Art Lover or Art Tourist?

February 9, 2011



Posing with the Van Gogh

Few people working in the cultural sector, if they are even remotely internet savvy, will have missed the recent launch of the Google Art Project, which, through the combination of Google Street View technology and a custom viewer zoom function, allows you to navigate through several of the world’s most acclaimed art museums and discover featured artworks at high resolution. This reminded me, in a roundabout way, of an experience I had on holiday in New York last year.

During our week in the Big Apple, we took advantage of the free admission on Friday afternoons to go and visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). We expected it to be popular, but nothing could have prepared us for the hundreds, if not thousands, of people queuing up down the street to grab some free tickets. There were equally long queues for the cloakrooms, making us glad we had nothing that needed checked in. I have never before seen so many people in a museum – crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Not as crazy, however, as what we experienced next. From a professional museum person standpoint, I was delighted to see so many people desperate to engage with and experience art. Or so I thought.

I have to admit I’m not a huge art person myself – the ethnologist in me prefers museums with ‘stuff’ in them – but it’s not often I get to visit the famous MoMA and, browsing around the galleries for some artworks to catch my fancy and explore further, I was quickly drawn to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. As were several hundred other people, which made engaging with the painting somewhat difficult. Now, I don’t mind making room for other enthusiastic visitors wanting to get to grips with Mr van Gogh’s masterpiece. I do mind, however, being told in no friendly terms to “get out the way”, or, in most cases, just rudely shoved aside, by people taking it in turns posing with the painting to have their photograph taken. If they would at least have taken another look at the painting afterwards, but no, their only engagement with the painting was through their viewfinders.

Wandering around the rest of the galleries – at that point I’d given up on trying to look at Starry Night without being knocked off my feet – I realised that this phenomenon was by no means restricted to this one famous painting (though it did have its very own security guard), but that many of the other artworks were suffering from a similar stampede of camera clutching ‘art tourists’. In one instance, the exasperated security guard even had to ask a visitor to “please not lean on the artworks, sir, thank you” while posing for his souvenir shot. Not wanting to belittle the genuine art lovers there that afternoon, it seems to me that this particular segment of visitors I was observing was more desperate to photograph the art than to seriously engage with it. In a similar vein, I recently discovered the blog Posing at the Louvre, which collects pictures of people posing with artwork.

So, why did the Google Art Project make me think of this? Well, I’ve just been browsing the various galleries taking part, and it turns out that MoMA and Starry Night are among those on offer. Looks like I can get up close and personal with my painting after all!

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