Self-guided exhibitions: Visit once, circle twice

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

My recent visit to the National Gallery of Canada forced me to solve my chicken-or-egg kind of dilemma about self-guided exhibitions. Do I or do I not read the information about the paintings or listen to the audio guide? And if I do, then which comes first: slow looking or reading?

During that gallery visit, as my friend and I entered an exhibition hall with huge abstract canvases shouting at us in lines and circles, some in dizzying colours, I asked my companion not to tell me anything about the works, not even the titles, because I planned to come back for some slow-looking. My resolve, however, didn’t last long. The raising of eyebrows and contorting of faces to express our bewilderment wasn’t enough. Curiosity was also too great to wait for answers.

Even before I discovered slow looking, I wondered how to balance my craving for answers with my desire to have a “pure”, uninfluenced by opinions of others, interaction with works of art. You see, I love learning. Reading books, taking courses, attending workshops – I love it all. I get tickled pink just reading a syllabus outlining the course from A to Z. My preferred style of learning, however, is based on satisfying my curiosity ASAP. As questions come up, I look for answers and meander through books, lectures, courses and workshops. As a result my path to knowledge usually looks more like J Y C O 5 N @ A 7 L $ (oh, no, this looks like a line straight from Ulysses) than A to Z. I find that kind of learning exhilarating and irresistible (unlike Ulysses).

Sotheby’s direct experience approach

But let’s get back to my dilemma. I learned that the Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s preferred approach to art education is similar to my “pure” interaction approach. In the introduction to Understanding Art Objects: Thinking through the Eye, editor Tony Godfrey writes that Sotheby’s emphasizes direct experience, “beginning neither with theory nor social history but…an encounter with the actual physical object…Students would learn by going to museums and the salerooms and looking hard at various objects, discussing them and then researching about them. Lectures of course backed this up.” He further explains that this kind of education is called object-based or ekphrastic. “The ekphrastic approach assumes that the best way to begin an examination of an artwork is to look closely and describe it.”

Lap One Lap Two

My ideal scenario

Based on all the information, contemplation and practice, I imagined an ideal gallery experience: I go to see an exhibition, spend quality time with each work, maybe not an hour – that would be unrealistic – but a good pause in front of each work (significantly longer than the mere seconds required for a selfie with the Mona Lisa), and select one work for slow looking. I then go home and do my research. Equipped with basic knowledge about the work, the artist, etc., I return to see what my now informed eye can see. Unrealistic, right?

Visit once, circle twice

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for a better solution. Two days after my NGC visit, while enjoying the Formline Modern exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery, I had an “aha” moment. I found a compromise that I can learn with: I visit an exhibition only once, but I circle it twice. The first lap is devoted to my “pure” interaction or direct experience; the second time around, I let the info roll and read all the notes, listen to an audio guide, and exchange remarks with my companions to my heart’s content. Demanding, even exhausting, but doable.

So, what’s your favourite method for tackling self-guided exhibitions?


Tony Godfrey


  • Hello Violette,

    I love your article and your insight on learning. I share your thoughts and would hope that going to a gallery with a friend may provide some good dialogue to further enhance your position on a piece of art.

    Thanks for sharing,

    • Thank you, Chantal.

      As far as I’m concerned visiting a gallery with a friend does provide some great dialogue; that’s why I find it impossible not to share. And if my friend doesn’t have time to circle twice, I can see myself visiting twice just so that one of my laps is with a friend who also loves to share.

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