Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 19, 2018
Shari Tishman Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation London: Routledge, 2017. 156 pp.; 22 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9781138240414)

Shari Tishman’s Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation is a book that covers the whole field of education, beginning with children in primary school to adults visiting museums. Though I intend to discuss the entire scope of the book here, my primary concern is how its thesis applies to people, of any age, when they look at art in museums. My first thought when asked to review the book was that the concept of “slow looking” is appealing, but is it realistic? Our tendency for multitasking, fast looking, and immediate information saturates our lives today. Can slow anything be possible? Yet the appeal of incorporating something slow into our lives has generated movements ranging from slow food, which places emphasis on local food and traditional cooking, to Slow Art Day,when each year people the world over visit local museums to look at art slowly.

Tishman is a senior research associate at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She defines “slow looking” as a mode of learning, a means of gaining knowledge through observation. Her explanation of slow looking encompasses more than expanding a glance at something, it also extends to viewing. The goal is to move beyond the first impression toward a more immersive experience. She delves deeply into what slow looking is and how it benefits our cognitive activities of critical and creative thinking. Three central arguments of the book are: 1) the impulse to look is natural and intrinsically engaging; 2) direct observation yields complex understandings; and 3) prolonged looking is essential to learning.

Tishman provides ample, diverse examples of how slow looking takes place in formal and informal educational settings. In chapter 2, she describes a public museum tour during which the guide asks questions that require slow looking and thereby enable participants to describe fully what they see. Chapter 3 offers an example of slow journalism as we follow a foreign correspondent in the fifth year of a 21,000-mile hike across the world. The hike will take a decade to complete, during which time every other day he posts his encounters with people, observations of nature, and the places he visits. Although this example of slow journalism is extreme, it brings forth a crucial aspect of all slow looking: that time is essential for an immersive experience. The journalist’s ten-year hike has inspired an online cultural exchange program Out of Eden Learn, which connects students around the world.

Out of Eden Learn and the journalist’s hike that inspired it are profound examples of the impact of the slow experiences Tishman provides in the book. Slow Looking also includes examples of a nature-study curriculum that stresses that slow looking is needed for scientific research and in exercises for drawing and writing requiring detailed descriptions of what one sees. At times, however, the notation of slow looking’s applications make Tishman’s book seem like a teacher’s guide or handbook for educators.

It is as a historian that Tishman offers a deep understanding of the learning benefits of slow looking and the educational practices that have supported them through the centuries. A lineup of philosopher-educators—Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Agassiz, and Dewey—represents different patterns of instruction that placed value on observation and sensory experiences. Tishman traces the presence of slow looking in teaching practices, identifying the first instructional picture book for children and a number of educational philosophies ranging from Friedrich Froebel’s in the nineteenth century to John Dewey’s in the early twentieth century.

In the course of Tishman’s survey of historic pedagogical practices that involve slow looking, she notes that its potential benefits for students are inextricably tied to the way students are taught. No matter when or where education takes place, the subtleties of instructional design and the artistry of teaching are key to the learning outcome. And here lies the crux of the book for me. How does slow looking take place in art museums? Can slow learning be taught or simply encouraged in museums? Tishman uses her long-standing interest in slow looking in her review of the history of museums.

“Museums are cultural institutions devoted to the pleasure and power of looking at things for ourselves” (70), Tishman states in chapter 5. Her account of the history of museums begins with the world’s first museum, discovered in 1925 in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. In the palace chamber of Princess Enmigaldi, a collection of historic objects was found with small, clay cylinders that described the pieces in three languages. The cylinders, she notes, are the equivalent of object labels, as they are written descriptions that provide information for the viewer. The collection of the princess was organized and displayed with the intent of inviting visitors to look closely at them, to instill a sense of historical knowledge, and perhaps a connection between the viewer and the past.

Today, there is an abundance and multiplicity of museums—theme museums, discipline-based museums, and encyclopedic museums—each with different missions. Yet all types of museums offer visitors the opportunity to have the direct experience of a cultural artifact. Western encyclopedic museums such as the British Museum, the Smithsonian, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York arrange and display vast collections of objects from across history and around the world. These displays are intended to provide visitors with a historical narrative of human culture—political, social, religious—as represented in visual objects. The museum display is intended to encourage visitors to engage directly with such objects by looking at them and thinking about what they mean. Ideally, museum visitors look for themselves, allowing their interests to guide them to objects they find curious. Their interest compels them to stop and to look and to wonder. While direct observation in a museum setting does not, by itself, provide exhaustive knowledge of an object’s significance, it can provide genuine insight and a personally profound experience for the viewer. Out of such encounters, a curiosity may grow that eventually leads to an increase in knowledge.

Over the past twenty-five years, museums have expanded their purpose from collecting, researching, and displaying objects to placing emphasis on the visitor experience. With this shift in focus, an array of activities is offered to museum visitors but not ones that encourage slow looking. Audio and online guides, highlight tours, wall texts, and video installations offer multiple interpretive tools to heighten and, hopefully, enlighten the visitor. The visitor is rarely encouraged to wander through the galleries, to look for oneself, and slow down. Tishman rightly points to the lack of comfortable seating provided in museum galleries that would encourage visitors to linger, look longer, and think. It seems the museum experience today aligns with the fast-paced information overload of our daily lives.

Yet there are still some museum education programs that encourage slow looking. These are typically inquiry-based programs offered to primary and secondary school groups. In visual-inquiry museum programs, the student’s personal observations, guided by core questions, lead the student to form an interpretation of an artwork. Unfortunately, because the majority of museum education programs promoting slow looking are now aimed primarily at school groups, adult visitors must depend on the interpretive offerings mentioned above.

Tishman cites a historic debate between two museum educators in 2002. Sixteen years ago, Phil Yenawine, former director of education at the Museum of Modern Art, and coauthor of the Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS), discussed with Danielle Rice, former senior curator of education of the Philadelphia Art Museum, the importance of information in teaching in-gallery programs for school groups as well as for adult visitors. Yenawine espoused allowing viewers to engage with a work of art without transmitting information to them. Rice believed, as an educator, it was her role to share her own knowledge to enhance the viewer’s experience of an artwork. The debate continues today. Tishman argues for a balance between the two approaches and warns that the role of information “can’t be ignored.” Museum educators need to develop effective approaches to fold art historical information into visitors’ direct experience of art.

There are many approaches a museum offers for looking, as Tishman notes: to be persuaded of some level of truth, to see something for oneself, to discern nuance and detail, to experience aesthetic pleasure, to have an emotional response, and to gain information. Each reason listed above involves looking for oneself with purpose. The dilemma for museums today is to create an environment that supports close looking for all visitors—for those who participate in facilitated experiences as well as for those who prefer a less-structured stroll through the gallery. In addition to Slow Art Day, each museum might consider a day without cell phones, audio tours, and in-gallery media materials—a quiet day, purely for looking at art. A pure art day would nurture the freedom to linger in the galleries and decide for oneself what art to spend time with. I believe such a day would support the three central arguments of Tishman’s book, noted above.

If the museum can create an environment to support slow looking, either for the facilitated experience or an unstructured visit, then it is up to each of us to find the time for an immersive experience of art. The most effective way to cultivate slow looking is to carve out time to experience the world around us through direct observation. 

Clare Kunny
Independent scholar; Director, Art Muse LA