People-Watching at the Museum


(View of the water, and Holocaust Memorial, from in front of the Legion of Honor Museum)

People-watching at its best: looking at strangers looking at art!

I visited San Francisco’s beautiful Legion of Honor Museum recently just before the opening of the next big show — The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England opens June 24 to great fanfare. Between shows is a fine time to avoid the crowds, enjoy the rest of the art — and people-watch.

At this more leisurely time you can find a fascinating mix of the casual and the hard core viewer.

(Close examination of Mary Cassatt pastels)

The hard cores are easy to spot. They include members of the Close Examination school who push the boundaries of musuem-advised social distancing by studying selected works up close and personal. 

Also among the hard cores are the Group Discussion clumps. They are inclined to hang out in front of a particularly intricate work and discuss every possible tiny detail until you wonder if they might have rooted themselves to the floor.

(Intense group discussion underway)

Group discussion clumps are frowned upon (and generally impossible unless they are with a docent) in the major shows. But when the galleries are sparsely populated you’ll find these groups standing, pointing, arguing, laughing and enjoying the art, which is, after all, what museums should be about.

Somewhere within a hard core/casual mix are the families — who particularly enjoy a museum in between major shows because they have the place pretty much to themselves. If nobody’s around to bother you, it’s open season on shouting about displays and putting your nose to the glass.

(Introducing baby sister (barely visible) to ancient art)

But often the casual art watchers are the most fun of all to watch:

(Casual viewer taking an art break during a bike trip)

This one was biking to meet some friends but took a detour to see the small show of recent works-on-paper acquisitions. “It’s the best part of my day,” he said in a museum-quiet voice; “any time I can stop by the Legion.”

(Lone looker in the Porcelain Gallery)

Also having a lovely day was this solitary visitor to the Porcelain Gallery, studying the Worcester teapots. Having the whole place to oneself is a secret treat not common to museum-goers.

But for this people-watcher, here was the prize:

(A little art, a little fashion)

Carolyn Hadley, spotted in the museum cafe with her mom, had chosen a place mat to take home so she could continue art-watching at her leisure. It was hard to switch the eye from one artwork to the other. But Carolyn, in her museum-quality dress, holds the promise of a bright future for art and people-watching alike.

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