Sensory feasts

I wrote here recently about my experiences visiting museums, including about sensory overloads and how to manage them. Remarkably, that post seems to have generated a bit of interest, which is nice given it was also the most difficult post I have ever written and the most personal. I would like to expand a little on it, if I may, with some thoughts on what it’s like to visit an art gallery, an environment which on the face of it is even more of a sensory feast/all-you-can-eat buffet than a museum.

I never used to like art. Not that I had anything against it, it just didn’t interest me. When I first started going on day trips, nearly eight years ago now, I realised I hadn’t set foot in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh since I was at primary school. I decided to rectify that and ended up going to more and more art galleries. I can’t claim to be an expert but I know what I like. I like landscape paintings, particularly French Impressionists and Turner as well as the works of the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists, photography and the odd portrait.

Art galleries can be very intimidating to many people. I know someone who is a very gregarious person but yet is intimidated by some of the more distinguished art galleries in Edinburgh. Many galleries have made great strides to be more welcoming to people. National Galleries of Scotland, for instance, are very good at promoting their blockbuster exhibitions each year, often making use of the pillars at the front of the Royal Scottish Academy to make sure absolutely no-one on Princes Street or Hanover Street can miss what’s on. My favourite was the Andy Warhol exhibition on a few years back when the pillars were done up like Campbell’s soup cans.

An art gallery is a very intensely visual environment with a direct gaze at a painting or an artwork more regular than perhaps a glance at a museum object. An hour is usually enough to cover what I want to see in an art gallery, which luckily seems to be the extent of my attention span before it begins to wane rapidly and I am crying out for a can of Irn Bru and a Milky Way to right myself.

What also helps is breaking up the day a bit. Usually when I go somewhere, I usually have a rough idea of what I want to see though usually I just rock and roll, depending on my mood and impulse at the time. A visit to an art gallery is usually followed by a walk outside for a while, to get some fresh air and take the stress off my eyes. By that I mean not having to look so intensely and think about it as much.

Being able to sit down helps me to enjoy my favourite works more, to fully appreciate them but also to keep any overload at bay. The National Gallery in Edinburgh and Kelvingrove here in Glasgow are excellent at providing seats around their galleries, particularly in the body of the kirk upstairs in NGS’s case and in the French Art gallery at Kelvingrove. I remember, though, being in the wonderful Kirkcaldy Galleries, possibly in the Scottish Colourists’ room, where the rather plush bench seat was, naturally, positioned in the wrong direction. You can’t win them all.

It helps to know the gallery well. For instance, one of my favourite galleries is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, as shown below. I was lucky to have a behind-the-scenes tour just before it reopened a few years back. NGS did a great job in doing a sympathetic refurb, keeping the best of the way the gallery was before while expanding it to reflect additional space. They also have several very fine quiet places to which I can repair if I need to. Or simply because I want to. I like it when I can sit down for the pleasure of it, not just as a physical, sensory necessity. The ambulatory, or mezzanine level, is magnificent with murals all around depicting key events in Scottish history. I like to sit there just to soak it all in as well as to recharge. Another good place in that gallery is the Library, just along the corridor. Libraries, of course, are fine places to be any time.

There are also other practical compensations. I have tinted glasses that react to light when I am outdoors. When I go to Kelvingrove, I often sit on a step near the entrance to let my glasses readjust. That just so happens to be next to my favourite painting in the entire world (as shown below). It depicts the Paps of Jura, as seen from Machrihanish beach in Argyll, painted by William MacTaggart. It is beautiful, slightly Impressionist in how it shows the distant hills with a choppy sea and waves lapping onto the shore. There are very few things worse than letting my glasses adjust to being inside and looking at such a fine painting.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

For what it’s worth, I firmly believe that accessibility is more than just about token efforts, platitudes and PR wheezes. Often what is provided for one group, with one idea, can benefit far more people. More seats, for instance, benefit older people as much as people like me. Quiet times in museums, like those held by the Natural History Museum in London, benefit the families of autistic children as much as the kids themselves.

I remember once being in Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery, possibly the only museum in the world that has a Nissan as an exhibit. It also has a rather fine selection of paintings by LS Lowry. They had a display of paintings by autistic young people from the local college. They were rather fine. I particularly remember one painting that was in the style of Pablo Picasso, with the outline of a human head with lots of lines and colours inside. I can relate.

Museums and galleries are for all of us. In most cases, we also pay for them with our taxes. More and more, they are coming to represent different and varied groups of people and that can only be good for encouraging new visitors to cross the threshold. If people have a good experience then they tend to remember and come back. They also tell people about it, by far and away the best publicity ever devised. If it meets the standards of good PR and counts towards statistics, even better. But that must be secondary to people enjoying themselves, which is the main thing. I love museums and I love art galleries. I like being in them. I experience things differently than most people but I make it work. Encouraging people to experience the world on their own terms is the task of all cultural institutions. Some people need more help and support than others but that makes it interesting and, from personal experience on the other side of the coin, more rewarding too.


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