By Stephen M. Heilakka, Docent

If you’ve visited the Michener on a Sunday afternoon, you’ve no doubt seen a group of people sitting on chairs in front of one of the collection’s pieces. At turns quiet and then engaged in lively discussion with one of our docents, these visitors are participating in a unique program called The Art of Stillness: A Deeper Look. This one-hour experience is open to all Museum visitors at no additional charge.

Did you know that most people look at a work of art, register the image in their minds, note the name of the artist, and move to the next work, spending on average just eight seconds in front of each piece?

The Art of Stillness is part of an international program called Slow Art. Much like the philosophy of “slow eating,” the concept is that participants visit the museum with the intention of truly savoring one piece of artwork.  In June of 2008, Phil Terry, the founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, conducted an experiment; he was curious to discover what would happen if museum visitors stopped and spent an extended period of time studying a work of art in a guided, facilitated discussion. The result? Participants reported that not only did they gain a greater understanding of the piece, but they also felt that their time at the museum was more enriching, and they appreciated learning to look at art in a new and different way. Most importantly, they said it fundamentally changed the way they now visit museums.

The exercise itself is easy, enjoyable, and relaxed. The group sits down and silently looks at a piece of art for five minutes. People are then asked to close their eyes for five minutes and think about the work and their memory and emotional response. When people open their eyes, more often than not they are surprised at what they did not see the first time. After five more minutes of exploration, the conversation opens up as individuals share their personal experience of the work. What participants often enjoy the most is hearing what others saw and noticed, how they felt and responded, because each viewer has a different story and a different experience. As people share their insights together, it deepens every individual’s view of the painting.

In 2018, the Michener expanded its Art of Stillness program by offering these guided tours every Sunday afternoon. More than 370 visitors participated last year, many of them returning to join in the tour and discussion again as each week a different piece from the collection is highlighted. Says long-time Member Cornelia Keener: “I’ve been coming to this museum for 20 years and seeing the work of the Bucks County Impressionists. It wasn’t until I sat in front of a painting by Daniel Garber for 45 minutes that I understood what it means to savor the beauty and magnificence not only of Mr. Garber, but of all the painters. This experience has transformed the way I go to museums. It has also given me a deeper appreciation for how lucky we are to have the Michener in our town.”

The next time you visit the Michener on a Sunday, plan to savor our collection in a new way—join in on any Art of Stillness tour every Sunday at 1 pm.