Art museums are reopening. Here’s why you should visit one.
We are in the midst of a “long transition” to post-pandemic life. As vaccination numbers rise, mask mandates expire, and businesses reopen, many of us are re-planning last year’s vacation, venturing out to restaurants, and hugging friends again. But with the exciting promise of concerts and live sporting events roaring in our ears, why would anyone want to spend time, quietly, in an art museum?
I am an art historian, so my bias is obvious. Still, I want to argue that all of us could benefit from a visit to an art museum right now. While the pandemic impacted each of us as individuals, we have also experienced collective trauma: the disruption of our routines and the threat of death to ourselves and our loved ones. How do we emerge and heal from a season that most of us still cannot quite comprehend? Art museums can provide an opportunity for us to reconnect with each other while also helping us acknowledge the tensions and challenges that lie ahead.
Art museums can help us marvel.
Art museums are full of objects purposefully made by other humans. When we look at a painting or sculpture, we bear witness to another person’s presence.
Rather than immediately wondering what the artist was thinking while making the piece, however, take some time to appreciate the artwork as a thing. What do you see? Where do your eyes go? Does the artwork want you to come closer? To step back? To walk around it? Trace the gestural swoop of paint on an expressionist canvas or follow the loose, flicking brushstrokes of an Impressionist. Imagine the artist’s body, warm flesh and bone, standing where you are now, dabbing paint onto the surface. Even if you can’t find an obvious human trace in the polished marble sculpture or crisp photograph, remind yourself that it is still an object made by someone who was, fundamentally, the same as you: a breathing, feeling, thinking body.
Wonder at that. Don’t just fixate on the artist’s individual talent. Instead, marvel at our human connectedness and resilience. We have made beautiful, mysterious, powerful things that continue to testify to our existence even after we are gone.
Throughout this pandemic, health officials have asked us to recognize how individual choices can have rippling, communal effects. But in the relative isolation of our homes it can be difficult to do so. Art museums remind us of our perpetual relationship, and thus responsibility, to others.
Art museums can make us tender.
Yet, our connectedness is not sameness. A visit to an art museum can also remind us of our human differences. When we look at artworks made in response to an unfamiliar experience or from an unfamiliar culture, we can be appropriately humbled in our not-knowing. Instead of feeling shame or frustration that we don’t immediately understand a work, we can channel our discomfort into curiosity. Perhaps there is something in a Chinese landscape painting, an Amhara manuscript, or a Black artist’s juxtaposition of text and photograph that remains out of reach. By holding so many stories within their walls, art museums allow for the productive tension of empathy and mystery.
We need this reminder of multiplicity as we emerge from a season of relative isolation. We know our own experience of the pandemic intimately, but we must not treat it as the norm. While all of us have suffered some degree of loss during this pandemic, those losses vary in kind and intensity. Visiting an art museum and encountering works that both resonate and create rupture can help us become tender toward such differences. We will need that openness to complexity as we move forward.
Art museums can help us narrate this experience thoughtfully.
Many artworks tell histories, whether explicitly or implicitly. Often these stories are recounted from the point of view of the powerful or the victorious. We may see a sculpture of a king perched high on his horse or a painting of an elegantly dressed woman and her child sweeping through a pristine garden. In this present moment of collective loss and weakness, the absences in such artworks may stand out in higher relief. Where are the people who died unheroic deaths? Where are those who grieve for them? Where are those struggling to feed their families? Where are those who experienced tremendous isolation? Artworks do not transcribe history; they make it. In doing so they sometimes exclude and ignore in favor of falsely celebratory narratives.
As we begin to weave our own stories of the pandemic, who do we want to cast as the hero? And who might we be tempted to leave out? Many contemporary artists attempt to address such erasures in their work. There, we might find echoes of our present disillusionment, struggle, or anxiety, as well as models for narrating difficult experiences.
Museums themselves also tell stories. Through selection, placement, and juxtaposition, curators direct our attention and encourage us to make connections or find contrasts. With this in mind, my local art museum, the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, now includes a late twentieth century, mixed-media portrait of a Black woman in a gallery of nineteenth century paintings of elegant, white southern elites. Her literal presence disrupts an easy narration of our local past. Thoughtful curatorial choices like this one can remind us that history must always leave room for complexity.
Art museums aren’t a magic pill for pandemic recovery, and certainly their own histories and practices should be interrogated. But as we wriggle and squint and stumble our way into post-pandemic life, perhaps visiting an art museum—especially with a friend—can provide the space for the self-reflection we all need.
Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA.