5 Things Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Can Teach You About Museum-Going

Helen Frederick installation shot

Installation view of Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Intersections contemporary art project

Museums can sometimes be considered intimidating spaces, complete with a flurry of visitors, pristine paintings, and immaculate sculptures. But venture into the galleries and there’s much to be gained. Today we look at Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence as an example of how each and every exhibition has something to offer museum-goers; it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

  • 1) Keep calm and carry on
    Frederick, an artist and printmaking professor at George Mason University, makes a habit of contemplative papermaking. As she explains in an early essay, hers is a storied process of interacting with materials, textures, and overlays to create paper produced by hand. This same reflective mindset is useful in approaching museums—taking time to consider and experience the quietude of the works on view.
Helen Frederick_Extinguish etc

Trees Darker Than the Night, 2015. Two pulp painting (42 x 22 in. each) and three solar prints (14.5 in. diameter each)

Sudip Bose echoes this in a review of Johannes Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art, in which Bose writes that pensiveness has given way to the blockbuster and calls into question the value of an enriching museum experience. What Bose drives home is that for artwork in general, and works by Vermeer in particular, each piece should be a study in quiet reflection rather than rushed consumption.

  • 2) Mix up your media

    Too often, exhibitions pigeonhole visitors into one media over another. Frederick’s Acts of Silence stands in contrast to this, encouraging viewers to explore works of varied textures, values, and aesthetics to get at the core of the installation’s themes – those of the environment and longevity. Frederick’s Extinguish, for instance, elevates the warfare debate, displaying each piece on handmade paper (a nod to nature in a world of artificiality).

It’s a concept worth mulling over. What effect does one media have over another? Surely texture plays a pivotal role. In fact, the Museo del Prado now includes 3-D printed masterworks for blind visitors to the museum—a move indicative of the experiential nature of depth, texture, and media.

  • 3) Lean in
    Equally important on your next museum visit is taking in the works on view at close range as well as at a distance. Frederick’s exhibition at the Phillips serves as a prime example, drawing visitors into the installation’s second room with a series of paintings that, from afar, appear to represent an empty field at sunset, but upon further inspection, reveal themselves as complex studies of light and tone. The next time you’re in a museum, try viewing works at a distance as well as up close to see what, if any, changes can be detected. What do those subtleties tell you about the work?
Helen Frederick_Acts of silence

Helen Frederick, Acts of Silence (still), 2015. Sound and video projection over primordial forest imagery, Voice: Helen Frederick; Video collaboration: Sean Watkins; Photo credit: Matt Nolan

Stephanie Herdrich, assistant research curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes this to a new level, harnessing Instagram to zero in on the minute, yet terrifically dazzling, details of the institution’s works. Much like quiet contemplation, experimenting with different levels of detail can bring to life nuance you might otherwise miss.

  • 4) Compare and contrast
    Another concept to think through on your next museum visit is how the works on view fit into a broader cultural context. In particular, what parallels can you draw between the selected works and those of comparable theme from a different time period or region? At the Phillips, Frederick’s works are displayed alongside Morris Graves’s, an abstract expressionist whose oeuvre captures the Pacific Northwest in its rawest beauty. In its second room, Acts of Silence brings this to bear, juxtaposing Frederick’s tonal works with Graves’s seabird compositions.

Gillian Daniel draws similar parallels on her Fash of the Titans Instagram feed, pairing classical art work with today’s high fashion. The unlikely juxtapositions reinforce the value of reflective study to glean new meaning from an exhibition’s selected works.

  • 5) Share your own interpretations
    Frederick’s Acts of Silence also encourages viewers to interpret the works on view in their own way. An earlier blog post tackles just this in its survey of the many ways viewers have interacted with the series, effectively adding their mark to the collection online.

Appropriately, many exhibitions now feature signature hashtags. One question to ask yourself in looking through submitted photos is what works inspired the most photos? Why do you think that is? The Getty Museum’s #GettyInspired series celebrates the nuance visitors add to a museum’s collection.

Museums, then, offer visitors a moment of quietude, layers of meaning, new perspectives, cultural nuance, and the opportunity to share in novel ways. Armed with these five tips, your next museum visit is sure to be an inspired one.

Angelica Aboulhosn, Marketing & Communications Volunteer

Redefining Identity with Question Bridge

Installation view Question Bridge AW

Installation view of Question Bridge: Black Males and the accompanying in-gallery interactive station

On your next visit to the Phillips, don’t miss a gallery on the second floor which has been temporarily converted into a theater for the recently opened Question Bridge: Black Males installation. The documentary-style video art project aims to represent and redefine black male identity in America. Like the subjects on the screen, visitors are invited to answer questions and leave responses at an interactive station in the gallery.

Spotlight on Intersections@5: Nicholas and Sheila Pye

The Phillips celebrates the fifth anniversary of its Intersections contemporary art series with Intersections@5, an exhibition comprising work by 20 of the participating artists. In this blog series, each artist writes about his or her work on view.


Nicholas Pye and Sheila Pye, The Coronation, 2008. Single channel video with sound. Gift of the artists and Andrea Pollan

The Coronation is an installation project incorporating a blend of experimental and narrative techniques to shape a cinematic perspective that employs visual language commonly used in painting. The installation is composed of three parts, with all three cinematic ‘panels’ playing simultaneously. The concept for the installation was inspired by altarpiece triptychs from the Renaissance and Medieval periods in art history. Our aim was to create a modern allegorical interpretation of the triptych using video and sound. The center component became a conceptual performance based work on a loop, and projected in the portrait format.  The centerpiece is flanked on either side by two life sized figures of a man and a woman also projected in portrait format.  This work is not a narrative in the typical sense, but rather a series of constructed tableaus existing in a theatrical world.

Nicholas and Sheila Pye