Reflections after an odd museum experience

I recently visited the Seattle Art Museum, despite being warned by a friend that it was “just not good”.  “How could an art museum be not good!?” I thought to myself,  “I must go see for myself, no matter what.”  I paid the cringeworthy entrance fee of $19.50 and proceeded to view the entire museum in one hour, including the new feature exhibit, “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art”.   There were some great parts of the SAM, but overall I left feeling grouchy and like I had paid a lot of money and didn’t get much out of the experience.  Because I’m interested in museum experience and have been thinking about it more frequently thanks to the Skibo Society and Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t just let this bad experience go.  I had to analyze it and try to understand *why* it was so unfulfilling for me as a visitor.  I’ll outline some of the things I perceived as negatives along with some positives, and connect them to some related research.

Confusing Gallery Flow

Or maybe I should say “anti-flow”.  There seemed to be very little logical or thematic or even chronological connection between spaces or galleries.  I found myself following what is a very common path for museum visitors, which involved mostly turning right. “In the absence of other motivations (such as a destination to the left, or following a group of other people) people who are in the right lane of the path will turn right if it involves the fewest number of steps” (source:Bitgood).  On the 3rd floor (which is where visitors are directed to start), this strategy led me first through some glass exhibit (“Glass at Pilchuck”) then into American Art, which seemed mostly from the 19th century…but then I found myself looking at modern ceramics from Asia (“Contemporary Ceramics and Basketry”).

Old American art followed by contemporary Asian ceramics
Gallery anti-flow: old American art followed by contemporary Asian ceramics

This made no sense to me, and was very jarring both visually and “experientally”.  I felt like I had taken a wrong turn, but the architecture of the rooms made it clear that this was a logical way to move through them.  The exhibit contents just seemed to directly contradict what the space would imply to a human moving through it.  This incongruity continued as I wove my way around the Third Floor.  I passed through some galleries of Native American art, and then was suddenly in one room with abstract expressionist paintings.  From this room I could see the aforementioned “old American art” through one door and the Native American exhibit through the other.

Abstract painting bordered by Native American art
Abstract painting bordered by Native American art

African sculpture in a gallery bordering French painting
African sculpture in a gallery bordering French painting

This kind of juxtaposition isn’t necessarily bad; in fact it could be great if there was any sort of curatorial hand at work here to make interesting connections between types of art that aren’t normally considered side by side.  Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case.  I started wondering if there’s some battle between gallery sponsors where the museum has no control over what goes into each room, leaving visitors at the mercy of gallery sponsors’ whims and collections which may or may not have any connection to the larger physical context of the museum.

Un-viewable Vases and Empty Walls

I studied ancient Greek art in college, and I realize that this is not going to be the collection highlight at most museums.  I’m happy if there’s even just a couple vases to look at; I’m not expecting it to look like the British Museum or something.  What I *am* expecting is to be able to SEE the things that are actually on display, but at the SAM two of the most impressive vases where in display cases above my eye level…and I’m tall.

The top shelf is at about 5.5 feet, making someone tall like me just able to see the bottom half of the artifact.
The top shelf is at about 5.5 feet, making someone tall like me just able to see the bottom half of the artifact.

There is some value to seeing the bottom of a vase, but this is a bit excessive.
There is some value to seeing the bottom of a vase, but this is a bit excessive.

There were a few display cases like this, and it was difficult to figure out which labels on a nearby wall corresponded to which case.  Can you figure it out?

Greek vase sign

In his discussion of how the general value principle applies to museum visitors’ behavior and viewing patterns, Bitgood sums up this problem nicely: “If you have to exert additional effort to read the label, the cost may be too great.” One museum visit in college stood out to me as having an especially good way of displaying ancient pottery and other artifacts; I think it was either the art museum in Toledo or Detroit.  Each vase was at torso-height (for an average person) and each case could be completely circumambulated, enabling the viewer to see from all angles, including into the inside of the vessel.  It’s so painful when art objects are displayed in a way that clashes with their form, and often three-dimensional objects seem to suffer from this more than two-dimensional ones.

