How Curious People Visit Museums

Security Guard and Elementary Students at Art Gallery

Security Guard and Elementary Students at Art Gallery

One of the more surprising and intriguing studies related to curiosity is “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor” by Jay Rounds.[i] In his article, Rounds reveals strategies and motivations behind the peculiar behaviors which a curious person may demonstrate in their effort to have an enjoyable visit to a museum. The article begins with a quote from The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (first published in 1759):

Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule, straight forward; for instance, from Rome all the way to Loreto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left, he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end; but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit he will have 50 deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself, perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various accounts to reconcile; anecdotes to pick up; inscriptions to make out; stories to weave in; traditions to sift; personages to call upon; all of which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from (Sterne 1967, 64-65).

Among the other “ages” in which we live, we definitely live in an age of standardization. Students take standardized tests. The schools have standardized assessment. And employees are evaluated using standardized rubrics. It is like we are taking what is most interesting about humanity, diversity, and eliminating it in an effort to eliminate risk. Subsequently, we eliminate much of what is remarkable about us. We are normalizing humanity. Curious and creative people don’t fit that mold well, and I would suggest that no one really fits any mold. Strangely enough, though, even our museums have become part of this normalization process. We see more and more blockbuster shows that are attractive to a wide range of society. And subsequently, they contain fewer and fewer items of controversy. Museums have created larger, more informative placards and even offer headphones for guided tours to ensure that we don’t misinterpret the creative expressions of artists. Walking through museums these days one will see people as engrossed in the information provided for a work of art than the work itself.


Due to their design, Museums are often cold, cavernous structures that are as intimidating as fascinating. Long periods of time dedicated to viewing each item on display can be exhausting and leave one more worn out than energized. Still, museums are our repositories of culture, and they are filled with many wonderful exhibits that curious people enjoy. But according to Rounds, “if Shandy’s ‘straight line’ is the path through the exhibition that has been carefully designed to maximize learning, then few visitors seem destined ever to reach Loreto at all.”[ii]

It does seem obvious that a disciplined use of an exhibit would beget greater learning. And it is easy to argue that exhibitions are most effective “if a visitor decides to carefully attend to any of the exhibits, using them in a comprehensive manner.”[iii] Moving deliberately through each component of an exhibit should create a more edifying experience. And it was uncovered that those approaching exhibits with a focused strategy did obtain a greater level of mastery than those who were moderately focused or unfocused.

Contrary to this logic, however, museum-goers don’t necessarily proceed in such an orderly manner. A great number of these visitors are “drifters” who don’t appear to be following commonsense methods as they meander through exhibits. They fail to use the way-finding aids or other instructional materials for gaining that most effective museum experience. In fact, an analysis of 104 studies on visitor behaviors in exhibits, J. H. Falk and L.D. Dierking found that visitors generally view between 20% and 40% of an exhibition. And less than 1% actually stop at every component of an exhibition. From these figures, a person viewing only half of an exhibit is considered “diligent.”[iv]

Curiosity driven museum-goers are anticipating new experiences—to have their curiosity piqued. They aren’t looking to ascertain every bit of information displayed. This, however, directly contrasts what curators plan for them—to learn subjects in depth. Furthermore, curiosity driven visitors develop strategies for “piquing and satisfying” their curious nature. Just having a goal of “piquing and satisfying” in itself is quite irregular. Goals usually are a means to an end. Piquing and satisfying is more of a means to more. This is also problematic for curators in that using an exhibit to pique and satisfy might have little to do with the curator’s intended purpose of the exhibit itself other than it being an agent for something else—a catalyst.

Contrary to prevailing logic, the Shandean strategy as described by Sterne is actually clever and fitting for those seeking novel stimuli because, in general, the purpose of the curious museum-goer is the process of learning, not the value of learned material. One could easily imagine the following exchange between an information-seeking visitor and a curious visitor:

Curious: I wonder if the artist were standing or sitting while painting that.

Information Seeker: Why do you ask?

Curious: Just curious.

Picture By Jim Wileman 24/01/2012 Generic images from Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The museum and Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery will be amongst Arts Council England’s Major partner museums. The two South West museums are working as a consortium and are one of 16 nationally who will receive funding as part of the Arts Council’s Renaissance programme for regional museums.

