Take Your Writing to the Museum

Me, some museum in France.

Like visual artists who study at the feet–or at the canvas–of celebrated artists in museums with notebooks and pen/pencils, writers can do the same. Use your next (or your first?) museum or gallery visit as a writing prompt. Go and look at the work, find images that intrigue you, confuse you, or attract you. Take out your notebook, pencil or pen (if pen is allowed) and sit down. Write!

If you feel weird writing in front of art in an art museum, bring along a fellow writer, or bring along an artist friend. Explain your goals before going so they’ll understand when you pull out your notebook and writing utensil (or, if you must, your computer) and tell them that they don’t have to feel obliged to stay with you. Or maybe they’ll join you and will choose to write or draw themselves.

Of course, you can always go to the museum alone. There’s no rule that you have to carry along a friend or family member with you. In fact, alone, you can move at your own pace and write as you wish to.

When you are moved to, or when you want to take a break and sit down for a while, write! You can go without a plan, which is what I often do when I visit the museum–I go to look at the art and if I am inspired, I’ll write–or you can go with a clear writing goal in mind.

I understand that any writer at any stage of their creative lives can be discouraged about writing in public or writing in a space reserved for visual art, so I have included some ways to get started below.

From an installation at Fitchburg Art Museum by artist Cicely Carew, December 2022.

Freewrite with no goal, just your head full of beautiful or bizarre art.

Critique: you don’t have to be an art historian or critic to form an informed opinion of the work before you. Writing critiques of any kind gets your mind moving towards thinking broadly about the world which, in turn, may feed the creative work you’ll do later.

Ekphrasis, poem or prose: write what you see in a painting or sculpture. Write the story or feelings behind the art. Focus on one image within something huge and unravel it in your notebook. For example, with the Carew piece above, I thought about how we people often destroy nature for our own habitat, work, or entertainment but bring in a curated nature such as a garden or house plants to feed the dearth we ourselves have created.

I got an idea of what to do with a poetry cycle I’m working on from this Gabriel Sosa’s exhibit, No Vehicles in the Park, at Fitchburg Art Museum, December 2022.

Bring in your work in progress. Think of a character or some characters and how they would respond to the art or space around them.

Use your imagination. How would this museum look after dark, when everyone is home, save for a curator or two, or maybe a security guard? How would this space look at the employee holiday party? How would the museum look if COVID wasn’t an issue now? Would it be more full? How would young children first react to abstract art? How would prudes react to nude images? If your character was disabled–or if you are disabled–is your museum experience altered and if so, how? What would your mother, who plays a starring role in an essay, say about your favorite piece in the museum so far?

Takashi Murakami exhibit at The Broad, 2016.

Try a description exercise: Describe the gallery itself, the people milling about looking at art. And describe the art itself: how it is placed on walls or in space, how it is framed, how it contrasts or complements the other pieces around it. Be rich in imagery and try to tap into as many senses as you can. Do not forget smells! If you’re like me and are still masking, wait until a gallery in the museum is empty for a while, then sneak your mask down for a minute. What does it smell like? Is it nothing? Then what does nothing smell like? Describe the absence.

Kara Walker exhibit at The Broad, 2016.

Accessibility:

Going to a museum is not easy for everyone, so this practice of writing in a museum may seem undoable. But it doesn’t have to be! Here are ways for everyone to see art:

Worcester Art Museum, 2017
  • In Massachusetts, public libraries carry museum passes for many of the museums in state. Some of these are free entrances, and some are deeply discounted. Also, if you have SNAP benefits or EBT, you can get in for free in many museums across the country. Check out Museums for All.
  • Some museums have free days for state residents. For instance, in Massachusetts, many museums have Free First Thursdays.
  • I know that some museums offer discounts or free entry to disabled patrons. This is also the case for senior citizens.
  • If you’re a student, you may get free or discounted entry. For example, where I live, everyone associated with the university and has the university’s ID card can get into the museum for free.
  • Some employers and unions offer discounted visits or free visits. My union, Massachusetts Teachers Association, offers discounts and free admissions to many museums. Since I take advantage of visits with my union membership, I am sure to try to bring back as much information for my students in lectures or activities.
  • If you live in the DC area or are visiting, all Smithsonian museums are free all of the time!
  • If you cannot physically go to a museum, you can see lots of art online. For instance,

Wherever you go or stay, and whatever you do, enjoy the art and have fun doing it!

Me in the Eric Carle Museum, 2018.

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