Museum Myth Monday: Why Bother Seeing Art In Person?

Nowadays anyone can see a world of art on the computer: search engines, image searching, museum databases. It’s tempting to not leave the comfort of your home and venture into a museum when, really, you can likely get the general idea from your screen.

Let me begin debunking this myth with a story:

Growing up, I was quite familiar with the image of Gustav Kilmt’s “Mother and Child.” I had seen this on T-shirts, magnets, tote bags, and greeting cards. I saw pictures of it online. What I did not know until I entered the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, Italy, was that this image is only a detail of Klimt’s painting “The Three Ages of Women.”

I was shocked–hovering just over the shoulder of the beautiful young mother is the bent, time-ravaged body of a grey-haired woman. She haunts the painting, both a loving and protective force (the grandmother?) and an image of the unavoidable fate of the sleeping mother and her child. I had seen the image of the mother and child uncountable times, but I had never before seen this woman. I felt almost angry about having missed the whole story, and I thought about how anyone who did not study art history or happen into this museum may never find out.

I have come to believe that you can have this experience with any work of art: a photograph of a work, no matter how good, will not tell you the whole story. Take, for example, the UMFA’s collection of sculptures, urns, and other objects that are not framed on a wall: You can walk all the way around this one, see the back, see the marks of labor that made it:

Urn (Maya)

Urn (Maya)

That’s something you can’t do online.

Another thing that you can’t do online isn’t as easy to quantify: the experience of wandering the halls in the presence of such history, such beauty. The word I’ve most often heard to describe this is peaceful. If you’re looking at art online, you’ve likely also got a million other tabs and windows open, multi-tasking (as I am now). Lucky me: the galleries are just a few steps away, so I can take a stroll, unplug, and brighten my work day.

Aphrodite with Eros on a dolphin at her side

Aphrodite with Eros on a dolphin at her side

We have a finite amount of time: the average human life is 28,000 days long. An interesting way of thinking about this comes from the article (and the title!) The Sad Beautiful Fact That We’re Going To Miss Almost Everything. I guess the question becomes about how you want to spend your time. Many people have suggested lists of art to see before you die, but these are scattered around the world! Very few people could afford to visit every piece on every list (not to mention those that are incredible, but haven’t made the list yet, or those that haven’t even been acquired by museums, or even made yet).

It’s tempting to save time (and baggage fees) by looking online, on the database of any museum (like ours). But when we know there is so much to be gained from seeing the work in person, might coming through the doors be a better way to spend your time? To enrich the days we have, however limited?

Maya King in Litter

Maya King in Litter

Even better news: instead of flying all over the world to look at art, or opening a browser, why not just come in to the UMFA? We have art that spans centuries from all over the world. And what better way to celebrate today, World Art Day, than to travel through our galleries?

Whenever I see Klimt’s “Mother and Child” / detail of “The Three Ages of Women,” my favorite part now is the grey tendrils falling just at the shoulder of the sleeping mother. I quite dislike that pop culture and merchandising has eliminated her, but each time I glimpse her grey hair I am brought right back to that afternoon in the museum in Rome, standing alone in front of the large painting, truly seeing it for the first time.



  1. So happy to read this post. As a painter, I am always disappointed showing art online… it just doesn’t do justice to the texture, colour and quality of the paints AT ALL. This is why, whenever I see a gallery, I will walk in and look at each artwork in detail. Photography is a viable art in itself, but fails miserably at recording other artwork.

  2. umfablog

    Well said, Masqua! It’s great to hear an artist’s perspective on this. Would you share with us your favorite experience of seeing art in person?

  3. Pingback: Museum Myth Monday: Museums are Cool | Utah Museum of Fine Arts

  4. Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic work!

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