5 tips on using museums for inspiration

For Issue 3, we’re asking artists to be inspired by one another. Visit a local museum, look through our previous issues, find art in public spaces. Read, listen, watch, look, immerse yourself in the work of others and be inspired. Guest writer and museum expert, Margaret Winikates, is back to give you some tips on how to get the most from your inspirational museum visit.


5 tips on using museums for inspiration

  1. Step outside your comfort zone. If you always arrow to the Impressionist galleries, aim for a time period or culture or changing exhibit that you might not go for on a regular basis. Contemporary art can surprise you in a good way, and even if you wouldn’t want to hang something over your couch at home, it can be a great jog to the imagination. (Things you have an instinctively negative reaction to can also be a great spur to the pencil.)
  2. Bring your tools with you. A camera, notebook and a pencil are essential; many museums don’t allow pens in their galleries for conservation reasons (graphite is a lot easier to remove than ink, should there be an accident), so bring a mechanical pencil if standard ones are not your style. A notebook that has a mixture of blank and lined pages is nice if you like to sketch at all. (And I do recommend sketching, even if just basic shapes, details, or textures. It’s amazing how even a doodle can jog your memory later, in a way that photography doesn’t.) Most museums do allow photography these days, but sometimes lender restrictions or conservation reasons make them unable to do so, so check when you enter a gallery to see if photography is permitted. (Keep the flash off; it’s better for the art and less annoying to others in the gallery, too.) If photos are not allowed, sometimes you can find an image of the piece you’ve selected online in the museum’s collection or artist’s website, or on a postcard in the museum shop. Be sure to write down the title, artist, and date of the piece you’ve picked so you can give accurate attribution later.
  3. Spend plenty of time with the piece. According to a 2014 New York Times article, the average museum visitor spends less than 30 seconds looking at a piece of art, including reading the label, if they read the label at all. Casual looking is its own reward, but concentrated attention can really change what you think about a piece. If you need help getting started, pick a detail that jumps out at you and ask yourself why you noticed it. Does it grab your eye because of its color or positioning, or is it because it resonates to your own emotions or frame of reference? What do you notice next? Why? And what after that? If you need to, set yourself a timer, and spend 5 solid minutes examining, observing, writing, and reacting.Unfortunately, not all museum galleries are equally equipped for concentrated looking; if there are no benches or chairs in the gallery, there may be folding stools available nearby, or at the information desk. (Grab one on your way in if you don’t mind carrying one with you, or ask a guide or guard for one.)Museums that require you to stay with a tour, as many historic houses do, can be a little more difficult to spend concentrated time in; however, if you spot something you’d like to come back to, many guides are more than happy to take you back to a room at the end of a tour for a few extra minutes in the space, providing you’re not inconveniencing the next group. As an author you can also dub yourself a ‘researcher’ and try to schedule time in the space if you spot something you’d like to come back to outside regular tour hours. I’ve never met a museum person who wouldn’t be thrilled to assist with a request like that!
  4.  Free write. Jot down words and phrases as a starting place; not just the physical details, but the emotion of a piece or a place, other things it reminds you of. Write the words in and around your sketches, if you have them. Let your words be as intensely sensory as your current experience, it will help the piece stand on its own later when the artwork’s not right in front of you.
  5. Don’t confine yourself to art museums—or to the artworks themselves. Inspiration can come from a fossil in a natural history collection, a scrap of wallpaper in a historic house, the view from a national park peak. What would a taxidermied specimen have to say to its collector? What words still resonate in the walls of an old structure? Whose hands molded the pot whose shards sit in that case, and how do the pieces evoke the whole?


I find inspiration in museum labels sometimes too; words and phrases from a single label or an exhibit can be a great source for found poetry, particularly if the curators and interpretation team have a flair for words themselves.

And finally…Have fun with it! People who work in museums do so because they love sharing the objects and stories they steward with others, and they’ll be beyond happy to see you engaging with ‘their’ museum, because it’s your museum too.

If you’re feeling inspired, start creating and then send your art of all types to all the sins. Find out more on our submissions page.

Photograph: East Side Gallery, Berlin

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