• Nina Hanz

Bringing Mindfulness into the Museum

Since the 1950s and 1960s, mindfulness has become a widespread concept permeating into various disciplines, lifestyles and cultures. While the term can be difficult to define, its origins are rooted firmly in Buddhism. Commonly understood as a non-judgmental form of awareness, mindfulness has the potential to shift how we create and even view art. While mindfulness practices and visiting the museum are not often seen as being synonymous, their shared history and positive physiological and psychological benefits provide a significant correlation that can change the experience of visiting a museum altogether.

Tibetan Sand Mandala, Photo by Taylor Clark Johnson

The process of making art has long had a healing purpose in many ancient spiritual and religious rituals. Take the creation of intricate sand mandalas by Tibetan Monks as an example. In the Western world, traces of these principles can be seen in Dadaist movement from late 1910s and the Surrealist movement from the early 1920s which both emphasised the unconscious. The creations made at this time stimulated the imagination, further promoting viewer-led reflection. One of the early American Avant-garde artists promoting this shift to Eastern beliefs was Zen devotee, Mark Tobey. Famous for his ‘white writing’ paintings which included calligraphy, symbolism and abstract brushstrokes, Tobey translated the philosophy he gained at a monastery in Kyoto, Japan onto canvas. His painting Oncoming White is proof of this.

Mark Tobey, Oncoming White, 1972, oil on canvas

Beside the progressive poets, writers and artists working with similar Eastern influences, contemporary psychology also advocates for mindfulness in all aspects of life. A large body of research proves there is a significant correlation between mindfulness and improved wellbeing and psychological health. This is demonstrated by both quantitative and qualitative data showing the reduction of anxiety, better coping skills and improved mental health. The popularity of Zen drawing books should not be surprising when paralleled with mindfulness becoming vogue. However, there might be some threats to the integration of mindfulness in museums.

Opposed to the traditional and ritual aspects associated with art, the integrity of contemporary art has become vulnerable to its economic capital and augmented luxury status. Furthermore, the rising popularity of digital guides and social media’s integration with art museums often influences the visitor experience by mitigating the viewer from the artwork. This further validates the widespread promotion of mindfulness in the museum as changing the way we view art may negate these tendencies and strengthen the connections made between the viewer, artist and artwork.

Mindfulness in the museum has slowly become a topic of interest for many museums as seen in tours offered by various institutes like the Freye Museum in Seattle, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum in New Hampshire. These slow moving and mindful viewing experiences prove that the mindfulness gained through art is not only beneficial for the artist. For the viewer, a mindful approach of viewing art can improve wellbeing as well as improve observational skills. The former has been proven by research demonstrating increased creativity while the latter has resulted in the engagement with the visual arts in some medical degrees, a profession relying on unbiased observation and attention.

But, how does one integrate moment-to-moment interactions in busy, often distracting museums?

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, oil paint, acrylic paint and glue tempera on canvas

Imagine you are standing in the Tate Modern’s Rothko Room, feeling the red paintings reflecting from all corners of the room. Instead of flying by the large abstract painting, take the time to arrive in the room and let your gaze soften onto the monumental works. Become aware of the various shades and tones of red the paintings. Noticing the different colours, lighting and shapes created by Mark Rothko. Let go of the traffic or queues you previously were caught in and melt into the moment and into the painting. If there is noise, accept it because the people around you are part of the museum. This is the ‘Rothko experience’ and by taking your time to mindfully embrace what is in front of you allows you to look inwards, precisely what Rothko intended.

By bringing this principle of mindfulness into the museum, a deeper connection is made with the art. Moments like these calm the viewer, but also help them see and think more clearly and creatively. However, these experiences are not restricted to the gallery walls hosting these artworks as mindfulness can spread into all aspects of your life, thus following you throughout the rest of day outside the museum.