Do you suffer from lower back pain while walking through a museum or large gallery exhibition? You’re not alone (via Francisco Anzola’s Flickr)

Do you tend to suffer from lower back pain while walking through a museum or large gallery exhibition? I know I do. For too long, I’ve kept this aching to myself, blaming it on my sedentary lifestyle or on not going enough (or at all) to the gym. But it turns out it’s not necessarily the case. Mark Josefsberg, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, a method for improving posture and movement, claims that there’s a reason why this specific pain occurs in museums and galleries. But worry not, the posture expert says that there are simple ways to avoid it. 

Josefsberg uses the term “Museum Walk” to describe the unhealthy way in which we tend to move our bodies while seeing art.

“It’s a certain type of walk that is different from walking outside or going someplace with a purpose,” he told Hyperallergic in an email. “You walk a couple of steps, you see something, and then you walk a couple of more steps.”

Josefsberguses the term “Museum Walk” to describe the unhealthy way in which we tend to move our bodies while seeing art (Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr)

Josefsberg started studying the “Museum Walk” when one of his students, who was suffering from lower back pain, reported worsening pain every time he visited a museum. “He was doing great, he got better and better until he went to a museum and he came back with more pain in his lower back,” Josefsberg said. “After talking to many people, I realized it’s a common thing to get that kind of pain.”

Josefsberg analyzed his student’s case in a blog post titled “The Alexander Technique and the Museum Walk.”

“His pain recurred because of the way he was walking in the museum,” the teacher wrote. “He was walking very slowly, for a few steps at a time, with a lot of ‘down’. He was doing the ‘museum walk’.”

The Alexander Technique is a method that focuses on releasing unwanted muscular tension throughout the body. It advocates for awareness of balance, posture, breathing, and coordination while performing everyday actions.

The method was developed in 1931 by F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian Shakespearean actor who began to experience chronic laryngitis whenever he performed. After his doctors failed to help him, Alexander found a solution on his own. The actor discovered that extreme tension in his neck and body were causing his problems, and developed a technique to speak and move with more ease. His technique is now taught by thousands of practicing teachers worldwide.

Josefsberg, a musician by training, began practicing the Alexander Technique in 2003 after suffering from severe hand and neck pain that forced him to give up playing music despite several attempts at physical therapy and visits to the chiropractor. He became certified to teach the Alexander technique that same year.

So how can you enjoy an exhibition without ending up with exhaustion and lower back pain? It’s possible with some changes in postural habits, Josefsberg says, sharing the following tips with Hyperallergic. (Nota bene: this is not medical advice and Josefsberg is not a medical professional.)

Free your neck (and the rest will follow)

“Even though we’re talking about lower back pain, we have to start with the neck,” said Josefsberg. “When we don’t free our necks, they become tight, which shortens the muscles as they work,” he added. “And when you shorten your neck, your head presses down on your entire spine, which may cause pain in the neck, shoulders, or back.”

Josefsberg recommends an exercise for relieving neck tension: “Let go of the tension in your neck with the intention of rotating your head forward. Slightly lower your nose as the crown of your head moves up, taking your whole body with it.”

Don’t plod!

“The problem with the Museum Walk is that you’re not walking with momentum, you’re not walking a ‘spiral’ (when your arms are swinging) because you’re walking so slowly,” said Josefsberg. “It tends to be a kind of plodding where your neck is poking forward, which compresses your spine. You can get neck pain or back pains just from this depressing, downward energy when you’re walking around.”

“Don’t plod down,” the teacher instructs. “Spend less energy going to the left and the right and looking down.”

Lead with your knee! 

“As you walk in a museum, don’t lead with your neck or your chest or any other part of your body, not even your foot, but your knee,” said Josefsberg.

“If you lead with a foot you could jam your legs into your hip joints,” he warned.  “But if your knee goes forward first, you’re thinking up, the energy is going up.”

While pausing in front of a painting, Josefsberg recommends distributing the body’s weight fifty-fifty left and right, and fifty-fifty front and back, and keep your knees soft and poised.

“Unlocking your knees is the most important thing, whether you have back pain or not. Locked knees cause tension in the lower back.”

How to look at artwork?

“When you look up at an artwork, the head presses down on the spine,” Josefsberg said.

There is, however, a way to avoid that, according to the teacher: “Put your index fingers in your ears and imagine a rod at that angle. That’s that point from which you want to look up and down.”

“If you try that, you’re not doing anything with your torso or your neck,” he explained. “The head is nor pressing on the spine. You’re giving your spine a rest.”

And finally, Josefsberg argues that part of the reason why we experience back pain while seeing art is that we simply forget about our bodies while being absorbed in the visual stimulation around us.

“Try to be mindful of your body while walking in a museum,” Josefsberg concluded. “Save some brainpower to what you’re doing with your body as you are looking at the artwork.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

10 replies on “Suffering From Lower Back Pain While Visiting a Museum? You’re Not Alone”

  1. Thanks for all the helpful information. It doesn’t help that the floors are often concrete and have no spring in them! Petition your museums for wood floors which help the entire experience!

  2. I need a video for this article! The info is useful but I don’t know if I’m doing the museum walk right!

  3. This article is most disappointing! I thought it was going to address my main complaint when visiting museums and galleries. Has it not occurred to Mr Josefsberg that another cause of back ache is that in many museums and galleries the (small) labels describing the artworks are either below them or to the side next to the bottom of (usually) a painting, in painfully small lettering? This obliges the viewer to bend their torso forward from the waist and raise their head in order to read the info. A perfect example is in the photo at the top of the article, where the woman on the left is in the exact position I describe.
    I try to pose this issue to institutions – if they happen to have a suggestion box, which they don’t always do – but to no avail. It would be great if some expert brought it up and museums and galleries did something about it to make our visits less painful!

    1. Just a guess but I wonder if the placement of text beside works of art has to do with ADA compliance for those who experience museums from wheelchair height.

  4. I’ve always called the painful museum experience as the ‘Museum Shuffle’, not the ‘Museum Walk, as for me it is the process of dragging one’s self from painting to painting in a very unnatural way. And, yes, I agree with the comment that a lot of the distress comes from the placement of the signage which is generally too small and placed so that you have to bend over. My personal foible is that I’m always looking at the signage first to see if the artwork is ‘a great name’ worth looking at–shame on me!

    1. The new Sarasota Art Museum has no signage on the wall. At the entrance to each room or section, one can pick up a laminated guide with information about each piece of work with a small photo of same. One can read it when at the piece or later while seated when can also compare and contrast several pieces.

  5. I expected this article to advocate for more seating in the galleries. I think that while changing the way we walk is one possible way to combat the back pain that comes with walking through galleries, increased seating actually provides solutions to more problems. It allows people to take in art more slowly. It allows them to take breaks between art. It accommodates people who cannot stand for extended amounts of time. Some people may not ask for any additional seating, as they would rather slowly walk through the galleries the entire time, but there are certainly benefits to both improving our walk and improving the accessibility of our spaces.

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