Take an independent route through

Both physical and virtual galleries and exhibitions use a variety of strategies to direct the attention of their visitors perceptually, aesthetically, and conceptually. These include decisions about how works are positioned and prioritized within a given space (which works will be seen first?), questions of size and scale, the information and ideas that are made available by means of exhibition and image titles, texts, handouts and catalogues, and of course audio or interactive electronic exhibition guides. Notice all of this, but also pay attention to how you are navigating, or would like to navigate, the space. What is attracting your attention? What connections are you making? How does this compare with the navigational prompts offered by the exhibition organizers?

Less is often more

It is easy to get overwhelmed or over-saturated when visiting exhibitions. Don’t feel you have to look at absolutely everything with the same level of intensity; often it’s good to get an overall sense of an exhibition and then to spend longer with just one or two examples or in one particular section of the display.

Document your visit

If you don’t already do so, keep an exhibitions notebook — I like using the ‘Notes’ App on my phone because I can insert photos and videos as well as notes and easily add further material or thoughts later on. You can also use the Notes App (or indeed Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc.) to create your own versions of what the art critic John Berger called ‘Pictorial Essays’ (see his 1972 book Ways of Seeing). In this way you are effectively creating personalized exhibition catalogues. These documents need not be extensive; they could be short, impressionistic, or to the point, like memos.

When visiting exhibitions, pick up whatever free exhibition documentation happens to be available — this can be annotated and also photographed and incorporated into your electronic exhibition notebooks. Ask gallery or exhibition staff whether photography is allowed within the exhibition space for reference purposes. Often this is fine provided you don’t use a flash. If you are in a hurry and a lot of textual material is incorporated into an exhibition you can photograph some of it and read it more carefully later. When documenting exhibitions, don’t just focus on the works themselves but remember to make notes about the space of display itself. Consider the exhibition layout (some galleries usefully provide printed exhibition floorplans), wall colours, lighting, the atmosphere, style, formality or informality of the space, and so on. Also consider how works have been positioned and grouped and how you are being invited to engage with them. A further tip: making your own drawings, sketches or diagrams helps you get even more from exhibitions. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be particularly skilled at this, drawing helps you look more slowly and closely and enables you to notice details you might otherwise miss. As you draw, unexpected questions or insights may emerge.

Don’t worry if you don’t initially know how to respond to an exhibition

Many exhibitions — especially of contemporary art — can feel disorientating at first, often because the work is unconventional or because the concepts at issue are unfamiliar. In addition, relatively little contextual or explanatory information may have been provided. Often this is a conscious curatorial strategy, the belief being that a lack of navigational prompts encourages viewers to make up their own minds, and/or that feelings of confusion help viewers challenge their habitual ways of perceiving and thinking. Focus on noticing and describing what you perceive. Understanding or explaining can come later. Sometimes this will occur quite naturally, with time. Often you will need to carry out some background reading or additional research. Here, reading reviews and articles (see below) can help. Some galleries keep collections of press cuttings which are available for visitors to consult. Just ask.

Ask questions

Gallery and exhibition staff are usually more than happy to answer questions. Finding out what other visitors think – by asking them – can be extremely interesting although this may not always be welcomed; play it by ear! You may not immediately find the answers you are after so consider writing down your questions and figuring out how and where you might find the help you need.

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