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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Time to Look

Wonderful image from Nick Van Woert -

Wonderful image from Nick Van Woert -

How long does the average person spend in front of the average piece of art in an average museum, on average?

Well, the Inquisition can’t answer that exact question. It would appear it is too open-ended a question to arrive at a definitive answer. But, it must be noted that Elizabeth Addison, an ex-director of MoMA, states that the average visitor there spends two hours perusing the galleries. Those who rent audioguides stay for almost a third longer.

According to Google the average visitor to the Inquisition spends 2 and three quarter minutes viewing, perusing and defiling this fine online curiosity shop. Now, while the Inquisition could never claim the greatness of even the smallest gallery or archaeological repository this figure is somewhat instructive.

The human capacity for undivided attention differs according to situation while also varying wildly according to any number of other factors. We happily spend 2 hours cooped up in the dark of a cinema, throwing ourselves headlong into tatty narratives. Some of us can spend hours buried in printed media while others tire after a cursory glance.

The Inquisition has addressed this notion previously but is returning to it here from an art critical perspective. What does this mean for true art consumption?

It is to the Inquisition’s eternal shame that time is tight these days, and so most new art is discovered via blogs and online media outlets such as Today and Tomorrow, FFFFound!, Tumblr and so on…

While the quality varies, the relentlessly updated and renewed content places false barriers between the producers and their audience. Truly great art is a rare commodity, and yet everyday these sites ‘discover’ new ‘art’.


While some of it is undoubtedly worthy and interesting work, the conveyor belt-cultural output distances the viewer from their rights – legitimate time to digest, live with and critically dissect art.

Leaving aside discussions of situation, size, tactility and other tangible aspects of visual art, we can be amazed by art online but we are rarely moved by it. For regular readers, the image is replaced before it has even lodged itself into our long-term memories. This is not just a problem with visual culture – it appears the internet in general is having a similar effect to what Pharoah Thamus feared would happen with writing(alternate version).

Nielsen Survey of online behaviour

Nielsen Survey of online behaviour

According to the Nielsen Online Survey (see image) the average viewer spends no longer than 1 minute on a webpage. This is half the time each slide is displayed in the restaurant at NGI, which has been deemed an optimal time for the kind of distracted viewing diners might indulge in. It falls far short of what you might expect a viewer to spend when they are truly engaged with an item. Here is an illuminating description of how a typical user engages with this type of content.

The Importance of Context

In About Looking art theorist John Berger describes a trip of veneration, twice taken, to spend time with a piece of art. The piece which drew him is The Isenheim Altarpiece by the German artist Matthias Grunewald and which, he suggests, is the only real draw to the town where it hangs – Colmar. Colmar although pretty pales in comparison for Berger to time spent in front of this triptych.

David Hockney’s methods as a practicing artist are deeply founded on a wide knowledge and appreciation of the art world, past and present. In Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters Hockney describes a pilgrimage-like visit to see a particular piece. He describes the process of spending time with the artwork.

As Hockney points out; sculpture, paintings and printing in certain cases were for a large part of human history the only images people saw, albeit rarely for most. Cinema has now ennured us to many visual effects and spectacles. Cinema itself still holds our ocular attention over sustained periods. In fact, due to the popularity of Youtube and its vast repertoire of inanities, it would seem that it is the movement and not necessarily the images, narratives or other devices that draw us in.

There is no question that art is validated by context. The same piece of work may have far more power in a gallery than it would discarded in a dump. For some media this context is slightly more subjective. In terms of video art the internet may be a great place to show it, technically at least. But how much video art would actually hold our attention outside of where it was intended to be shown? If we are surrounded by other stimuli would we still engage in a meaningful exchange with a video piece? After all, why do we rush to see a movie in the cinema, in the knowledge it will come out on DVD? Context.


In terms of popularity museums lag behind cinemas although not as far as one might imagine. New York State museums welcomed 51.8 million visits by patrons in 2005. That same year saw across the entire United States 1,415 million movie theater visits. So the figures by extrapolation, although separated by a large amount, are closer than might be suspected at first. The biggest blog presence in these terms is with 8,214,682 complete visits a month. In terms of single institutions, the Louvre blew them all away, mid-recession, last year it embraced 85 million visitors. Presumably that means at least 20 people saw more than the obligatory androgyne.

The Louvre is a massive museum hidden behind a tiny painting

The Louvre is a massive museum hidden behind a tiny painting

According to Tori Orr, writing in The Information-Seeking Behavior of Museum Visitors published in A Review of Literature, having a website violates some of the motivations for visiting museums. As described above it puts your experience of the visit at one level of remove because of the barrier of screen and machine. However, again according to Orr, many museums see this as a necessary evil to reach communities of visitors limited by geography, time or ability and answer their specific information needs for a non-immersive but still enlightening experience.
Our online sources indicate different behavior patterns, require different models and address different needs. An excellent example of this methodology in practice is to download Google Earth and visit the Prado. This is as good as the virtual museum visit gets.

Help at last!

Finally, do bear this in mind – it is very hard to learn the possibilities of, methods of and protocols of internet use if you are coming to it for the first time (presumably of course you aren’t because if you are you would be somewhere much more interesting than here). Thankfully the museum need not be fraught with such pitfalls as some kind souls have composed a how-to for visiting art museums ( Bless their cotton socks.

The Information-Seeking Behavior of Museum Visitors, A Review of Literature, Tori Orr
Attendence figures at British Museums – Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Issues on museum attendence in general – Indianapolis Museum of Art
Bridging the gaps between museums, art and technology
Is the internet making us stupid?
Blog visitor trending data
Social networking is the new email
The Motion Picture Association of America’s own figures (in a pdf that may have been designed by colour-blind monkeys)
NY museum figures
The Independent (UK) reports on the Louvre figures
The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s blog touches on these issues
Social media traffic reports
Museum management, Kevin Moore, Routledge, 1994
Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, Julian Bell, Thames & Hudson, 2007
Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney, Thames & Hudson, 2006
About Looking, John Berger, Bloomsbury, 2009

One More Thing!

Be sure to check out the Sunday Times’ list of online museums

This article was posted by on Thursday, February 4th, 2010 at 18:04.
It is archived in Art, Culture, Internet and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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