Picture By Jim Wileman 24/01/2012 Generic images from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

What would be seen to curators as a traditional visitor, one who is seeking information, is extrinsically motivated to acquire knowledge from which they can benefit. It’s a practical goal. Conversely, the curious visitor has a goal of acquiring knowledge for which there is no apparent use, merely for the sake of learning. As discussed in the section on foraging, acquiring great quantities of “useless” knowledge can actually be useful—even aid in survival: “A species would not survive long if it did not find pleasure in processing information.”[v]


Similar to the information foraging described earlier in this chapter that leads to the success of an animal finding food, a curiosity-driven museum visit is more about the overall experience while in the museum than any particular interaction with specific exhibits. And the task is fairly ambiguous being that the visitor does not know what is ahead or around the corner. Therefore, a set of “fast and frugal” strategies are needed to (1) locate interesting exhibits, (2) know when to focus and when to browse, and (3) limit wasted time on boring exhibits.[vi]

Knowing that not all exhibits are equal, a curious museum-goer is motivated to stay away from the lackluster exhibits or risk boredom. Briefly consulting guides or maps helps to familiarize one with the territory. Then the rule is to get moving and start scanning.  Walking through the exhibits, one should take note of individual items within exhibitions, not the overall exhibit. General things aren’t interesting, specific things are. And the final rule for scanning is to follow the crowd; wherever people are gathered, there is a good chance that something interesting is nearby. However, there is a risk that these people aren’t curious and they are looking at a dull exhibit, so the curious museum-goer should be willing to leave any exhibit that doesn’t live up to expectations.

When to stay and when to go is the next lesson. Rounds says, “follow your nose.” If it doesn’t pique your interest instantly (smell good), then leave.  And don’t hang around exhibits that take a lot of warm-up time. If an exhibit is difficult to understand or takes effort to appreciate—leave. Not heeding this rule could mean wasting valuable time in humdrum exhibits. Lastly, in the category of attention rules is to “Satisfice.” Remember from the section of information foraging, smaller food sources are better over the long haul than waiting for the big catch. So, “don’t look for the best solution, look for a satisfactory one.”[vii]

The final set of rules for the curiosity driven museum-goer are related to quitting. Knowing when to leave an exhibition is just as important as knowing which ones to focus on. As stated earlier, if an exhibit isn’t interesting from the beginning, don’t stay around—move on. Also, when moving from individual exhibits within a large exhibition, it’s the three strikes and you’re out rule. Don’t stay to see if the next one is a good one. Museums are normally large and exhausting, especially if one were to see all the exhibits, so don’t. Once you feel full, it is quitting time. Don’t feel obligated to keep looking at more.

Acting as a curiosity driven museum goer is strangely rewarding. Additionally, piquing and satisfying curiosity is unexpectedly educational. However, there is an odd sense of guilt that looms when you skip large portions of exhibitions. It’s as if you aren’t paying the proper respect to the institution of high-culture. Large museums in major metropolitan areas are the best for experimenting with this approach. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is my favorite. Book stores with a large magazine sections work for this approach too. On your next visit to the bookstore, scan the magazine racks with the same strategies as the curiosity driven museum-goer. Look at what strikes your interest and put it down once satisficed. Then move on to the next interesting magazine cover.


[i] Rounds, Jay. “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Visitor.” Curator 47, #4 2004: 389-412,

[ii] (Rounds 2004, 389)

[iii] (Rounds 2004, 390)

[iv] (Rounds 2004, 390)

[v] (Rounds 2004, 391)

[vi] (Rounds 2004, 397)

[vii] (Rounds 2004, 398)

Thinking About Thinking


Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

The Most Creative Painting…Ever

Roy Lichtenstein Bananas and Grapefruit

Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.

Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.

Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.

Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating.  The higher the rating, the more creative the work.

3047438-inline-i-fig-1 (1)

According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.

So, did the computer get it right?

Creativity Tip for Old People: Hangout with Young People



One of the main reasons I teach is to be around young people. I know as I grow older, I become more practical. I’m less apt to take chances or to embark on new endeavors. I also moan and groan more. But as a professor, I’m forced to be around hordes of energetic individuals (students) who push me to be more open, less judgmental and less grumpy. In turn, my students help me to seek out new opportunities where I normally wouldn’t. They help me see possibilities where I’d normally see dead-ends. In turn, they make me more creative.

Too often, we worry about the troubles kids bring and don’t focus enough on the benefits of youthful behavior. Here are some beneficial qualities of young people:

  • They are adaptable
  • They are eager to learn
  • They are enthusiastic
  • They learn quickly
  • They are tech savvy
  • They want to make a difference
  • They like challenges
  • They are aware of trends
  • They embrace change

On the flip side, another benefit associated with hanging out with kids or young adults is they get to be around you. Young people need mentors as much as old people need energy. It’s a two-way street. Young people gain valuable life lessons from emulating mentors. Over time, we’ve lost many of the apprentice/mentor relationships in education due to the heavy reliance on testing as our main source of assessment. Constant interaction between generations brings some of that back.

We all benefit from relationships that cross over generational boundaries. Older people become more flexible and younger people wiser. If your personal or professional networks don’t include young people, I encourage you to begin adding them.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Business Model Canvas, A Great Tool Getting Creative People Organized


The main ingredient for a sustainable artistic practice is money. You don’t have to be rich, but you do need money to survive. And to reliably make money, you need an organizational plan. But artists and designers don’t care much for creating a traditional business plan. I know I don’t. Those plans aren’t interesting, and they are difficult to understand.

