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A Museum Experiment with Postcards: How to See Art in a New Light

A Museum Experiment with Postcards: How to See Art in a New Light

As part of my research for my book about the five senses, I've been visiting the Metropolitan Museum every day (pandemic permitting).

How I love this daily visit! It's a time to explore, wander, and generally let my mind off its leash.

Recently I tried an experiment.

I'm very interested in how the gift shop fits into the larger museum experiment. (Spoiler alert: I think it's related to the sense of touch.) So in the gift shop, I bought a handful of postcards depicting some of my favorite works, then walked through the Met to compare the original to the postcard. I wanted to learn how the the experience of seeing was different.

In each case, no surprise, the colors of the originals were much richer and finer than on the cards. John Singer Sargent's brilliant portrait Madame X glows in subtle shades, but the postcard presents much flatter blacks and whites.

In some cases, however, the postcard version helped me to see the original painting better—for instance, by helping me to regard the work as a whole. I’d gazed at Bruegel the Elder’s masterpiece The Harvesters many times, but I’d always focused on the foreground and never quite registered the landscape in the distance, where buildings line the shore and ships float on the sea. On the postcard, I noticed that element of the painting right away.

Also, on the postcard, I was puzzled by the conspicuous bright yellow rectangle on the painting's left-hand side. What the heck could it be? On the painting, it's easy to see that it's a hay wagon—but somehow I'd never noticed it there. It didn't stand out, as it did on the card.

In general, on a postcard it was harder to see details but easier to grasp the entire composition.

Also, it's funny—on visits that I've made after I did this exercise, I've noticed that I feel a special connection to the paintings from my postcards. As I walked through galleries, these works jumped out from the crowd of other paintings. I’d seen them more clearly, and they felt more mine, because I'd held them in my hand—even if I did so in an artificial, miniature way.

I love any excuse to buy postcards. Do you love postcards—and what about postcards of art?

Also, I'm curious to know if you ever try experiments when looking at art or visiting museums. What hacks have you discovered for seeing things in a new light?

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