Art Museum: A Temple?

Pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa?
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“Art lifted up her head and was seated on her throne, and said, All eyes shall seem me, and all knees shall bow to me… There she had gathered together all her pomp, there was her shrine, and there her votaries came and worshipped as in a temple.” –William Hazlitt after visiting the Louvre in 1816.

I have recently read an article by Carol Duncan, ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’ taken from her 1995 book Civilising Rituals. In it she discusses the similarities between a visit to an art gallery and a visit to a religious temple. Starting the chapter, I wasn’t convinced. After all, art galleries are secular buildings with paintings hung up by various employees. There isn’t a bible, a religious figure to worship or any commandments to keep. And yet, hearing her arguments and comparisons, I have to say: I’m sold.

Reading this over the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, I’ve recently spent a lot of time in Synagogue, so it seems strange, almost offensive in some ways, to compare this place of worship with art galleries. Temples such as Churches, Mosques and Synagogues have centuries of history, community, and spirituality behind them. For many people, the teachings inside are the very centre of their lives. Visiting art galleries could surely just be reduced to a hobby or a cultured privilege. 

The Munich Glyptothek- the layout invites inner contemplation

It occurs to me whilst reading these articles that I do take art galleries and museums for granted. For many of us –particularly those who live a few stops on the Northern line from the world famous museums of London- visiting museums with parents and grandparents was a right of passage. I definitely can not remember my first visit to a gallery or art museum. We see galleries and museums in postcards and as dull backdrops in tv shows and films. I think it is because of this desensitisation that we would now find it hard to think of these visits as religious or spiritual. And yet, there was of course a time when art was confined to private collections. In the late 18th century, art museums began to be open to the public and writers of the time were spellbound by the experience. 

The German writer, Goethe, first visited the Dresden Gallery in 1768 and wrote:
“The profound silence that reigned, created a solemn and unique impression, akin to the emotion experienced upon entering a House of God.”

Dresden Gallery (Photo Credit: 

It is clear therefore, that there was a time when entering an art gallery was a spiritual experience. Despite my love of art, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of the enjoyment as anything more than the painting itself. But Duncan argues the case that it is the building too, the very layout of the architecture and the composition of the exhibitions, that creates a narrative throughout the museum. Until recent more modern designs, most art museums were based on ancient temples. One just has to look at the structure of the Munich Glypothek and the National Gallery of New South Wales. Huge columns create a grand entrance, instantly drawing visitors away from the everyday and into a more divine experience. Impressive entrance halls and expansive staircases always create a long introduction to the building before any artworks are even seen. It is how people would have approached the gods of their ancient temples. Thus, it was not simply the paintings that would have spoken to visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also the very layout of the museum, making them seem smaller and more humbled.

The Munich Glyptothek- Architecture clearly based on Ancient temples

I think this is true even today. Everyone enters art galleries with the same expectation of seeing art and feeling moved or educated by it. Much in the case of a religious ceremony, there is the expectation of enlightenment and a spiritual uplift. There is a certain decorum as well which is similar to temples. No loud talking, no eating, no playing music, no running. It all demands inner contemplation and a different approach to the world around you than out on the street.

The crowds surrounding the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Visits to the painting seem like a pilgrimage. People enter expecting to be overwhelmed by the experience...
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Duncan describes this as ‘liminality’, meaning a mode of consciousness outside of the day-to-day cultural and social state. Often used to describe religious consciousness, this clearly also applies to the state-of-mind people have upon entering art galleries. This is why in the liminal space created by the museum, everything and anything can become art “including fire-extinguishers, thermostats, and humidity gauges.”

This made me think about a recent viral story about two teenagers who pranked gallery-goers in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Kevin Nguyen, 16, and TJ Khayatan, 17, put a pair of glasses on the floor of the gallery and were delighted when people began to treat them as part of the exhibition, stopping to take photographs. Nguyen commented “is this really what you call art?” People who are critical of modern art loved the story and thought it proved how ridiculous art-lovers are. I think this links to the idea of liminality in the art museum. It wasn’t a case of Art Is Stupid and Gallery Goers Are Gullible, it was more about the way gallery-goers are told to open up their minds to what the museum has to show them.

People reacting to the glasses prank in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

Much in the same way temples ask their congregation to allow their minds to be open to the religion and to reach spiritual heights, art museums ask their visitors to allow themselves to be inspired, intrigued and educated by what they see. Rather than a joke, I think it is quite a magical thing that museums accomplish by making everything seem worth viewing and contemplating. Even if it is a fire-extinguisher or a pair of glasses.

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