The Value of Museums

Like a humanities stew.

The Disciplines of Knowing: The Humanities (7)

There is more to experience in museums than just what meets the eye.

The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. Genesis 2.8, 9

More than pretty pictures
Next to being at home, my favorite place on earth is a museum – the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

I never tire of visiting this wonder. I like museums in general, those expansive Wunderkammer of pictures, artifacts, and interesting exhibits. The Brandywine, which houses the works of N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth, is just my favorite among many, including the Museum of Appalachia in east Tennessee, and the Shelburne Museum, just a bit west of us here in Vermont.

We live in a society that has been wooed, wowed, and won by mass culture, which is relentless in its pursuit of our affections and devotion. From podcasts to the music we download or listen to on the radio, the TV shows and films we watch, websites and game apps we use, and much, much more, our generation is besieged, besotted, and benumbed by the throwaway culture of immediate gratification. When we aren’t working, eating, or sleeping, we are under the spell of mass culture.

Which simply means that we have little time for more thoughtful cultural activity, such as looking at art, reading poetry or history or philosophy, or spending a day in a museum. Made in the image of God, and endued with the ability to appreciate beautiful things, we deserve a culture which challenges our souls, stretches our vision, and helps us to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And this is precisely what museums can do for us. There is nothing quite like a trip to a museum to shake us free from the grip of mass culture, so that we can rediscover the joys of more durable and thoughtful cultural activity. Museums offer more than just pretty pictures. They are showcases of ideas, snapshots of great moments in history, and glimpses into the desires and passions of the human soul. If we approach visiting a museum with the right frame of mind, we may expect to encounter much that is beautiful and good, some that is disturbing and displeasing, and many ways to give thanks to God and to marvel at the creative genius with which He has endowed people.

How to visit a museum
In his book, How to Visit a Museum, David Finn provides a helpful list of general principles for visiting an art museum. First, he says, look for things that please you. Walk around until you see things that make you stop, or smile, or wonder. Note them, and plan to return to them for more careful consideration in due course.

Second, as you return to each of the items you have noted and begin to study them more carefully, ask questions about the object you’re viewing. What themes does it present? How do the lines and colors work? Why does this piece appeal to you? Who made it, and when? What was going on in the art world at that time?

Third, keep in mind that you can’t absorb everything in one visit. Just focus on two or three objects per visit, and make as many observations as you can. Finn explains, “The most successful museum visits are those on which you come across one overwhelming work. It might be a different one on different visits to the same museum, depending on your mood, but when that explosion takes place the experience is almost unbearable. A powerful experience in front of one great work of art can make a museum visit totally fulfilling.”

Fourth, be careful to look only – no touching.

Finally, try to find something from your visit that you can share with someone else. David Finn: “There is no question that the opportunity to tell a friend what you have discovered in a painting or a sculpture [or other artifact] enhances the experience.”

In looking at a work of art, first, make sure you know the title and artist. If you have your phone with you, and can quickly look the artist up, or if the museum has a catalog you can consult, try to find out a little background on the artist and the painting. Define the theme or subject of the work in your own words: “Andrew Wyeth’s painting ‘Cold Spring’ is about winter overstaying her welcome.” Note the various objects in the painting itself – a languid river, a small dory tied to the bank, a leafless sycamore towering over the whole scene, a dark and dull rise in the background. How do these work together? Why would someone paint this? Ask more questions – about the mood of the painting, the use of symbols, the primary message, and so forth. Say a few words to yourself – or better, write them in a journal with all the rest of your musings – about how the object you are viewing affects you. How does it make you feel? Does it remind you of anything? Introduce you to some new thought? Help you to appreciate something you’ve never noticed before?

As you reflect on your observations, offer some thoughts about how this object leads you to think about Christ. For me, “Cold Spring” conveys a longing for new life; it’s a complaint against the lingering cold of dead, lifeless winter, and a patient yearning for the buds, flowers, and flowing streams that come with the new life of spring. Jesus gives us new life; He also gives us the seasons of the year (Gen. 1.14; Ps. 104.19; Dan. 2.21). And He faithfully brings the spring each year – on His schedule, not ours – sometimes delaying to enhance that longing for life which He has painted onto the soul of every person.

Humanities stew
A museum is a kind of humanities stew. You know how a stew has to simmer, all the flavors melding together, until the aroma is just right; then the experience of savoring the stew as a whole is greater eating than any or all of the individual parts alone.

That’s what museums are like for me. They bring together the best of humankind’s creative efforts and invite us to consider the marvel of creativity, the beauty of art and sculpture and other artifacts, the meditations of creative hearts and minds, and the inescapable need for human beings to create and enjoy beauty.

Museums can help to satisfy your desire to know Christ better by bringing to you a wide range of objects and experiences that provoke you to wonder and lead you to praise. Visit a museum, and simmer in its rich aromas of beauty, goodness, and truth.

For reflection
1. Do you have a favorite museum? Explain.

2. How is a museum like a “humanities stew”?

3. What could you do to prepare for a visit to a museum, to make sure your visit helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ?

Next Steps – Transformation: Find a museum in your area – any museum – and plan a trip. Take an afternoon and, using the guidelines in this article, let your visit be a time of growing in love for Christ.

T. M. Moore

This is part 5 in the series, “Know, Love, Serve”. All installments in this series may be downloaded for further study by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore