The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.

Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working.  Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.

The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking.  It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.

I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”.  From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.

Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.

I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.

One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing.  I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.

Gallery view with Renoir, Phillips Collection. Flickr Photo by Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.

When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present.  The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey.  Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.

Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.

When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?

Flickr Photo by Chris Short, galleries at North Carolina Museum of Art. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA.  Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts.  She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.

Header image: Flickr photo by John D., “Forest Stream,” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


14 thoughts on “The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection”

  1. A+ for this article. Having visited countless museums in the US and Europe, I have always looked for benches as much as for art. Being able to sit at ease makes one study the artworks much better and appreciate and even remember more. Even in our emerging Aruba Children’s Museum for Art and Creativity’s small launch site, we will introduce sitting objects… mostly for the adults of course!

    1. Sitting objects make so much sense for all involved. Reality is there are never enough chairs, or enough comfortable ones. Thanks for the kind grade: makes this teacher smile as those are hard to earn.

      1. I think an American museum found out through research that one of the main reasons their audiences went to the museum was to interact with friends. So the museum got a set of sofas and displayed them one facing the other, in the gallery. You wouldn’t face the works of art, you’d face one another.

  2. Thank you for saying so eloquently what I’ve always wished. I, too, am a huge museum lover; and there are never enough chairs. Who wrote the rule that said any gallery room is best seen on your feet? In wonder if more museums would have more visitors by just providing chairs?

    1. Sharon,
      More visitors, I don’t know. Happier visitors, probably. And I so agree about the standing issue. I imagine that if we tracked visitors in places with more chairs, the overall dwell time in front of works of art would increase. And thanks for the compliment.

      1. Thank you for an intelligent piece. I am curious why museums don’t have more chairs, benches, etc. I feel as though old photos suggest that there once were more.

  3. Great piece, Susan! With all the time, effort, resources, research, and innovative practices that go into facilitating connections between museum visitors and art, it can sometimes just be as simple as providing a comfortable seat in front of a painting. Here at the Portland Art Museum, we recently had an exhibition of landscape masterworks from Paul Allen’s collection (called “Seeing Nature”), and our primary interpretive strategy was … adding more than a dozen sofas throughout the galleries. We were focusing on visitor outcomes of slow looking and sustained engagement, and we (anecdotally) found that visitors responded extremely well to the addition of seating. No audio guide, no fancy/flashy app, no iBeacons … just comfortable seating. Visitors were able to look, without anything getting in the way.

    1. Thanks Mike. Wow, your couches are a great model in terms interpretive choices for the art. I’m reminded of John Falk’s visitor category of Recharger, and we so often go to nature to just sit and see. While it is probably not in your budget, it might fun for some tracking to be done to see just how long visitors stay in the galleries.

  4. Susan,
    So glad you brought this up. I’ve found in visitor research over and over that visitors want places to sit down – to rest, to view something a bit longer. This is a place where the hospitality industry could help us. If visitors really are our guests and we want them to soak themselves in the experience then why are we (museums) so mean to them? Museums tend to ignore the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid – the creature comforts like comfortable seating. We know that it is difficult to progress up that pyramid to higher level thinking when we are tired, hungry, or our back aches. When museums do provide seating it’s often out of the stream and/or incredibly hard and unforgiving. I just don’t understand how that keeps happening. It’s such a simple thing.

    1. Marianna,
      I’m sure we all have stories about hard and uncomfortable chairs, or “designer” versions that are dreadful resting options. Maybe as the population ages enough complaints will happen and a shift might occur as the boomers continue to demand that culture meets our needs!

  5. Thank you for this article! I have also had similar experiences in art museum chairs. I haven’t ever been encouraged by a museum to use chairs to take time with artworks, however, and I wonder what that would look like.

    I love the notion of Visual Velcro, what an apt way to describe the pull of an artwork on an observer.

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