled to finally be able to visit the Vatican Museums on this trip. I knew the size would be overwhelming, the crowds enormous, and the collections astonishing. In all of these aspects I was not disappointed. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the several gardens, cafes, and resting places available throughout the museum complex. This allows visitors much-needed opportunities to reflect, relax, and put their weary feet up whilst exploring one of Europe’s largest institutions.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter's Basilica beyond.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter’s Basilica beyond.

A short walk from the Vatican, the ancient mausoleum and fort Castel Sant’Angelo features a cafe with great views of the city – a perfect way to relax after exploring this massive Roman site.

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant’Angelo

A clear and consistent photography policy

Debates have raged over photography rules in museums and galleries for years, and have been complicated even further by the recent advent of the selfie stick. Regardless of individual opinions about an institution’s photography policy, the regulations need to be clear and consistent. As a museum worker and a museum visitor, there is nothing more annoying or confusing than a photography policy that changes depending on what space you are in or which device you are using. Most people want to respect rules and boundaries, but they don’t want to have to constantly re-assess what those are during their visit. While it’s understandable that institutions want to allow photography as much as possible, in my experience, an “all or nothing” policy is usually best for everybody. Institutions such as Hampton Court Palace and the Vatican Museums allow photography in most areas, but not temporary exhibitions and the Chapel Royal in the case of Hampton Court, and the Sistine Chapel in the case of the Vatican. Although it is perfectly valid to ban photography in these instances, it does make it confusing for visitors (and a headache for staff) to police these changing rules in different areas. An institution-wide policy, such as the photography ban within Hever Castle, makes things easier for everyone.

Mid-click in the grounds of Hever Castle. Photography is only allowed outside of the building.

Your humble writer mid-click outside of Hever Castle. Photography is not allowed within the building.

Although there are many other wonderful features I encountered in my visits to European museums, these are four aspects that I believe are integral to an ideal visitor experience.

What additions or changes would you make to this list?