At the Museum

Evy Potochny
January 01, 2001

"The first thing visitors see is the environment —a kind of aura that creates some mood for them," says Ching-Fang Lee.

Lee, a doctoral student in art education, studies the signs and spaces of art museums—those features beyond the artwork that heighten and enrich a visitor's experience: the building's architecture, the lighting in each gallery, even the wording of the explanatory text.

girl and father look at painting

At the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in her native Taiwan, for instance, where Lee has been a curator for nearly 15 years, works by Old Masters like da Vinci and Rembrandt are showcased in the brightly lit first-floor galleries, the paintings hung neatly in symmetrical rooms. On the second floor hangs modern art: the vividly colored cartoons of Lichtenstein and the stark, misshapen faces of Basquiat. Here, subtle track lighting casts a golden hue on curved walls.

In New York's industrial-looking Museum of Modern Art, on the other hand, the artwork hangs in bare, white-walled rooms with minimal accompaniment. To some patrons, Lee suggests, such starkness may seem forbidding. They may prefer the serenity of a smaller museum like the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. This mansion-turned-museum allows visitors to sit on cozy furniture near a fireplace and gaze at paintings displayed above the mantle.

It is part of a museum's job, Lee says, to help guide individuals through the space in a way that helps them get the most meaning out of the art they see. "But it's very difficult for museum professionals to design ideal environments for a diverse public."

In her research on museum design, Lee has observed the behavior of visitors in more than 20 museums in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Taiwan. "I follow people on guided tours to see how they move in a space," she explains.

Most often viewers don't stay very long in front of a painting. "They look at it and then move on. And very few spend time reading labels." Lee suspects this may be due to the language used in the text, which, she says, tends to assume a certain level of knowledge about art. "Museums were once places for the cultural elite," she explains. Today they serve a much wider public. Accommodating that public is both a responsibility and a key to survival, especially in times of shrinking public funding. "Someone who does not know art," Lee admits, "may have difficulty understanding the context." She suggests that curators add a second label to each work, geared toward less-knowledgable patrons.

Though signs and visual cues can enhance a museum-goer's experience, Lee says, "the exhibits are the heart of a museum." Most galleries arrange exhibits in chronological order—from the earliest works of that period or artist to the most recent. But visitors, Lee finds, don't usually move through a museum in the intended direction: Most enter a room and are immediately drawn to whatever grabs their attention.

A better approach, says Lee, is thematic arrangement —exhibits centralized around a specific event or culture. An exhibit on Egyptian culture, she recalls, allowed visitors to try on costumes of the region as well as to appreciate the crafts and sculptures of ancient artisans. Of course, Lee admits, such ideas have potential hazards. Clutter can detract from an exhibit. But such problems could be minimized through careful planning. At a Renoir exhibit in Chicago, for example, a video shown in a small enclave near the gallery allowed viewers to watch the artist work on one of his last paintings, his hands severely crippled from arthritis.

"It is possible that museum architecture and the design of museum spaces have the potential to help educate in powerful ways," Lee writes. For one thing, "If you like something, you'll stay longer."

Ching-Fang Lee is a doctoral candidate in art education, College of Arts and Architecture, 207 Arts Cottage, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-6570; Her adviser is Brent Wilson, professor of art education, 209 Arts Cottage; 863-7314;

Last Updated January 01, 2001