Are you doing galleries the wrong way? Our new book Artifacts has some surprising insights
Take a look at our new collection of art, artist and art world facts before you head to the museum
On your next trip to the museum, you might want to ditch the audio guide, and instead take our new book, Artifacts: Fascinating Facts about Art, Artists, and the Art World. This detailed, engaging, easy-to-ready miscellany for every art lover gathers together an incredible range of facts, figures, and findings, past and present.
Even before you set off for the hallowed halls of your nearest art institution, make sure you have the name of the place right. In the art world, acronyms abound, and not all of them are unique. As Artifacts points out, “MAM might refer to the modern art museum in Madrid, or Paris, or São Paulo—or the Milwaukee Art Museum, in Wisconsin.”
Once you’re through the doors, what kind of works are you likely to see, and by what kinds of artists? Analysis reproduced in Artifacts suggests white, male painters and sculptors still predominate permanent collections. “One study, published in 2019 and led by Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, aimed to examine the diversity of artists represented in the permanent collections of eighteen US art museums,” explains the book. “The findings reveal the extent of gender and racial inequalities, despite initiatives by many museums to rebalance areas of historic underrepresentation.”
However, this isn’t the end of the story; many art institutions do have works drawn from diverse parts of the world, but as Chad Topaz, one of the mathematicians involved in the Williams College study, noted, “all statements about artist demographics are limited to individual, identifiable artists.”
Pages from Artifacts
“Historically, art and artifacts from different parts of the world were collected without establishing who created them, resulting in a large number of anonymous holdings. ‘The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,’ Topaz added, ‘boasts 85,000 works of art from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Italy, and other areas. These generally have no identifiable artist.’”
Once you are among the works, don’t worry too much about how long you spend in front of a painting. A 2001 study conducted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art found that the average (mean) time spent looking at a work was just 27.2 seconds, while a later study, at the Art Institute of Chicago found visitors regarded works for a slightly longer period of 28.63 – the Chicago study also found visitors spent much more time taking selfies in front of a piece.
You may linger longer if you understand the meanings behind long-established motifs. You probably could have guessed that a dove symbolises peace and love, but did you know that a pomegranate means rebirth, fertility, or that one hand pointing upwards indicates salvation and ascension to heaven after death, while touching fingers can indicate the Genesis story? Indeed, this final example finger symbol is found outside of a museum setting. “Perhaps the most famous hand gesture in art history is still the touching index fingers in Michelangelo’s depiction of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” explains Artifacts.