Monday, September 10, 2007

NMActivity: 30-Second Look

Activity Overview

Museum researchers have found that 30 seconds is the average amount of time visitors spend in front of works of art. After looking at a work of art for only 30 seconds, guests will use their visual recall skills to discuss what they noticed in order to demonstrate that really seeing and reflecting on a work of art requires time.

Learning Objectives
Students should be able to:

  • Give reasons why more than 30 seconds is required to look at a work of art in order to gain an understanding of it
  • Give reasons why discussing a work of art with others increases everyone’s understanding of it


  • Pencils and paper (if desired—these are not necessary)

Activity Steps

Ask guests to estimate the average amount of time they think museum goers spend looking at an individual work of art. Record their responses on paper, or by noting responses in a call-and-response format, and discuss the factors the group believes affect the amount of time people spend looking at an artwork. Ask student guests how long they think adults spend, on average, looking at a work of art compared to their own time spent looking. Discuss some of the responses and why there might be a difference between an adult’s and a child’s looking. After students have responded, explain that museum researchers have observed that the average amount of time that adults spend looking at one object in a museum is less than 30 seconds. Is 30 seconds an adequate amount of time to spend looking at a work of art? Why or why not? Try the following experiment to illustrate and test guests’ responses.

Invite students to sit in front of a work of art and to study it for no longer than 30 seconds. Then ask the group to turn their backs to the artwork at which they have been looking.

While guests are turned away, ask them to list what they noticed in the work of art. Ask directed questions to help them recall, such as:

  • How many people are represented in the artwork?
  • How would you describe them?
  • How was each figure dressed?
  • What kind of setting is depicted?
  • Is the scene tidy or chaotic?
  • Are there any animals in the work of art?
  • How would you describe them?
  • What is the subject of the work of art?
  • What kind of mood has the artist created?

Ask guests to describe the one aspect of the artwork that they remember most vividly. Encourage all guests to share and discuss their responses. Did everyone notice the same things, or did they notice different elements? Comment on the variety of responses.

Invite guests turn back around and face the artwork once more. Ask them what they see that they did not notice the first time they looked. Guide guests through a careful re-examination of the artwork.

Ask guests to share their ideas about what the work of art may be about. If the work of art is narrative in nature, encourage students to speculate on the story. If the work is more abstract, encourage guests to speculate about what the artist may have been trying to present.

Ask guests to consider how much longer they spent looking at the artwork the second time. Was their first glance sufficient? Ask guests if discussing and comparing their observations with other people helped them to understand the work of art differently or better. Encourage guests to explain their responses.


Review the objectives of the activity with student guests at the conclusion of a tour. Ask student guests what they have learned during their time in the museum. Review the benefits of spending more than the average of 30 seconds looking at works of art.