Visiting an Art Museum: An Interview with Johan Idema



7 minutes reading

Arts consultant Johan Idema (1973, The Netherlands) has just released the book How to Visit an Art Museum, a light-hearted guide aimed towards the bemused museum-goer. Including 32 tips for tactics to employ while touring a museum to get more out of your visit, the book is practical as well as fun-spirited. We spoke with Idema about the challenges of visiting art museums, viewing artworks slowly and ways of approaching art on your own terms.


Your book starts from the idea that museums are not going to help you along with your museum visit, and instead, the onus rests on you, the visitor, to make the most of your viewing. Why do you suppose the museum experience has gotten so bad that we need an instruction manual?

It’s because the world has changed so dramatically. It’s not that museums have gotten worse – in fact they’re still great – but they have done too little to change along with society. For the last fifty years or so, museums have been presenting art almost exclusively according the white cube etiquette: silent, white spaces, with little or no information, or if any, texts that read like an old art history book. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with the white cube, but the thing is that it has become the norm. Almost all art museums are white cubes. That’s a problem because this way of presenting art only appeals to art aficionados, a minority of the potential museum audience. Museums need to diversify radically in the way they present art. Why not, for instance, use storytelling techniques or design museum spaces with comfortable lounge chairs, so people can look longer at art and perhaps even start a good conversation in front of an artwork?

That being said, I consider How to Visit an Art Museum not so much an instruction manual, but more an invitation or call to action to do things differently. Art museums may look and feel like a sterile white space, but that doesn’t mean you should act accordingly. I hope to offer people another mindset, another kind of knowledge about art and other options regarding what they can do in the museum, so they have more rewarding museum visit.


Just as ‘everyone’s a photographer’ these days, it might also be true that everyone feels like they understand photographs, no explanation or effort required. What advice would you offer specifically to photo museum visitors?

It’s important to realise that people engage with artworks in totally different ways. How we reach what researchers call ‘the curatorial moment’ (when we truly connect with an artwork) works differently for each and every person. Some of us prefer a lot of factual information to rationally ‘understand’ an artwork. Others prefer an interpretation, even a subjective one, or a story that evokes a feeling or a certain mood.  

What can visitors do? First of all, have the ambition to truly get to know at least two or three photographs really well when you visit the museum. This requires you to take time and look closely. This may sound obvious, but on average people spend only 9 seconds looking at an artwork. That’s also because museums tend to offer too many artworks with too little context.  

Second, as a visitor you should find out what works for you. What do you need to truly connect with a photograph? Are you someone who prefers to talk about art, exchanging thoughts or asking questions? Well, then find someone you can talk to, whether it’s your friend that came with you, another visitor standing next to you or the museum guard. Recently, I visited Foam, a photography museum in Amsterdam, with my 5-year-old nephew. He was asking a lot of questions about the photographs on display. The museum offered us little help in terms of information, explanation or interpretation. You could see how interested other visitors were, when I tried to answer my nephew’s questions as well as I could. Some of them were joining our conversation!


It’s actually one of the suggestions in your book, to take a kid with you as a guide. You write: “Children are the perfect antidotes to the act-like-you-know attitude that tends to accompany art museums.” What makes it so hard for us as adults to confront our reactions of “I don’t get it” or “This isn’t art”?

There are many reasons why it’s difficult to be truly open-minded when visiting art museums. We all have a certain mindset about museums and art, resulting in certain beliefs and expectations. Art is also about power, status and taste, which makes it even more difficult for many of us to admit if we don’t understand something. Research shows that many people feel overwhelmed in a museum (‘Your labels make me feel stupid’) or don’t dare to ask questions.

Children don’t have any of that. That’s why it can be so liberating and entertaining to look at art with a kid. They aren’t held back by a perceived lack of knowledge or expertise – like we often are. Instead, kids feel free to react to and comment on all they see. That’s why I think museums should offer a rent-a-kid service, allowing everyone to pick up a miniature museum guide at the entrance!


You write about the overblown prose of ‘artspeak’, and how it draws a further divide between viewers and artworks. Short of ignoring the labels and text entirely, how can viewers glean enough useful information to appreciate what makes a photograph significant?

Well, you can’t change the label. If the text does not let you connect with a photograph in some way, that’s unfortunate and something the museum should know. Often, it’s because labels are written by curators. They tend to be too vague and too formal for people to really understand or truly experience an artwork. What you can do yourself is, for instance, find other sources of information that do help you. Simply pull out your smart phone. What for many people works better than reading what the curator wants you to know, it to listen to the artist him- or herself. Try to find an interview online, whether it’s text or audio. Great artists can offer remarkable and inspiring insights into their art. Especially when put in their own words, their work may truly come to life. They can make you understand, and even feel, what it is like to create, thereby transferring a sense of immediacy in relation to the art.


You write about the matter of time spent looking at a work of art, saying: “Artists spend weeks, months, even years creating a work of art. We spend a mere nine seconds on average looking at it.” With photographs, I’d be willing to believe it’s even less, considering how acclimatised we’ve gotten to fast consumption! What do you advise in terms of spending time with the photos in a museum?

Slow food aficionados honour the chef by spending as much time enjoying a meal as it took to prepare it. Museums could ‘slow us the way’ by posting suggested viewing times with certain artworks. It would at least make us more aware of how quickly we’re looking. In the end, however, it’s up to you, of course. It’s not about the actual time you spend with an artwork, but about the degree in which you have managed to really ‘understand’ or intensely experience the work. That takes an effort you should make yourself, but also an effort the museum should make to help you and to inspire. Time spent looking at an artwork is a result of that, not a goal in itself.  


It’s true that if visitors are too self-aware of the time they’re looking at work, or on the process of ‘appreciating art’, they might miss the forest for the trees. What does an ideal experience with an art photograph look like, in your mind?

Well, everyone has different tastes, so I can only speak for myself. Personally I like artworks, including photographs, that let me slowly sink into them. Discovering new layers of meanings the closer I look, the more I might read about it, about the artist or about people’s reaction to the work. This ‘journey of discovery’ might even stretch over a period time. I find it fascinating when I see a work again after a few years. I like to see if my reaction to it has changed, if my interpretation has perhaps evolved and if I can make some new discoveries.


How to Visit an Art Museum is available from BIS Publishers  (ISBN: 978-90-6369-355-8, € 15).