Be yourself … and visitors will like you*

Glenstone (located in Potomac, Maryland) is an unusual and extraordinary museum. Last Wednesday, a visit to this site opened my eyes to a new type of museum experience, and helped me appreciate the vast possibilities for a successful museum concept. I would love to share a few thoughts on my visitor experience and the ideas I will take away as an aspiring museum educator.

During my visit, I was struck by two main observations:

  1. Glenstone is a carefully constructed environment clearly built on passion and uncompromising ideals.
  2. Glenstone offers a particularly respectful educational experience, holding each visitor’s intellect in high regard.

Let me explain further …

Glenstone’s mission is to integrate art, architecture, and landscape, creating a seamless, contemplative environment and inspiring meaningful engagement for visitors. Glenstone derives its name from its location on Glen Road and from the locally indigenous carderock; it is deliberately named for its setting rather than its founders with the hope of evoking a sense of place for future generations (see ‘Message from the Founders’).

True to this mission, the visitor experience is rejuvenating and peacefully edifying. It is also a little whimsical; laughter is encouraged and not at all out of place. Meticulously designed to create a lush, expansive space of gorgeous landscapes and arresting outdoor sculptures, Glenstone is arguably more reminiscent of a resort or wilderness retreat than a traditional museum.

Glenstone is available to the public Wednesday through Saturday, and visitors must make an appointment to see the museum via guided tour. Visitors are not permitted to bring bags into the museum or take photographs once inside. Though these requirements may seem restrictive compared with other museums, I admit they made for a serene, distraction-free experience—something rare in today’s busy world and therefore valuable to me. I enjoy going off the grid once in a while and rarely have an acceptable reason to do so.

Like all people, I usually experience visitor fatigue at some point during a typical museum visit. Ordinarily, I can’t imagine trying to view every object or read every label in a museum during a single visit. At Glenstone, however, I experienced little fatigue of this kind. Buoyed by a peaceful energy, I felt a strange, excited compulsion to view everything. (And I really did view everything.) The quiet, distilled space at Glenstone offered a precious opportunity to hold my energy in reserve for the art.

I found the educational experience at Glenstone to be uniquely respectful of visitors. During my visit, the docents showed genuine excitement and delight as they shared the experience with our group. They didn’t lecture to us, but instead viewed the works with us, engaging our perspectives and seeking to extend our responses with relevant information. They were enthusiastic about visitors’ comments and even shared insights from previous visitors.

This casual yet sincere exchange of ideas created a multi-directional dialogue that I found very exciting—and very participatory. It also created a sense of equality between educator and visitor, something that helped give me the confidence to comment and engage more than I normally would.

Glenstone demonstrates the power of an imaginative institutional vision, implemented uncompromisingly and unapologetically, to provide an igniting and satisfying contemplative experience. It also shows how a museum might create a truly mindful relationship between its visitors and its collections, and how a rich educational experience can also be food for wellbeing.

Visiting Glenstone is, I believe, a therapeutic museum experience. Thinking back on my time there, I still remember the feeling of calm, the experience of being surrounded by beauty, and the delight and whimsy of briefly escaping to another world.

*Note: The title of this post was inspired by the blog, Slow Museums, by Kezia Simister, and David Whitemyer. Their blog slogan, ‘Just be your self, then people will like you’ encourages museums to consider the relevance of this popular parenting mantra. My experience at Glenstone suggests how institutional ‘self-esteem’ might work in practice, and how it might impact on quality and engagement. I don’t want to suggest that museums should ignore community needs and simply do whatever they like; however, I do think that institutional passion and vision are valuable. Being assured in one’s institutional identity seems like one way to achieve these qualities and create an exceptional visitor experience.

Challenging and beautiful: how art can be a safe place to be scared

When I walked into Divergence, the current exhibition at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, I actually felt something akin to fear. My first thought was, ‘I love this, but I can’t write about it.’

Still, I wanted to see the show and hear the curator and artist talks that were scheduled for that evening so I began slowly moving through the space, trying to absorb the works. I wanted very much to understand the connection between the exhibition and the Gallery’s mission ‘to [exhibit] fine art that explores the innate connection between healing and creativity’ (See ‘About the Gallery’). The Gallery is part of Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that works to utilize the arts in healing through community programs (See ‘About Us’).

