Visiting a museum vintage-style
Sep 25, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This past Saturday marked the annual Smithsonian Museum Day celebration. This is one of my favorite times of year because it’s a holiday that encourages us to be curious. For me, trying out new art galleries, exploring, and soaking up culture is such a treat. In reading “Manners, Culture, and Dress,” I’ve realized that viewing art was quite the Victorian hobby. In fact, the book gives us clear guidelines on visiting a museum vintage-style, so let’s dig in!
“In visiting picture-galleries one should always maintain the deportment of a gentleman or lady. Make no loud comments, and do not seek to show superior knowledge in art matters by gratuitous criticism. Ten to one, if you have not an art education you will only be giving publicity to your own ignorance. Do not stand in conversation before a picture, and thus obstruct the view of others who with to see rather than talk. If you wish to converse with any one on general subjects, draw to one side out of the way of those who wish to look at the pictures.” (pg. 160)
While the wording gives away the age of the text, the notion itself remains timely. When you set out for a day of art appreciation, it’s an invitation for solitude and reflection. It’s also a day that should be respectful of new ideas and the viewpoints of others. In other words, don’t be a chatterbox and impact the thought processes of those around you. In today’s culture, where noise and self-focus can feel like currency, being quiet is rebellious!
It wasn’t that long ago that art was collected in one of two places: the church or the palace. Perhaps the origin story helps to explains this tradition of reverent appreciation – you were either in a place of worship or administrative power. In the early days of Versailles, the public was welcomed on rare occasion to view the vast collection. Strict dress codes were enforced and, much like our costume shops today, people could borrow the appropriate garb for the day. Around the 17th century the first museums debuted as spaces designed specifically for artistic display. Hard to think of something as classic as a museum ever being a unheard-of notion, but most spaces up until this point were multi-functional by necessity. Man simply didn’t have the resources – even grand cathedrals “wore many hats” on their spires!
These early museums were usually filled with a singular collection, built for a specific genre, and private. Yet by the 18th century culture was shifting and one result of all the international revolutions was the liberation of art. Galleries were made public and collections expanded. Suddenly going to the museum became a beloved past time. In my opinion it’s no coincidence that the dawn of art viewing went hand in glove with the Age of Enlightenment. While this era is known for its scientific advancements, it was balanced with a love of Classical art. The work of Greece and Rome found new meaning to this generation. The chance to view work inspired by this bygone age influenced countless philosophers. After all, being able to hold your own in a salon discussion or coffeehouse debate gave you credibility among the intellectually curious.
What pops into my mind as I re-read the Victorian instructions on museum visits is diplomacy. Art is personal. While one person may gravitate to a Monet, another might be entranced by a Caravaggio. The important thing is to allow each person to discover what sparks their interest. When we enter a museum we are not only there to admire, we are called to be stewards. No matter which “age” we’re in – the rules of visiting a museum vintage-style are still in play. So tell me, dear reader, which museums are on your travel list?