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Very Seinfeld: A Museum Exhibit about Visiting Museum Exhibits

"A Day at the Museum" examines documents that tell the stories of artists' trips to museums over the past two centuries

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Artist Dorr Bothwell’s sketch of visitors at the San Francisco Art Museum in 1942 during World War II.

Imagine walking in the footsteps of an artist visiting an art gallery. Are you feeling inspiration or intimidation? And what would you think if you happened upon an unguarded guard bored and asleep at his post?

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which collects the sketchbooks, letters, financial records and other ephemera documenting the lives of American artists, answers some of these questions in its new show, “A Day at the Museum,” which opened recently at the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery.

Curator Mary Savig says that the multifaceted exhibit sheds light not only on the lives of the artists, but also on museums themselves—how they’ve evolved over time, as well as their roles as artistic incubators, educating and opening minds to art, history and culture. But before you dash away, alarmed by the didactic, consider some of the tales revealed here.

In one oral history interview, Conceptual artist Eleanor Antin recalls her childhood visits to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s. “I used to pick one picture. I’d look around seriously and I’d pick one picture that I would just study,” she says. “I’d look at other things, too, but I’d spend much of my time that day in front of that picture. I remember those in great detail, because I really looked at them very deeply and with great pleasure.”

Sculptor Lee Bontecou also visited New York City museums in her youth. She tells the story of being stunned by a Van Gogh exhibit that she saw with her mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Both of us were bowled over. It was incredible,” she says in her oral history recording. “We both just held hands and went through the whole thing.”

Pioneering light artist Dan Flavin, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1960s, wrote to an art curator saying the museum’s exhibits inspired the early designs of his art. And it was collage artist Romare Bearden who visited Italy’s Museo Della Conservatori in the 1950s and found all of its guards fast asleep. “Anyone could have walked away with the whole museum,” he wrote to a mentor.

One document reveals that New York’s American Museum of Natural History, now one of the world’s most respected museums, was a bit more carnival than cultural when it opened. Painter Jervis McEntee wrote in his diary after a visit in 1877 that he enjoyed seeing a fat woman and a tattooed man.

“In a lot of ways, museum-going has changed,” Savig says, “so we want to show people the things that are the same or why things are different.”

The exhibit collects not only letters by famous artists, but diary entries, sketches from museum visits, and photos of the famous and digerati visiting museums. Other recorded stories delight us with the memories of special visits. In total, around 50 documents and recordings from the past two centuries are featured.

The main goal, Savig says, is to show how the range and depth of American art reflect the variety of experiences a person, artist or otherwise, might have at a museum: “Some people have fun going to see exhibitions with their children or their parents, and some people are just there to study, because they’re students, some people are guards. We really wanted to show a variety of experiences at museums, because that’s what our visitors will have.”

Savig encourages visitors to share their experiences, too.

“A Day at the Museum”—the museum exhibit about visiting museum exhibits—is open until June 2, 2013. The exhibit has its own hash tag, #DayAtTheMuseum, and a Flickr page on which museum-goers can post photos their trips to museums around the world. Check out some of the shared photos below.

Visitors at the Natural History Museum in Washington, DC. © Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

People and paintings in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. © Laurent Yokel.

Mixed reviews of a statue in Berlin’s Mitte Museum. © Mahoroba Foto.

A T-rex invades the Natural History Museum. © Tim Aldworth

A woman and her daughter study a painting by Vincent Van Gogh at Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. © Huub Louppen

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About Paul Bisceglio
Paul Bisceglio

Paul Bisceglio is an editorial fellow at Pacific Standard and co-editor of the website "Land That I Live." He was previously the editorial intern for Smithsonian magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio

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