Divergence features the work of Shaunté Gates and Njena Surae Jarvis and is curated by acclaimed artist, Martha Jackson Jarvis. I was privileged to listen to each of these individuals give insights into the exhibition in what Gallery Director, Brooke Seidelmann, fittingly described as a ‘moving dialogue’ through the gallery space.

photo 2 (1)Njena Surae Jarvis’s work features assorted objects—furniture, casts of body parts, sculpted bones, and woven rope—each one darkly colored, suspended from above, and gently lit by light bulbs affixed to the walls. My photos (posted here) capture the imagery that I found particularly bewitching (and to which my husband adorably responded, ‘Please don’t show me those right before bed’).

Shaunté Gates’ work comprises a collection of surrealistic mixed media canvases each depicting a single figure confined and tethered in some way and rendered in striking shades of black, gray, and deep red.

photo 3Comments from the guest book clearly showed that visitors had appreciated the show’s complexity. Several comments described the show as disquieting, yet beautiful and vital.

These lovely oxymorons proved immensely helpful for me because they pinpointed the seemingly conflicting, yet strangely compatible qualities inherent in the artists’ works. They also drew my attention to the dark liveliness of the exhibition.

Despite its energy, Divergence invites a very unhurried style of looking; it asks you to look, and then look again and hopefully notice something new. (This gentle pace is, in itself, somewhat healing and therapeutic.) Interestingly, in the re-look, we can subvert and extend our own initial impressions. For example, Njena’s work, with its disconnected objects and body parts, initially appears vaguely violent. However, as Njena explained, the true nature of the work is peaceful and meditative. Indeed, a closer look reveals that the works hang in a restful, rather than distressed, state. Similarly, Shaunté’s figures initially appear desperate and trapped, but later reveal a hidden agency and voice. As Shaunté explained during his talk, their blindfolds and restraints can be easily removed.

Michael O’Sullivan from The Washington Post aptly described these surprising layers of meaning: ‘Several of Jarvis’s bones, for instance, are fused with the furniture parts, suggesting less destruction than deconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction. The sense of pulling something — or someone — together comes across as strongly here as does the sense of tearing something apart.’ (Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post)

Engagement with these works ultimately reveals strong themes of duality and contrast, as Njena explained. Thinking later on this idea of contrast, I realized how important contrast is in highlighting possibility—an essential component of hope and healing.

Moreover, the blurring of fantasy and reality in Shaunté’s work offers the chance to disconnect from our experience just enough to understand our personal obstacles a little better.

Many moments of our lives are filled with contradiction and conflicting experience. We can feel both vast love and paralyzing rage toward the same person, or deep empathy despite seething disappointment. Sometimes what protects us also tears us apart. An art exhibition is a safe space in which to accept these contradictions and simply exist alongside them.

The disconnectedness of the works helps invite the viewer to construct his or her own narrative. This is an exercise in agency and gives a great deal of power to the viewer. In fact, the more I write about this exhibition, the more I feel a sense of permission to interpret the works in any way I like since I feel they offer a genuine invitation to assume some control.

Divergence also gives viewers permission to enter a darker contemplative space. Darkness is important, Njena explained. I emphatically agree. My favorite moment of the night was when Njena described the darkness of her work as ‘a remedy for a dull life.’

This complex exhibition has left me wondering whether museums and galleries could do more to explore human vulnerability, to make visitors ‘work’ so that they almost experience discomfort, but then walk away with real insight, and so that they interpret works viscerally as well as intellectually?

Applying this learning experience to my own life, I decided that the trepidation I felt about writing this post and interpreting this challenging exhibition indicated how important it was that I try. So here is my humble attempt. I would love to hear others’ thoughts—especially those who have seen the exhibition.

‘The show invites us to walk life’s knife-edge to explore that which makes us sentient beings and connected,’ says the Gallery’s event page. Another way of saying this might be that the exhibition requires a little courage, but that it’s worth it.

(Divergence runs until October 25.)

Photos are ‘excerpts’ from See What You See Is You What You See by Njena Surae Jarvis.

Reference

O’Sullivan, M. (2014, September 18). ‘Divergence’ at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/museums/divergence-at-the-joan-hisaoka-healing-arts-gallery/2014/09/18/e3bc9548-39f8-11e4-9c9f-ebb47272e40e_story.html

Just you and the museum

Eva P. Blutinger, M.A. is a Certified Instructor of Kripalu Yoga. Twice a month, she leads Yoga in the Galleries at American University Museum.

I woke up last Wednesday morning with a cloud of pessimism over my head and an inexplicable feeling of tiredness. Moving to a new country and saying goodbye to an entire life (job, friends, family, apartment, comforting routines) can be tough some days. Recalling a recent program on NPR1 about addressing your self in the third person to help emotionally regulate your thoughts, I said to myself, ‘Jess, even though you want to stay in bed and watch Netflix, you have got to get up and go out into the world.’

