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Can digital technology help us to learn to look slowly?

Slow Art Day has now been running for more than a decade. This international event encourages museum visitors to try slow looking – spending 10 minutes or more looking at a single work.

It is seemingly a big ask. The Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina for example – in the introduction to its exhibition Slow Looking/Deep Seeing, which ran from January to June this year – said that researchers estimate visitors to art venues spend an average of eight seconds looking at each work on display.

It’s an astonishingly short amount of time and The Weatherspoon’s curators and educators organised their exhibition, with works from the museum’s own collection, to offer visitors a chance to slow down, make discoveries and effectively connect with works of art.

Why promote slow looking?

In a museum piled high with objects, it is tempting to try to see as much as practically possible during your visit.

But taking time to look closely at a single exhibit can reveal subtle details about a work, allowing you to find meaning and connection to a piece.

“When people look slowly at a piece of art, they make discoveries.” Phyl Terry, Founder of Slow Art Day, told MuseumNext. “The most important discovery they make is that they can see and experience art without an expert (or expertise). And that’s an exciting discovery. It unlocks passion and creativity and helps more visitors to learn how to look at and love art.”

Slow looking can be a mindfulness activity, and resources such as the National Gallery’s 5-Minute Meditations combine slow looking and meditation to create beautiful and engaging online experiences – at the time of writing, this series of films has accrued over 115,000 views on YouTube.

Building a community within a museum

Slow looking is also a powerful way to build community within the museum.

“We started Slow Art Day more than 10 years ago in part as an antidote to the negative effects of the digital world,” Phyl said. “I had been working in the Internet world since the 1990s and was CEO of a company, which carried out pioneering work on online customer experience. In fact, my company and I had done several projects with Apple and Facebook just prior to founding Slow Art Day.

“I could see the small but growing problems with multitasking and overuse of screens. So, in 2008 when I sat down at the Jewish Museum and looked for an hour at Hans Hoffman’s wonderful painting Fantasia, I was blown away by that experience in real space with visual art. And then I set up a test at The Museum of Modern Art and brought in several people to do a slow looking session.

“They loved it and we discovered that a powerful by product was community. Looking together slowly in real space builds bonds of trust and friendship, as well as newfound appreciation and love for art. That’s when I decided to launch Slow Art Day and to focus it on in person sessions.”

Can digital encourage slow looking?

Of course, this focus on real space events had to shift in 2020.

“We pivoted quickly to digital when the pandemic hit. We trained museums on using zoom and in thinking about how to design silicon events. The pandemic thus forced us to break our rule that all sessions be done in person,“ Phyl says. “And there were some silver linings to that, especially the ability for museums to attract and build audiences from around the world.”

So how can you move slow looking, online?

  • Slow panning videos
    Slow Art Day’s Johanna Bokedal explained: “When an artwork is filmed slowly, in detail, and panned across with the camera, the eye has to follow the movement of the video. We have to, in other words, stop, pause, and see what the camera has already captured slowly.” For the 2020 event, the Mississippi Museum of Art shared a slow panning video of Van Gogh’s ‘Daisies, Arles’ (1888). Slow Art Day report that “the video was well-received across social media, with 830+ views and likes on Instagram and Facebook.”
  • Zoom events
    Museums have used Zoom in a myriad of ways to facilitate slow looking events since the start of the pandemic. The Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum, Florida, offered Zoom guided meditation, yoga, and close looking sessions via Zoom for Slow Art Day 2021. MO Museum, Lithuania, used Zoom to provide multi-lingual events, whilst the Smithsonian delivered remote workshops for educators.
  • Social media events
    Slow looking has proven to be successful on social media, for both promoting and delivering events. The Art Gallery of Ontario used Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to deliver their slow Art Day 2021 activities, resulting in 10,000+ likes and views.  In 2020, The TarraWarra Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia used social media to promote their slow looking resources hosted on their website. Slow Art Day report that it “was a success, with over 5000 impressions and 100+ post engagements across Instagram and Facebook. Further, the average time spent on their dedicated webpage was 6 minutes – dramatically higher than the average time of under a minute for other pages on the site”.
  • Slow reveals
    Digital provides museums with the perfect medium for a slow reveal – where parts of an image are shown before the full piece is revealed at the end of the session. For the 2020 event, the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario, shared nine detailed images to their Instagram account over a 90 minutes, with the full image revealed at the end. Discussions were invited in the comments of each post and their stories.
  • Google Arts and Culture
    Gigapixel quality images give us the ability to zoom into works like never before. For the 2020 Slow Art Day, The Art Museum Riga Bourse in Riga, Latvia, selected five artworks available on Google Arts as their slow looking exercises, allowing participants to zoom right in on textures, tiny details and individual brush strokes.

Looking forward

Although digital cannot replicate the experience of slow looking in real space, it does offer new and rich ways of experiencing exhibits slowly.

But does digital help us learn to look slowly?

Slow Art Day’s, Johanna Bokedal, told MuseumNext: “I’m unsure, personally, if the digital itself teaches us to look slowly. I think that’s something we learn to do when we take a moment to breathe in everyday life, and it’s best practiced, sometimes, in community with others.

“However, can the digital be used for slow looking? Absolutely.”

Want to know the latest thinking on the digital side of museums? Join us for the MuseumNext Digital Summit.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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