Comforting thought: Museums are ways of seeing

Sibyl showing Aneas the Underworld by Jacob can Swanenburg (circa 1620).

According to the fascinating book about preferences and tastes, ‘You May Also Like’ by Tom Vanderbilt, museums help us see the odd and remarkable in everyday objects. They also give us cues about the boundaries of art.

“The fact that art is not something we see everyday is what makes it extraordinary. This is why we head to museums. Not just to look at things that have been recognised as art, but to actually see them. Rituals as the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed are a kind of frame separating some experience from the everyday. A museum, like a painter’s frame calls attention to what is inside of it and sets the boundaries for where the art ends. We go inside to look at special things and to breathe in the ‘Empyrean air’. We go to look at them in special ways, freed from the normal concerns and limitations.”

  • Researchers found that the more paintings a museum housed, the less time patrons spent looking at any one of them.
  • Where paintings are hung can matter more than their inherent quality of attracting visitor attention. In one experiment in a Swiss museum, a painting was moved from the middle of a room to the corner and views went from 217 to 17.
  • People don’t like to read long wall text. The optimal is three ‘chunks’ of 50 words.
Day out in Wellington: The Terracotta Warriors at Te Papa Museum Copyright © Content Catnip
Day out in Wellington: The Terracotta Warriors at Te Papa Museum Copyright © Content Catnip

Read the review: You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt

Book Review: You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt

Ever wondered why you like some things and dislike others? The answers may surprise you. ‘You May Also Like’ is a bubbly, effervescent, fun, erudite and informative book that I managed to breeze through in only one evening. It was so incredible that I bookmarked almost every second or third page. It’s just one of those books. Each page gives you an AHA moment of recognition (as Oprah would say). It turns out that our unique pastimes, preferences and peccadilloes are not as specific to you as an individual as you may have thought!

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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