So I decided to follow through on my plan to go to American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to participate in Yoga in the Galleries, a fortnightly yoga program led by Eva Blutinger (see above) in the gallery space. On this occasion, the program took place on the third floor, currently home to an exhibition titled Memorial Modeling: Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov.

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While I generally attend a museum program with a preconceived notion of the topic for my corresponding post, I never seem to follow through on my original plan. This is one of the truly fun parts of my blog project; the topic I plan to write about is always supplanted by a new, more compelling idea—usually something that resonates with me in the days following my visit.

I initially thought my post about Yoga in the Galleries would be primarily about movement in the museum. However, after participating in the program and emailing with Eva, I came to understand that the program is about much more than simply working out in the museum. It is about focus, self-care, self-expression, and complementary artistic practice. From my personal experience, it was also about using the body as a vehicle of engagement.

Here are the questions I put to Eva and her thoughtful responses:

From your perspective, what is it like leading the class in the museum space?

I can’t think of a more perfect venue for teaching yoga. The gallery is a place of introspection and awareness of one’s self and that is the message I try to convey. Yoga is all about focusing your attention inward and being in the present moment.

Does the museum contribute anything unique to your experience and your teaching style?

The museum has an air of contemplation where you can focus on yourself. It’s kind of magical to go through the quiet physical routines of yoga movements in the quiet and tranquil environment of the museum surrounded by these great works of art. Yoga is about self-expression and, like the works in the gallery, a form of art – so practicing in the gallery is the perfect venue.

Do you find the museum space accommodating of yoga? Is there anything challenging about the space?

It’s the perfect space. It’s serene and meditative. Practicing yoga amidst the artwork gives us a chance to appreciate the artwork since much of yoga involves focus as part of our routine so what better place to focus than in an art gallery. 

Two posts ago, I wrote about the power of museums to bring people together, nurture relationships, and trigger moments of social connection (see post). Today, I propose that sometimes, museum experiences can simply be about you and your relationship with yourself.

The museum has a quietly spiritual quality that makes it ideal for contemplative, meditative, and deeply personal experiences thereby supporting creativity, imagination, and wellness. Yoga in the museum offers the chance to pursue these expressive experiences in a focused way. It also allows the merging of two experiences—yoga and art—engaging the body as a lens for experiencing the museum and interpreting the art.

Our body plays an important role in even the most traditional museum visit. It carries us through the space and, motivated by our particular interests, brings us closer to certain works and objects that capture our attention, allowing us to see more and learn more. Sometimes, where permitted by the museum, it allows us to physically interact with the objects.

A friend recently recounted her experience visiting a past exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., which featured life-size sculptural interpretations of well-known impressionist works. She described the experience as fun and memorable, recalling how she and her daughter took numerous photos of themselves physically interacting with the works. Clearly, our bodies can offer new ways to relate to art when given the opportunity.

The first thing I noticed as I settled in to the yoga class and rolled out my mat was how noticeably awesome it was to be barefoot in the museum. I definitely felt more free and playful than I usually feel in such a typically formal space.

As the class got underway, I began to notice the installations by Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov that surrounded me. Every time I lifted my gaze, I saw the ceiling installation (instead of a nondescript gym ceiling). And every time I moved into a new pose, I saw and appreciated the artworks from new and interesting angles. The yoga practice was literally giving me a new perspective on the art.

Ordinarily, I would not have the necessary attention span to look at the same gallery of works for a full hour. Most people wouldn’t, I suspect. But through the lens of yoga practice, I found myself in a deep, focused relationship with these works. Considering that, as far as I could tell, the exhibition consisted of just a handful of installations, my sustained attention is even more noteworthy. Not only was I present in the moment, I can remember a great deal of detail about these works even a week later. Most saliently, I remember a compelling beauty in the artists’ portrayals of destruction and decay. I don’t know if I would have noticed this had I simply wondered through the gallery space as a regular visitor.

Engaging with art through the body seems like a promising area for further experimentation. Yoga programs in museums are becoming increasingly common. I wonder also about the possibilities for dance programs in the museum after finding this video by VincaniTV featuring art interpretation through dance at the Crocker Art Museum.

