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Secrets of a Museum-Goer

Galleries should be guilt-free zones, right? Well, don't let the palaces oppress you. Enjoy. (And don't forget to stop at the gift shop.)

May 15, 1997|MARGO KAUFMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Margo Kaufman is the author of "This Damn House."

Call me a philistine, but I frequent museums for reasons that have little to do with the acquisition of culture. For me, to visit a museum is to enter a guilt-free zone. Should I feel, as I did yesterday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, like plopping on a bench and studying a Kandinsky for 20 minutes, I don't have to fret that I'm being perceived as a couch potato. Anyone who isn't busy loudly regurgitating Art History 101 to impress their date (why is it against the law to hit these people?) will surmise that I'm overcome by the beauty of the painting, instead of the entire truth: I have sore feet. Moreover, when my cluttered house is closing in on me, I can count on a museum to provide soothing high ceilings, interesting but Spartan architecture and impeccably organized space.

Museum hopping also provides a universal antidote to culture shock. When you land in a foreign city, with a bad case of jet lag and a couple hours to kill before your hotel room is ready, instead of trying to find a decent restaurant, you can reflexively dart into a museum. The ritual is the same everywhere: Check your coat, avoid the tour group clustered around the local institution's masterpiece, tune out the patronizing guide, sip an overpriced Diet Coke at the aggressively chic cafe. Even a cardiovascular workout is included: a museum encourages you to walk miles through a visually challenging expanse, never knowing when you'll find something thrilling around the corner. And then of course, there's the best part of any museum experience, the gift shop. (There's something about seeing all those gorgeous unattainable objects that makes me want to purchase something, much in the way after losing money in Las Vegas, I feel an atavistic urge to buy a sweater.)

I blush to confess that I'm a passive patron, especially in Los Angeles, where I can never figure out where the museum expects me to park. I will see almost anything if someone else suggests it--and drives--but left to my own devices, I seek out folk art, historical rooms or anything by Degas, and I have a weakness for the Big Score. Not long ago, my friend Suzy, the culture maven, invited me to the old Getty to see the work of Julia-Margaret Cameron, an obscure Victorian photographer. Suzy knew to park at the Chart House Restaurant and take a shuttle bus and she expertly navigated around the labyrinthine galleries. Still, I caught her by surprise when I offered a suggestion, "Let's see the Van Gogh Irises." She looked blank so I added, "The $53-million painting." Frankly, I didn't think it was worth that much but the culture maven liked it a lot.

Suzy was a particularly satisfying museum companion because she could only spend a couple hours looking at visual stimuli. By contrast, my husband, Duke, is omnivorous and insatiable. Typically, I stand in the doorway of the gallery, look around and go over to what interests me. Meanwhile, he systematically moves from one item to the next and can spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a case filled with old nautical instruments or pottery shards. This leaves me with time to contemplate a museum behavior that mystifies me: Why are people sketching masterpieces when they can buy a reproduction in the gift shop for under a dollar?

On the other hand, Duke speaks many languages and laboriously translates text panels so we obtain the maximum amount of information. (If I had a zillion dollars, I would establish a fund to put English text panels in every museum in the world.) And he doesn't mind that I harbor culturally incorrect prejudices. I have a low threshold for armor, arrowheads, religious art, still lifes with recently shot ducks, and I swear that I have seen the same dug-out canoe in anthropological museums from Peru to Indonesia. We did have a small conflict when he took me to the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, and I walked in and beheld a lot of stuffed furry and feathered creatures starring at me with glass eyes. I turned around and fled.

(Perhaps, I got my plebeian viewing habits from my mother. Last fall, in New York, we went to the Met--home to the world's best gift shop, which in my opinion also happens to be the world's best store--to see yet another Impressionist exhibit. We passed an intriguing display of Persian tile. Mother watched impatiently as I darted around the mosaics. "C'mon," she urged. "If you like this stuff, I'll take you to Country Floors.")

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