Slow Museums


As a counterpoint to my last post about responding to current events, and the post I wrote for Registrar Trek recently about rapid response collecting, today I am thinking about the benefits for museums of being slow. 

I mentioned in that previous post that Twitter has found a niche for rapid responses and hot takes. The growth of 24 hour news and social media has changed the way we consume news, culture and journalism: everything is available in an instant. We are impatient consumers and our attention spans are short. There has been a reaction against this in various corners, with talk of slow TV, slow food, slow fashion and slow journalism as an antidote to the TL;DR internet culture.  So while I’m all for museums responding to current events and staying relevant, I wanted to consider how museums can fit into this movement to slow down. 

Museums can be slow in more ways than one. They can be frustrating slow to catch up with other sectors in terms of digital innovation and diversity, for example. The nature of what many museums do is also slow: interpreting ancient artefacts through a lens influenced by hundreds of years historical scholarship. An exhibition may offer a fresh and contemporary take on a subject, but it will build on the work of previous collectors, previous curators, previous ideas. Interpreting and exhibiting history is a slow process. 

It could be argued that visiting museums lends itself to being a slow experience. Galleries unfold narratives as visitors move through them in space. But this is only slow if the visitor decides to move through an exhibition slowly and takes time to read the text and contemplate the displays (which we know most people don’t) and is only relaxed if the exhibition is quiet (it’s very difficult to have a slow thoughtful exhibition experience at a sold out timed entry show where everyone is shuffling through and you can’t get close to the things that you want to explore) an if museum environments are somewhere you are familiar with and can feel comfortable. Many visitors arrive at a museum, especially if they are tourists in a new city, with a to do list. In fact museums and travel guide books often encourage this with lists of what to see if you have one hour, an afternoon or the whole day to spend. 

This video from the Art Fund, a short version of which I happened to see in the cinema while thinking about this post, turns museum-going into a zany marathon challenge to see all the works of art in London in a single day. The conclusion is of course that it’s impossible. 

All the art in london in one day from Alex Gorosh on Vimeo.

How can museums nurture slowness, and how can they use it to their, and their visitors advantage? 

The thing about taking the time to enjoy a ‘slow’ format is that you have to do just that – use your leisure time purposefully, putting aside the to do list and the urge to charge from one thing to another. I often find myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, or clicking on and quickly scanning news articles one after another, and have to remind myself that I could be using that time to read one really engaging article or a chapter of a book. I try to do the latter, but it’s easier to keep scrolling, not really committing my mind to any one thing. Of course I’m aware that this is probably not very good for me or my mind, whereas slowing down and becoming absorbed in a good read feels more like self care. 

Whether you call it self care, wellbeing, or mindfulness, the slow movement comes hand in hand with recognition of the need to take time for oneself and pay more careful attention to ourselves and our surroundings. There has been a move in museums to be part of a health and wellbeing agenda as part of the social role of the museum. This is often through targeted community engagement and project work with groups with specific needs. For most visitors, who are not participating in such projects, encouraging slow museum visiting could mean marketing museums in a different way, but it also means providing facilities which are conducive to relaxing and mindful visiting experiences. 

Unsurprisingly given its focus on health, the Wellcome Collection does well here, both online and in its physical spaces. The revamped Reading Room is an amazing space which invites people to sit, on the stylishly retro Ercol chairs or sprawled on the stairs, pick up and read books, explore objects through quiet contemplation or digital interactives, or plug in their laptops and work if that’s what they feel like. It’s an exciting and absorbing space yet it still feels calm. 

It seems so obvious, but seating and spaces to take a break from exploring are key to creating a slow museum experience. The Wellcome Reading Room is exceptional, but all museums could take something from it: comfortable, not prescriptive, no obligation to buy a coffee in order to sit down, quiet but not stuffy. 

The other crucial ingredient that I touched on earlier is that in order for a museum visit to feel like self care, you have to be able to feel at ease in the museum. The usual barriers to participation apply and museums wishing to foster slow experiences need to ensure people feel welcome, that they won’t feel either hushed or rushed, that the atmosphere is not intimidating. This is something museums have been working on for decades, but it cannot be overstated, and it is related to my final point. 

Some of the articles I read when I searched for ‘slow museums’ or ‘slow art’ were focussed on encouraging people to look at art or objects properly, with what is considered to be the appropriate amount of reverence and concentration. There is still a certain amount of snobbery about interactives and digital museum experiences as opposed to traditional ones. I think it is important that visitors are offered the slow museum experience as an option, and that museums do not tell people how they should behave in galleries or look at a painting. Slow museum visits should be about encouraging people to come in and enjoy the museum at their own pace, not berating people for not doing it right.