However, the Business Model Canvas puts the basic business type stuff into a visual structure that is easy to visualize and easy to understand. There’s even a video that shows you how to do it. It breaks down the structure of your business into nine elements:

Customer Segments: who are you serving and what do they want

Value Proposition: what are you doing for your customers

Channels: how to you reach your customers (interaction points)

Customer Relationships: why type of relationships are you looking establish (longterm, personal, automated, etc…)

Revenue Streams: where’s the money coming from

Key Resources: essential assets and basic resources needed

Key Activities: what you need to do well

Key Partners: which suppliers or partners do you need

Cost Structure: what drives costs


Here’s what it looks like for a lemonade stand.

Business Canvas

It’s not the end all for a business plan. But it really gets things going. All you have to do is guess for each section and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to maintain your practice. Visit their site Business Model Canvas, get the app, or get the book. They are well worth looking into. Get started and you’ll be glad you did.

Big Data Art


Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”


Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.


Masaccio, Holy Trinity



Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.

This is Water


There are these two young fish swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them a says, Morning boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks to the other and goes, What the hell is water?



David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 2005 is one of those speeches that deserves revisiting every once in a while. I often show the video made from edited parts of it to my classes. Above is the opening. Wallace follows by stating that the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The gist of the speech is that we have choices. And if we choose to acknowledge that we have choices, then maybe we can see the world through many lenses, not just through our default “me” setting.

Empathy may be the most underrated aptitude of the modern era. Being able to view reality from another person’s perspective is an incredibly powerful tool.  It opens the door to real conversations that can lead to a greater understanding of the world in which we live. We just have to understand that no matter how substantiated our view may be, another may exist that’s just as valid.

As Wallace states later in his speech, the “real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”

What Project Haven’t You Finished?


So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

Interview with Angel Abreu from Tim Rollins and K.O.S. – a must read

If you’ve ever doubted the influence of a single teacher, read my interview with Angel Abreu, a member of  Tim Rollins and K.O.S. His story is incredible. And it all began with his middle school teacher, Tim. The interview is in the new edition of ArtPulse Magazine. Their website should be updated soon to include it. The intro is below and the link takes you to the full interview.


Heraclitus once claimed “no man steps in the same river twice.” His insight points to the universe as being in a constant state of flux. Thus, change is an inevitable component of existence. Even if we try staying the same, the world around us continues pace. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. know this all too well. Over the last 30 years, their unlikely collaboration has defied all odds. Beginning when a young artist turned special ed art teacher met a group of at-risk teenagers from one of the worst school districts in America, their career has been a roller coaster ride from abject poverty to international stardom, a fall from grace and now back to the top. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) epitomize the philosophy of Heraclitus as their improbable relationship has evolved over time to be one of the longest lasting artistic studios in history. Even though many of the members are still the same, the ensemble is effectively different. So it is fitting not only for the content of the work, but also for history of their adventure that they’ve chosen a river as the metaphor for their latest works.

It all began in 1981 when Rollins was to begin his first day as the Special Ed Art teacher at Intermediate School 52 in the Bronx. Stepping cautiously from the safety of a New York subway onto a platform stationed in the heart of the Bronx, Tim had no idea of what was to come. To understand the area’s sense of the despair, the opening scenes of “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” which opened that same year, provide a congruent setting1. To Tim’s surprise, when he met the principal, the principal yelled, “I won, I won; pay up!” and began collecting his winnings. The teachers there had waged against Rollins making it the short distance from subway station to school.

The building—in total disrepair—was situated in an area Rollins refers to as “hell on earth.” The art room that Rollins called the Hip Hop Sistine Chapel was floor to ceiling graffiti. The sink didn’t work and there were no supplies. But for some crazy reason, he stayed. And over time, he and the students began building a unique artistic relationship. After a while, the collaboration between Rollins and the kids became recognized for its large scale works related to classical literature.  Their momentum continued to increase until they received international acclaim. Then, the collapse of the art market combined with a personal tragedy to one of the K.O.S. members threw the group into a time of despair.

More than thirty years after that first day in the Bronx, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. are back with large scale exhibitions, reviews and collaborations all over the world. Additionally, K.O.S. is all grown up as they and Tim are now colleagues and friends. Recently, I spoke with Tim and one of K.O.S.’s longest standing members, Angel Abreu. Afterward, Angel and I emailed back and forth the following conversation. With a degree in philosophy and a new appointment as senior professor at The School of Visual Arts in New York, it is fitting that Angel, and artist bearing little resemblance to his image as a teenager in early days of K.O.S., chose to quote Heraclitus in his closing response for our exchange.

ArtPulse21_Life is a River