Museum Meditations | On Learning How to Look

Museum Meditations | On Learning How to Look

Roughly a month ago, I was in London with my mom and brother and as we always do as a family, we spent quite a few hours in art museums. My brother was performing in the evenings and our time together was limited, so we had to keep the “must-do + must-see” list short and focused. It looked something like this:

-Tate Modern
-Tate Britain
-National Gallery
-Food, coffee, food, and more food.

I think you can learn a lot about people by their travel to-do lists. We happened to be a familial trio of food-loving artists. 

I’ve been going to art museums since before I could even walk. Even though we didn’t have quite as many museums to choose from in Minneapolis as there would have been if we had grown up in New York or London, my parents were still able to pass on their love of slow-walking around an exhibition and looking at art for hours. They made sure that frequent visits to the Walker, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other smaller local galleries were a part of our lives from the beginning. 

Since there are not exactly huge, sprawling art museums here in Tangier, my trip to London reminded me of the sweet nostalgia I get from these spaces. The joy of those airy, high-ceilinged galleries where people are often naturally humbled to hush the tones of their voices (save for the occasional lively school group). The winding, maze-like stairways that take you to new centuries and eras of paintings, sculptures and general food for the eyes. I felt a sense of comfort and home in each museum we visited in London, especially the National Gallery since I went there basically every other weekend while I interned in the city for 3 months. I didn’t realize how hungry I had been to be surrounded by art, even if just for a couple hours at a time. I had missed the meditative quality of museum-wandering. 

Speaking of meditation (although on a slightly different note), I have been beating myself up a bit lately for losing my morning routine. I have let go of my regular meditation practice and seldom sit down for more than 10 deep breaths at a time before becoming antsy to get up and begin my day. After my yoga teacher training a couple years back I had been meditating for a solid 15-20 minutes every morning, but for some reason this year I haven’t felt any sort of motivation to sit in silence in that particular fashion. 

However, something came back into my mind last month as I was walking around the Pierre Bonnard show at the Tate Modern. Meditation doesn’t necessarily have to be sitting in silence and counting the minutes that pass. It doesn’t have to be all pranayamas and mantras. I believe meditation can be doing almost anything with your entire consciousness- being exactly where you are with an awareness of your entire self. I always think about Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with the psychologist and author Ellen Langer, where they discuss what it really means to be mindful. Langer describes mindfulness as

“the simple act of actively noticing things.”

She also mentions this later in the interview:

“I think that one can pursue yoga mindlessly;
one can even pursue meditation mindlessly.”

My yoga and meditation routine was becoming less mindful as I became less motivated to practice. However, that doesn’t mean that I was losing those skills. I found that I still had them in abundance while walking around the crowded Bonnard exhibition- there were people squeezing on all sides to get a glimpse of each painting, but I went deep into a bubble of imagined solitude. Just me, alone with each painting, looking, observing, allowing whatever sensations it brought or thoughts it inspired to wash over me. I was actively noticing things.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913 by Pierre Bonnard.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913 by Pierre Bonnard.

All three of us, my mom, brother and I, had a similar experience of Bonnard’s work that day, allowing ourselves to look so deeply at his colors, brushstrokes and layers built up on canvases that by the end of the show we all used the same word to explain our state of mind- “saturated.” We had fully immersed ourselves in the simple and yet awe-inducing act of mindful looking.

Jeanette Winterson poses a question in the very beginning of her brief but weighty book of essays, Art [Objects]:

“When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake?”

I think the answer for most of us, myself definitely included, is not often enough. She goes on to describe her own experience of looking at paintings in an art museum and wraps up the essay with this simple and poetic statement:

“What has changed is my way of seeing. I am learning how to look at pictures. What has changed is my capacity of feeling.
Art opens the heart.”

In my yoga teacher training, this theme is similar to what we were guided through in our silent, seated meditations. Open your energy centers- heart, third-eye, mind, etc.- in order to subtly change your way of seeing and feeling. While I still believe strongly in the power and effects of this kind of meditation, there are also so many ways to reach similar inner shifts- looking at art being one of them. 

Being able to truly look at the world around us deepens our ability to observe and be fully present in our own minds. Therefore, being present in an art museum is decidedly a “mindfulness practice.” The slow walk, the observant gaze, focusing on the object in front of you as the crowds fade away in the background.

National Gallery, London

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a museum in which we practice this kind of slow moving, focused meditation. It can be anywhere in which we stop, slow our pace, and really look at one thing at a time, giving it our full consciousness. This could be in nature, staring at trees or bodies of water. It could even be while walking around your own city, noticing the details of shopfronts and building facades. A museum is perhaps a bit “easier” because you are in this space specifically to look at art. Theoretically, there is no other purpose or reason for being there. Allowing yourself to be fully present with this kind of active noticing can help to cultivate the ability to really look at everything else around you in your daily life. Take nothing for granted, even the seemingly ordinary objects and material things that constantly surround you. 

My self-inflicted guilt over losing my morning meditation practice faded after this recent trip to London. I was reminded that meditation comes in all shapes and forms and that the practice of wandering museums has always been with me throughout my life. It is a steady ritual I can always come back to in order to reconnect with something deeper and intangible. More “formal” mediation may come and go in my daily routine, but museums will always be home to my personal form of meditative mindfulness.