Visual Culture
These Photographs Capture Museumgoers Who’ve Fallen Asleep
Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

On the walls of museums, people in paintings eat, drink, dance, fight, fall in love, and fall out of love. And the visitors observing these artworks represent their own microcosm of the human experience—they ponder, cry, laugh, exercise, protest, and, of course, take selfies.

Sometimes, they fall asleep.

Those dozing moments are preserved by Austrian photographer Stefan Draschan in his multi-year, self-explanatory series “People Sleeping in Museums.” Some of the slumberers are discrete, momentarily resting their head on the shoulder of fellow museum-goers. Other visitors have pulled out all the stops, turning gallery benches into impromptu beds. Children often eschew furniture entirely, simply plopping down on the floor.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

This series was born out of another of Draschan’s museum-based projects, “People Matching Artworks.” In August 2014, while strolling through a Berlin museum, the photographer happened upon a man standing in front of a work by Georges Braque. His splotchy brown shirt echoed the earthen tones of the Cubist painting, and Draschan couldn’t resist snapping a picture.

For a while, that image was simply a one-off, an entertaining coincidence. But Draschan continued to frequent museums. “I’m art-addicted myself,” he says. “Even without a camera, I would go to the museums, because I love art.” He started to see other matches: a bald man in a crosshatched sweater jibed with a Greek urn; a woman in a tan coat nicely complemented a cabinet of ancient clay figurines.

As that series grew, he began increasingly familiar with the contents of his local museums, including Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie. That way, he might spot someone who matched a particular work in a gallery before they actually approached it—upping his chances of a successful shot when they eventually passed by the particular painting or sculpture.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

And as Draschan spent more and more time in museums, he started to spot other trends among their patrons. “After a while you recognize a pattern,” he recalls of the start of the sleeping series. “I saw, okay, there’s one person sleeping, now there’s a second, now it’s 150 sleeping photographs.” More recently, he’s embarked on the cringe-worthy series “People Touching Artworks”: a woman cradles the chin of a marble bust, a man holds a measuring tape up against an ancient mosaic. Another captured people in museums sporting the British flag on a shirt or hat in the weeks following the Brexit vote.

While his work may be the most recent, Draschan is certainly not the only photographer to take inspiration from the galleries of major museums. Beginning in 1989, for example, German photographer Thomas Struth traveled between institutions such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Art Institute of Chicago for his best-known series “Museum Photographs.” In these works, the visitors generally gaze thoughtfully at the work in front of them—a slightly better-behaved crowd than Draschan’s snoozers.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

These days, Draschan spends five days a week at museums with his camera, usually for a period of two to three hours. (A previous article about his photographs stated that he spends an “eternity” waiting for his shots, but he says that’s an exaggeration. “I never get to the museums before 2 p.m.,” he laughs.) Previously based between Berlin and Vienna, he’s been working out of Paris for the last two months; he tends to haunt the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre.

He’s not immune to the weariness displayed by many of the museum’s sleeping patrons, either. “Like every other person, after one and a half hours in a museum I’m quite exhausted,” he says. “I would also be one of the sleeping people without an espresso!” (Draschan is a big fan of caffeine. He recommends a particular brand from Naples, Passalacqua. “You drink two espressos in the morning and you feel like a genius all day,” he advises.)

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Photo by Stefan Draschan. Courtesy of Stefan Draschan.

Although he said his sleeping series was the most well-known for several years—it was the subject of a museum panel featuring prominent German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich this summer—Draschan’s “People Matching Artworks” series went viral last month. Since then, he’s received several invitations from museums across Europe (and beyond) to photograph their patrons and collections. He’s currently in talks with a German museum concerning a two-month residency at their institution.

But for the next month he’ll remain in Paris. On the day we spoke, he’d just returned from the Musée d’Orsay with a few successful matches under his belt. One—of Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du monde, paired with a dark-haired girl in a tan sweater—he’d already posted online. A bit irreverent? Sure. But a good match, nonetheless.

Abigail Cain is an Associate Editor at Artsy.