I love art museums, and over the last few months of visiting Italy, Austria, and Germany I have visited plenty of them. But even though I am a fan, I have to admit that visits can quickly become monotone and especially lesser-known or eye-catching pieces are easily skipped, overlooked, or at least not remembered. Another issue with museums is that I love to “look” with my hands, which usually is not an option; indeed, most places do not even want one to stand too close to the art to see the brushstrokes for example, and of course that is understandable, but the problem still is that it is difficult to become fully engaged – even visually.
Detail of “Sunflowers” 3rd Version by Vincent van Gogh in Neue Pinakothek Munich, Germany – no flash or touching but the guard was not happy with me
Sure some visitors are more active in museums and sketch and/or write, but this active appreciation of art usually is not created by the museum and the art; the visitor decides to sketch or write or maybe as student is required to complete an assignment or in need of extra credit. So the motivation for interacting comes from the visitor and is not created by the museum displays.
Visitor writing about/drawing the art in the Bargello in Florence, Italy
Sure, museums catering to children and focusing on science usually include interactive displays, but very few art museums do, so I am always excited when a display invites me to interact and I am no longer a passive observer. A recent example was a display of modern art at the K-hof museum in Gmunden, Austria. One of the sculptures, for example, came with sticky notes and visitors were encouraged to react to the piece and to other comments already left on the wall. These comments changed my perception of the piece as I started to react to the comments stuck beside it. The piece was not famous but it was memorable because of the interaction.
Christ Sculpture by Ferdinand – One note mentions that the artist does not want a God who suffers with him but a God who laughs with him.
Notes responding to the piece of art: “Laughing about what? About me? [Without interest in my suffering?] No, thanks!” Another note responds: “Laughs WITH me (not about). Therefore I am also allowed to laugh about myself.”
Another example of interaction were the hobbyhorses depicting famous horses in art at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria. There was Marengo, the stallion from the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Loius David; the horse’s description includes the achievement of galloping 129km in five hours.
Ride the Hobbyhorse Marengo at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria
Painting by Jacques-Louis David [Public Domain} via Wikimedia Commons
And then there was also the much calmer looking hobbyhorse Pferdinand created by Franz Marc. The description of the horse lists a talent for expressive art.
Ride the Hobbyhorse Pferdinand at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria
“Blue Horse I” by Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
These were just two of nearly a dozen famous hobby horses that were ridden by children in the courtyard of the exhibit, and even though no adults were playing when I visited, I could not see a sign that limited the activity only to kids.
More and more places also include replicas of the art that not only can be touched but is meant to be touched. These are geared especially towards visitors with vision impairments, but since my natural instinct is to touch, these replicas keep me entertained as well. I also realized that they help me notice details that I did not see before but now felt, and I could go back and look for them in the piece itself. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan includes one such replica, which is usually overlooked by visitors as it rests on a side wall. Read more about the artist who created this replica and many others in Italy in this article.
Touchable Replica of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”
Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan, Italy
Art museums could still do much more to encourage more active enjoyment of the pieces, but these examples show that change is coming.