Back to the blog list to map my emotional responses to an exhibit

Here’s a project I’ve been meaning to do for a long time -- mapping my emotional response to an exhibit, recommended to me by Linda N. I love the prompt, but it’s fairly open-ended, and a lot of my “map” was me figuring out what mapping looks like. This post is fitting as a return to updating A Catalog of Curiosity (rather than medical curiosity) regularly. Many of my posts take you on a tour of my thought process while exploring something new to me, and this one does that as literally as one can tour a thought process, in more depth than many of the posts. 

 Doing this the week of Thanksgiving, my hometown was on my mind. I usually visit my family in Ithaca, NY, or the part of the family that lives in rural Naples, NY, but of course, this year I did a video call with them from home in Arlington, MA. A couple of years, I have squeezed in some upstate NY tourism and a museum visit on the way to or from the holiday, so in honor of that, I chose to do an online visit to a museum that would be roughly on my route. 

A map showing NY and MA, with Ithaca, Albany, and Boston noted.

I picked the Albany Institute of History and Art, because I’ve never been there in person, and the exhibit “The Making of the Hudson River School” because I was vaguely aware that I like this school of art but didn’t know much about it. I like art exhibits that explain what was behind a particular movement.

Below is my lightly edited notes and mapping from while I explored. You can follow along with the first two “rooms” of the exhibit, or just observe my reactions (or skip to what I thought of this exercise).

  • Start: :( I’m blue today, for a variety of reasons.

  • Opening the first page of the online exhibit, I smiled a bit. The first painting on the intro page is  full of bright light reflected on a body of water (a gray day here, 45 degrees F all day) -- plus, it means I can stop looking for an online exhibit and start exploring one.

  • The Hudson River School is mostly all in the Hudson Valley, which extends from the Albany area down towards New York City -- more geographical maps in addition to emotional maps. 

  • I don’t have a sense of how big the online exhibit is!

  • Okay, after the introductory page, it does include a navigation bar on the side that shows the different sections -- it’s a big exhibit.

I guess going painting-by-painting is a little like walking around the room, if I’m picturing the exhibit hanging on the walls of a rectangular room. The first “room” discusses some influences on the Hudson River School.

  • The first painting is a portrait. I’m more interested in the crudely-rendered mill behind him than in him. Why? It looks like his main distinction was being wealthier than the people around him.

  • The next is a hunting photo -- gentleman reclining with dead animals. Actually, this is kind of absurd.

  • Next, people in very fancy 18th century clothes on the side of a mountain. I’m not used to people in such clothes being outdoors.

  • Next, a military man in a pose that I think is supposed to make him look deep.

  • So far, this is magnifying my mood -- adding fuel and energy, so that instead of blue, I’m crabby!

  • I wonder if being there in person would help me get more into it. The room would have that museum smell (museums smell several ways, but they’re all “that museum smell”) and the paintings would be much larger than they are in person.

  • Ooh, a photo -- I’m noticing myself feeling curiosity and interest because it’s different from the rest of this “room.”

  • Okay, I’m going to go back and read the text now. Hah, I was feeling prickly about several paintings, but the label text is talking about tension between the fancy clothes and the outdoor scenes, so I feel a little vindicated.

My mapping process in the next “room” was pretty similar, while the exhibit started in on the early works of the Hudson River School. I’ll note a few highlights.

  • A painting of Niagara Falls -- I’m grumpy that it's only as big as my screen -- hey, the exhibit doesn’t list the painting’s dimensions! I wonder if these labels are right from an in-person exhibit. I’d really like to know how big these are.

  • This next one makes me smile. Lots of light, with a sky above water. It’s actually a fairly gray sky, but a bright painting. Lots of white in the gray. Hey, I like the label: “It also excites our sense of vision through its expansiveness that anticipates the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School.”

  • There’s one with read leaves. I don’t want to map, read, or write. I just want to gaze at it. Here’s when I’d sit and rest for a while in the gallery, looking at this painting. It’s “View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg” by Thomas Cole. 

I feel like I’m performing attending an exhibit, since I’m going to be putting this on my blog. Let’s try something different.

  • Mmm, old paper (letter)

  • More sun, and green! :) 

  • A quieter green :|

  • This one makes me shrug

  • This one’s okay

  • The text mentions 19th-century American nostalgia for rural life. I think today we see these paintings and get the nostalgia but often think these scenes are representative of the time, not a depiction of their past. It makes much more historical sense as a depiction of their past. (That’s not an emotion, but thoughts about emotions.)

My notes continued this way, with some “mm”s, an increasing number of “ooh”s as we got more into the heart of this school of very nature-oriented, striking school of art. I also jotted down “boo” when two images seemed to be missing from the online exhibit, with labels but nothing there, and no explanation.


It’s weird to return to this type of introspective writing for the blog after so many of my posts were about my forthcoming medical history book. The closest thing to public introspection I had done for a long time was the posts on writing medical history in a pandemic, which still had a lot of non-introspective content. This is a bit like journaling, but I journal a lot and it’s not quite the same. When I’m writing for myself, I can make passing references to things in my life or thoughts I’ve had without explaining what they are. This difference is one of those things that’s both obvious when I describe it, and a little surprising when I encounter it while writing. I find myself writing about my emotions more shallowly here than when journaling, not necessarily out of a sense of privacy, but because giving readers the necessary context to go deeper feels excessive. 

I do recommend the exhibit, although I think it would have been much better in person. Ultimately, I also recommend taking a notebook and mapping your emotional responses to an exhibit -- not as an alternative to reviewing an exhibit, but as a journaling exercise, one that can get you to probe your mood or your relationship to a certain theme in art. Mine came out all in words because that’s how I tend to think. I tried to “map” less verbally, but the resulting doodles were not coherent enough to post. Yours may take you in different places.