The case for time alone, with art

[The painter] Delacroix [was] himself a proponent of alone time. (His former apartment and studio on the beautiful Place de Furstenberg is a museum as well.)


“How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society?” he wondered in his journal. “The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher.”

Research suggests this is true. One study, part of a project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, found that visitors who attended an exhibition at a fine-art museum with other people found it significantly less thought-provoking, were less convinced by the exhibition design, and were less able to enjoy the museum space in silence than those who toured the museum alone.

Those who went with companions experienced the beauty of the artworks to a lesser extent, and were less able to experience a deep connection to the art. For the study, more than five hundred and fifty visitors to the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland were given an electronic data glove to wear as they toured the museum. The glove enabled the researchers to record the paths of the participants, as well as other information, including the time they spent in front of the artworks, their speed, heart rate, and fluctuations in skin conductance level, a potential indicator of emotional processes.

The subjects also filled out visitor surveys before entering the exhibition and after leaving it.

The study, published in the journal Museum Management and Curatorship, found that conversation interfered with visitors’ making a connection to the art. People who weren’t discussing the art with a companion were more frequently and more strongly emotionally stimulated by it. They were able to “enter the exhibition with ‘all of their senses open and alert’ to a greater degree.”

When I go to a museum with friends, I remember the outing. When I go alone, I remember the art.

Certainly, visiting a museum as a social occasion is a wonderful way to spend time with people we love. But there are also upsides to going by oneself, as the research suggests.

A person’s response to a work of art may be an emotional, private experience. There are paintings and sculptures you want to fall into, wrestle with, or simply sit across from in silence.

Indeed, while conventional wisdom holds that social interaction helps museum visitors learn by discussing what they’re seeing with fellow attendees, a study published in Curator: The Museum Journal, challenged that notion, showing that there is no meaningful learning advantage to going with others or going alone; both can be equally beneficial, just in different ways.

In the weeks after their visit, “solitary visitors were just as likely as paired visitors to have discussed the things they had seen or learned with family or friends,” researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, reported. For the study some forty solo visitors and forty visitors in pairs were observed and interviewed duringtheir visit to the Queensland Museum.

Four weeks later, 40 percent of participants took part in a follow-up telephone interview. When asked how being on their own contributed to their experience, the most common response was that it allowed them to explore the exhibition at their own pace.

Other reasons offered related to having greater choice and control, and freedom from distraction. Participants had responses like “I can look at what I want to look at,” “I can get more immersed in it,” “I can feel what I feel without input from others,” and “You miss more when you are in a group.”

Rosenbloom, Stephanie. Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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