Museum Fitness

Paula Lobo / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paula Lobo / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art wants visitors to work on their museum fitness.

The Museum Workout is a 45-minute workout session covering two miles of The Met before it opens in the morning. Two dancers, dressed in sequined dresses and tennis shoes, lead participants through group exercises and stretches, including yoga in the sunny American Wing courtyard and squats in front of Madame X. No talking is allowed; participants instead take in the sounds of disco and Motown hits, and a recorded narration by illustrator Maira Kalman.

The walk begins with this recorded text:

In the best possible sense, you will feel as if you have taken this glorious walk through nature, but you happen to be in the museum, you happen to be looking at different pieces of art. So there isn’t this obligation to understand anything, or to know anything, you’re just observing, which is the best part of taking a walk. And that way, you are free to feel a million different feelings and there’s no judgment. […] So take a walk in the museum.

The museum visit is likened to a walk through nature. The participant is released from the tasks of understanding or learning; all she must do is observe and feel. 

The photographs taken of this workshop-performance are striking. There is something delightfully subversive about seeing people breaking the rules of museum etiquette. One of the dancers, Monica Bill Barnes, said that leading active bodies around the artworks “really runs against the culture of being in a museum, being quiet and being still and walking slowly”. The Museum Workout targets more than muscles; it fosters a sense of mischief.  

I can only imagine how powerful (and potentially joyful) it must be to connect with your physical self in a space usually associated with aesthetic or intellectual exercises. The New Yorker asks: “Might raised heart rates and squeaking soles heighten perception?” But I wonder, is that really the point? This exercise might help participants look at The Met’s collection differently, but perhaps its larger impact is in helping us all perceive the Museum in a new way, as a place conducive for co-creation and play.

AP Photo / Mark Lennihan

AP Photo / Mark Lennihan

I can't help but think back to an interview on Nina Simon’s museum blog with Dustin Growick of Museum Hack. Growick spoke about another kind of museum workout:

I think of us guides as ‘museum personal trainers’. Whether you’re an art history buff, a professional athlete, or don’t think you even like museums, sometimes all you need is a little help using the equipment.

This imagery is so apt. There is indeed a fitness necessary to visit a museum well.

Around the same time that I first read this interview, I also came across the following image on a postcard in the Centre Pompidou boutique. It is Museal Fitness 01, by Belgian artist Karine Marenne:

Image via Artsper

Image via Artsper

This image is a major inspiration for this blog, as well my doctoral research in digital museum interpretation. I want give people the tools to do the important work that museums can facilitate: stretching perspectives, toning imagination, strengthening empathy. Because appropriating a museum is a skill, a privilege, and an exercise in creativity.

All of which leads me to wonder: What fitness is required to visit a museum well?