Bringing a journal to the museum isn’t normal. We go to museums to look, to experience, to discuss, but not to write. It seems odd in a mildly inappropriate way, like singing in a restaurant or rollerblading at the mall. It just isn’t something people do.
But it should be!
The first time I tried museum journaling was when I was part of the National Writing Project. For a month, my journal was my constant companion and I got used to writing in all sorts of strange places (in line at the grocery store, sitting at stoplights, in the middle of antique stores), so toting my journal along to the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center didn’t seem too far out there. I expected to enjoy writing in a cool, inspirational atmosphere.
What I didn’t expect was that both my writing and my enjoyment of art would be electrified by the process of museum journaling.
Here are some reasons why I think it’s so beneficial, both as a writer and as an art lover. First, journaling in response to art forces you to notice every detail of the work you’re writing about. Museums create a space in which each object is elevated and in which we notice details that we’d ordinarily overlook. Sadly, even under these conditions, we often miss the coolest parts of a painting or sculpture because we haven’t forced our minds to slow down and take note. Writing makes us look (there’s probably a life metaphor somewhere in here, don’t you think?). Second, museum journaling affords us the opportunity to create our own works of art in response to something of great visual interest. The art serves as our muse. I find that the more abstract and thought-provoking the work of art is, the easier it is to write about it.
If you’re now curious about museum journaling and want to give it a try, here are the steps I’d recommend you follow to get the most out of the experience.
1. Bring a friend or two, but make sure they’re the right kind of friends. You want people who can sit still for 10 minutes at a stretch and who will take the process semi-seriously, not mock it. You want people who aren’t drastically averse to art or writing. It might just be my extroverted nature, but I think it’s more fun to museum journal with friends so that you can discuss the art and get ideas for writing as you go. I went with my friend Katie to the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla yesterday (she was the one who told me I should write this post!), and we had a great time.
2. Bring a beautiful journal and a rad pen. I can’t write well using boring paper and crappy pens.
3. Find 3-5 pieces of art in the whole museum that speak to you and that get more interesting the longer you look at them. Find sculptures and paintings that produce a strong emotional reaction, positive or negative. Survey a room of exhibits, and whichever one you find yourself thinking about after you’ve strolled away is the one you should write about. If photographs are permitted, take a picture of each piece you write about.
4. Follow these three steps initially; you might internalize the first two eventually, but it’s best to be thorough in the beginning.
- Observation. Spend about one minute quickly writing down as many details as you can about the work of art. What is its size? What are its colors? What is its shape? What is it depicting? What is unusual about it? Look very closely and write down everything. You’ll be surprised by what starts appearing when you look hard enough.
- Connection. Now spend 2-3 minutes making connections between the work of art and other things. How are you responding to it emotionally? Does it remind you of anything in your personal experience? Can you connect it to any other works of art you have seen, including paintings, sculptures, films, or books? Does it remind you of a place you’ve traveled to, or a photograph you’ve seen? Does it suggest any narrative to you?
- Creation. This is where you create your own work of art in response to the art. The connections you make in the previous step will probably start suggesting creative responses to you. Choose any form you like that will best express your own reaction to the art. Poetry is awesome. If you’re a beginner, start with a fixed form, like a haiku. Try a sonnet if you’ve brave. Begin writing a story. Write a journal from the artist’s perspective. Don’t fuss over details–write continuously and edit later.
4. Go out for drinks with your friends afterward and have everyone share what they wrote. Turn your favorite pieces into blog posts or captions for your pics of the art. A haiku as a caption for an abstract painting would be a classy addition to an Instagram feed.