Speaking of which: I still don’t know if there was some intention behind how the paintings in this room were displayed:

Empty walls 1 Empty walls 2

Where is all the art?!  Why are the walls so empty?  You could fit at least 2 other pieces on each of those walls, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a reason to only have one piece asymmetrically hung.  Why did I pay $19.50 to look at blank walls?  Again, if I felt like there was some actual curation or justification behind this, I wouldn’t feel so grouchy about it.  Maybe we could optimistically assume that the artists who made these works were commenting on the state of art institutions and aesthetic displays, and this odd arrangement is a nod to that critique?  :-/

Visually Engaging and Historically Informed Porcelain

This exhibit was something that immediately drew me off my economical path of inertia through the museum; it was visually unique (or salient!) partially because it was so different from the surrounding standard gallery setting, but also because it makes use of repetition, symmetry, and contrast to create a visually striking display:

Porcelain room 2 - Seattle Art Museum Porcelain room 1 - Seattle Art Museum
Porcelain detail 1 - Seattle Art Museum Porcelain detail 2 - Seattle Art Museum

One of the coolest things about this was not only the way the exhibit was a work of art in itself, there’s also historical relevance for displaying porcelain in this way (which I learned because of an informative placard, one of few that I read in its entirety!)

Porcelain room sign 1 Porcelain room sign 2

The Porcelain Room at SAM also reminded me of the chair wall in the Bruce Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which also makes use of visual repetition and a unique display style to make a really visually interesting exhibit out of objects which could easily be overlooked if they were shown on their own or in isolation.

Compare the visual similarities of Carnegie Museum’s chair display with Seattle Art Museum’s porcelain display (pictured above)

Great sculptures in a weird spot

One of the main points in Bitgood’s paper, “An Analysis of Visitor Circulation: Movement Patterns and the General Value Principle“, is that visitors follow certain principles like inertia, resisting backtracking, one-sided viewing, and basically being subconsciously lazy as they move through a museum.  “Salient object attraction” may pull visitors off their path of least resistance, which was definitely how I related to the Porcelain Room. However, at the SAM there were also instances of incredibly eye-catching, weird, or otherwise salient sculptures being placed in areas that seemed less than ideal.  Two of my favorite sculptures were on display in a foyer-type area that is at the intersection of multiple gallery exits/entrances along with the elevator exit.  This area probably gets very crowded when the museum is busy, which likely reduces visitors’ ability or desire to put in the effort to see these works.  The visual attraction and striking presence of these pieces is thus somewhat being wasted, though there may be some merit to placing them in front of the elevators to draw people into the museum from that route.  BUT there are at least 3 other routes by which visitors would encounter these works, and I don’t think the elevator exit scenario trumps any of them.  

Garnering 44 - William Morris - Seattle Art Museum
Don’t trip on this as you exit the elevator and try to decide which gallery to move towards…

In this fascinating study, the Louvre and MIT Senseable City Lab used Bluetooth tracking to gather data about how visitors moved through the museum.  One conclusion was:

When the number of the rooms with exhibits increases, visitors seem not to visit them all, but visit a few of them selectively. But our findings tell us more; these limited paths and their use are almost independent of the length of the visit to the museum, meaning that most visitors, irrespective of whether their visit is short or long, tend to use the same trajectories. (source)

Pieces that make visitors think (either consciously or otherwise), “What is that weird thing! I need to go over there!” should be placed in settings that will draw people towards areas they might not otherwise approach — not in the middle of a high-traffic area and not in an intersection from which numerous other galleries and their contents are readily visible.  Not only will this help reduce congestion by drawing people out of entry spaces towards visually magnetic pieces, museums could also use it to specifically guide visitors towards spaces that might otherwise seem unappealing or “cut off visually from the main path” (Bitgood references the concept of “dominant path security” which may also play a role in wayfinding).

One thing SAM did that was great for wayfinding and just a really fun way to deal with their admittedly confusing building design was this signage near the admissions desk:

Great signage for wayfinding

Creatively Integrating Social Media

The Disguise exhibit included an area especially designed to encourage visitors to take selfies and post them using the hashtag #SAMdisguise:

Mask selfie Mask sign

One especially good aspect of this was that it was separated from the main exhibit by a partial wall, so that visitors who were interested in the interactive or social media type activities wouldn’t be in the way of or distracting visitors who were just trying to see the exhibit.  There’s nothing like trying to take a museum selfie and getting photo-bombed by the angry person behind you who was just trying to see the art, amirite!?

Overall, the Disguise exhibit was fascinating and really great, both in design and concept.  I just wish I could say I felt the same about my experience throughout the rest of the museum.


Bitgood, Stephen. “An Analysis of Visitor Circulation: Movement Patterns and the General Value Principle”.

Yoshimura Y, Sobolevsky S, Ratti C, Girardin F, Carrascal J P, Blat J, Sinatra R, 2014, “An analysis of visitors’ behavior in The Louvre Museum: a study using Bluetooth data” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 41(6) 1113 -1131. and


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