Been there. Read the plaque.

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Is knowing something about a work of art the same thing as experiencing it?

A growing trend at museums and opera performances is to make them more "audience friendly" by the use of accompanying texts. In museums, explanatory plaques, some quite lengthy, and audio tours are expected by visitors to any major exhibition. A Washington Post writer recently studied a roomful of museumgoers: The average time spent reading the educational wall text was 50 seconds. The average time observing the work itself? Just 8 seconds.

For nearly 20 years operagoers have had the libretto, or at least highlights from it, projected over or beside the stage (sometimes even if the opera were in English!). New York's Metropolitan Opera offers seatback screens, airline style. The Houston Grand Opera touts its "Operavision," which not only projects the words on screens but uses cameras to give the audience closeups of the action, movie-style.

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Both museum curators and opera administrators defend these "helps" and credit them with building wider audiences.

So what's wrong with understanding the opera's plot or learning something about what Renoir might have been thinking when he put paint to canvas?

Nothing, experts say. Just don't confuse gathering information with encountering the art itself.

Doing homework is great. For a museum visit, consider sometimes doing it before or even after looking for yourself. And don't assume that what you hear or read is all that's worth knowing - or that it's the only way to think about the work.

Whether it's music or visual arts, remember to use your eyes and ears to discover what the artist has to say directly to you.

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