How to Not Look Dumb at a Museum

Amelia Diamond | August 2, 2016

Even if you have a severe case of imposter syndrome around oil paintings

Just as there can indeed be stupid questions (“Are you hungry?”, “Are you dating anyone?”, etc.), it is possible to look incredibly stupid in a museum. I know. It seems all wrong. Art is about personal interpretation, individual experience and emotion, so museums, by virtue of their contents’ subjective nature, should feel like safe spaces for wandering about, considering life as inspired by human creation.

However, if you’ve ever been to a museum and walked by an oil painting of someone being stabbed in the face by a sword, you know that humans can be cruel regardless of surrounding aesthetics. Which means it’s quite possible someone is looking at you in a museum and thinking, “Oh, what a shame. That girl looks so dumb.”

I AM JUST KIDDING.

No one is thinking that. No one is thinking that because everyone is too concerned with how they look. Let me tell you something about museums: they elicit more self-consciousness than a dance floor during an unfamiliar song at a dry wedding. Everyone feels uncomfortable in them at certain points, around different time periods and techniques, in different wings. If you would like to fight me on this and argue that everyone except for you appears to peruse hallways with the confidence of someone who was born at the feet of the statue of David and has never laughed once at his teeny peen, then let me offer up this:

They might be faking it.

And here’s how you can, too.

1) Wear flat slides (with gel inserts) not for their sartorial excellency but because they position your body well for a sort of bent-forward shuffle with your hands behind your back. Super contemplative looking.

2) Nod. At everything.

3) Close your eyes for one beat two long so that it appears as though you’re internalizing deeper meanings.

4) Make this noise out loud after reading the descriptions: “Hmmm.”

5) On reading the descriptions:

Too much time spent on a description makes it appear as though you have delayed reading comprehension and know nothing (me). However, the print is tiny and more than a deep glance is typically required. What I like to do is make a lap in one room where I am trying very hard to look smart — but not necessarily among the crowd at hand. Use this time to read and peruse. Screw them! Then head out when they do, use the bathroom, wait a beat and go back in with a fresh group. Then repeat facts out loud — sort of to yourself — as though you have all of this memorized. “Ah yes, the first silk tapestry to feature unicorn blood. Took the artist 40 years to do the horn.”

6) Mutter these words to yourself and/or, should anyone ask you an art-related question, sprinkle them into your answer:

– Juxtaposition
– Use of light
– Radical
– Before his/her time
– Composition
– Reverence

7) Say, “____ is more my thing” if someone asks you for your opinion, and fill in that blank with:

– “Modern art” if you’re looking at classical art
– “Classical art” if you’re looking at modern art

8) Ask strangers next to you while pointing in front of you:

– “Isn’t this divine?”
– “So much pain in this, right?”
– “So much joy in this, right?”

9) Stand before a painting with your hip and head cocked in opposite directions, cross your arms and rest your hand on your chin. Now stay there like that until people leave.

10) Carry a sketch book and a pencil with you and take notes or draw — you’re observing!

11) Walk by groups of people with a causal, slow stride, lean in to the nape of their group neck and whisper, “I made that.” Then saunter off.

Special thanks to Marianne Boesky Gallery for sharing their artwork and space with us. Feature sculpture by Frank Stella; “The Sperm Whale’s Head, 1989;” Mixed media on fabricated aluminum and magnesium. Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Idea pitched by Ana Tellez!; Styled by Elizabeth Tamkin, wearing a LoveBomb Inc. dress, Gucci loafers, Paula Cademartori bag.

museum-dressing

  • Joanna Taylor

    This is quite literally the best article I have ever read.

  • Camila Dauhajre

    Hilarious!!!!

  • Haley Nahman

    hmmm…the composition of this story…truly divine

  • staright-up crying helps, too

    • Even better if you fall to your knees and burst out crying.

      • Amelia Diamond

        yes

      • Patty Carnevale

        Bonus points if you bring a friend to sketch your outburst and convince patrons that you’re the art. Always been the art.

  • The ironic thing about this article is that I was actually planning on going to an art museum on Saturday, but my family is coming along with, which means there is no way I will not NOT look stupid with them crazily meandering around the place.

    • Amelia Diamond

      no way, surrounding family helps. pretend you’re a cult.

  • Danielle Rothfeldt

    Awesome tips, especially #7 and #8! I usually look at something, take a long pause, nod, and say “I get this” in a whispered tone. Also this reminded me of two videos I saw on Instagram of the reactions to when a model puts her shoe on the floor and everyone thinks it’s art: https://www.instagram.com/p/_z7-yZDFdh/?taken-by=camimorrone
    https://www.instagram.com/p/_z6k5VjFaK/?taken-by=camimorrone 🙂

  • Al

    I work in a museum and considered myself impertinent in most casual occurrences. After my first year, I learned.to.just.chill.

    • Amelia Diamond

      foxy sweater!

  • Audrey

    This is the best set of advice I have ever received!
    An additional suggestion:
    Step 1. Place mundane object on the ground in front of an empty wall of a museum
    Step 2. Wait and observe Amelia’s tips at work

  • Rose Winters

    this is #gold. My go-to is making sure I am wear pants with back pockets in them. I slide my hands in them, kind-of do a half bounce, breath out and stare for a solid 10 seconds.

  • Alyssa G

    This is sooooo great! I took an art history course last year, which has made me SO much more confident in museums… Now I can actually explain to my mom what’s going on in the modern art galleries…

  • Number 9 & 11 all the way

  • Kelly

    Elizabeth, what are you wearing in this photo??