In Praise of Close Looking

One of my favorite things which I learned in grad school was the practice of close looking, or careful, prolonged observation of a single object. Though I learned it in the context of curatorial work and historical research, I think close looking has something to offer for a lot of people. It is an observation skill, but also one which forces you to slow down, and focus your concentration on a single thing for a long period of time. Because of this, it can also be a really great way to center yourself and make meaningful connections to the world around you.

1976.0190 Print
The RETURN from SCOTLAND, or THREE WEEKS after MARRIAGE. 1777. Sayer & Bennett, publisher. Mezzotint with engraving. 17.2 x 11 in. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. 1976.0190.

How does close looking work? As an example, let me tell you about the close looking exercise which I was assigned by my professor of prints and paintings, Winterthur’s Associate Curator of Fine Arts, Stephanie Delamaire. Stephanie assigned each of us to spend two hours alone with a single piece from Winterthur’s print collection. We were instructed to keep a watch, pencil, and paper at hand, and write down our observations as we made them, along with the time at which we came to each discovery. At the beginning, this was an easy assignment. I knew that later I would be asked to write a description of the object, and so I ran through all of the things I knew I needed to make note of: What type of paper? (laid.) How was this printed? (It was a mezzotint – and intaglio process popular in the 18th century.) What did the print depict? (A satirical scene of a married couple fighting.) As the two hours wore on, however, my observations began to thin out, occurring only every few minutes. However, they didn’t stop coming and they didn’t diminish in quality, rather, they were less what I thought I was supposed to be observing, and more based on my own questions and experiences of the piece.


Sometimes close looking means getting really close! (Or, as in the case of this cedar sewing table drawer, using your nose to do a bit of close sniffing.) Photo by Katie Fitzgerald. 

Two hours is a long time to stare at any one thing (and Stephanie, forgive me, but I think I actually gave up 1:45 minutes in), but this exercise helped me see the value in really taking the time to observe a single object in great detail. At other times in my grad courses I did similar exercises as part of a group, which was a very different, but equally valuable exercise, as it allowed me to benefit from the various interests and expertises of my seven classmates. Winterthur’s Curator of Furniture, Josh Lane, was particularly good at setting my cohort down in front a chair or chest of drawers (often literally sitting on the floor with it turned upside down in front of us) and making time for five or ten minutes of spit balling about what we saw before asking us to make conclusions from our observations. It was this permission to take my time that I found most empowering, and which I try to take out into the world wherever I go.

Who looks closely, and why?

Despite my assertion that everyone should practice close looking because it’s good for everything, I do think there are some placers where it’s especially useful. Below is a short list of professions who might use close looking, and what they might get from it. (And readers, I’d love to hear who you would had to this list!)

  • Museum curators use close looking to better understand the pieces in their collections. Close looking often reveals details about how, when, and by whom the object was made. It can also help to show how the object was used, and what it meant to the people who used it.
  • Museum educators use close looking to help visitors engage with objects and art. By asking visitors to slow down and make their own observations about what they see (rather than reading the label, or even walking right by), close looking gives people time to find something which interests them in the object, and to develop their own opinions about it. (Here’s a great exercise for close looking with school kids in museums from the MFA Boston)
  • Museum visitors use close looking to make personal connections to what they see, and to have meditative experiences. Rather than relying on information provided by the museum, visitors who take time with museum objects may draw connections between what they observe and their own experiences. They also use close looking as an opportunity to focus on a work of art and allow outside distractions to drop away, much like a meditation exercise.
  • Antiques dealers use close looking to identify the age and value of objects, and to ascertain whether they are authentic or fake. They often rely on long experience looking at other similar objects, and build extensive visual vocabularies, which they can reference when determining whether a piece really is what it says it is.
  • Makers use close looking as a source of inspiration, and as a means of understanding how other makers have solved similar problems in the past. Close looking can reveal clever construction techniques or show where others chose to cut corners. It can also highlight to properties of different materials, or inspire new designs.
  • Historians use close looking to transform objects into primary historical sources. As opposed to using things merely to illustrate a point, the information gathered through close looking can help historians make new observations about objects, which can then become the basis for new historical arguments.
  • Teachers use close looking exercises to help students build skills in observation, analysis, and interpretation. History teachers may use close looking to help students use historical artifacts as primary sources. English teachers may use close looking to help students build their skills in descriptive writing. For all teachers, close looking provides a way to help students engage constructively with things beyond words, pictures, or videos, and create an opportunity for tactile learning. (For more on this, see this great blog post on close looking in the classroom.)