My experience at Yoga in the Galleries reminded me of one of my favorite museum essays, ‘A Museum is an Open Work’ by David Carr. Carr (2001) argued that museum narratives are augmented and deepened by their users in unique, personal ways. He also suggested that the museum’s role is to facilitate, broaden, and advocate for this kind of user-driven learning (Carr, 2001).

Experiencing yoga through the museum (and the museum through yoga) gave me the opportunity to engage in a uniquely personal and creative way. The program provided gentle guidance for my museum experience, allowing me to connect with myself—something I particularly needed on that day.

Carr’s closing summarizes my experience well:

‘Our best learning becomes most possible in the museum when we are moved to the edges of our experiences, … where we must pay new forms of attention, where a momentary insight can reorganise parts of knowledge completely, and where the interpretation of the narrative involves the beginnings of a new conversation about how one life might move forward.’ (Carr, 2001, p. 183)

 

1 Laura Starecheski presented Why Saying Is Believing — The Science Of Self-Talk on October 7, 2014 on NPR where she discussed the work of psychologist, Ethan Kross, who studies the use of self-talk in the third person.

Reference

Carr, D. (2001). A museum is an open work. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7(2), 173-183. doi: 10.1080/13527250117281

Further reading on museums and the self

Buchholz, E. S. (2000). Echoes of quietude: Alonetimes in museums. The Journal of Museum Education, 25(1/2), 3-8. Retrieved from http://museumeducation.info/jme

Rounds, J. (2006). Doing identity work in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(2), 133-150. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00208.x

Salom, A. (2008). The therapeutic potentials of a museum visit. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27(1), 1-6. Retrieved from http://www.transpersonalstudies.org/

The museum stage: performance and pride

On Sunday, I enjoyed a profoundly lovely and uplifting performance by the Student Angklung Orchestra and the House of Angklung of Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries presented this concert in partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. as part of a weekend-long public program titled Performing Indonesia. The program featured performances, family workshops, and a symposium showcasing music, dance, and theater from West Java.

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The performance took place on the Freer Gallery steps, a visually impressive and openly accessible location. I arrived to a mass of beaming parents and a sea of smart phones stretched above heads—kind of a beautiful sight. I immediately noticed the atmosphere of pride and fun.

The Student Angklung Orchestra turned out to be a group of two hundred Washington-area elementary school students each playing angklung, a traditional West Javanese bamboo musical instrument. Performing alongside them was House of Angklung, a local cultural group that promotes peace and harmony through sharing culture (see website).

The museum stage

The museum seemed to make an important contribution to the educative, social, and personal value of the performance. Specifically, it provided a formal structure for the event and an interpretive context for visitors to pursue further learning through related resources. Moreover, the museum created a sharing context where knowledge and learning generated pride for both performers and audience members.

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The angklung was displayed for audience members to see up close.

Educating and collaborating through performance

Throughout the concert, the students shared their knowledge of Indonesian language and culture with the audience. The educative impact of the program (both for the performers and the audience) was apparent and impressive.

Collaboration between the student orchestra and the House of Angklung group was a great display of multi-age collaboration (which I discussed in a past post).

Important collaborations also took place between the students and their parents. Towards the end of the concert, volunteers handed out angklung and taught parents how to play them. For the final medley of songs, parents were invited to join the students on stage for a collaborative performance. An impressive number of individuals were willing to give this a shot—perhaps because the conductor and volunteers had worked hard to cultivate an attitude of fun and acceptance. The performance turned out to be a moving celebration of family and teamwork, which (based on what I learned about angklung and Indonesian culture) seemed fitting.

Performance and quality

In researching this post, I stumbled across a 2007 post by Nina Simon on her blog, Museum 2.0. She discussed the issue of visitor performance in the museum, wondering whether visitor input may be particularly useful and meaningful when visitors have an awareness that they are producing content for a particular audience.

Certainly, I think it is true that when we know that our efforts will be shared with others we generally seek to do our best and to offer something of quality. Nina suggests that museums help visitors make a genuine contribution to the museum experience when they encourage them to consider both the input and the output experiences generated by their participation (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

‘Pride’ as a visitor outcome

The Freer|Sackler states, ‘Our mission is to encourage enjoyment and understanding of the arts of Asia and the cultures that produced them. We use works of art to inspire study and provoke thought.’ (See Mission Statement)

This mission cites enjoyment of arts and culture as an important institutional goal. By creating opportunities for achievement and pride, the Performing Indonesia program clearly speaks to this mission.

According to Google, ‘pride’ is ‘a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.’ (See definition)

Therefore, pride is a powerful force for wellbeing because it impacts not only the creator/performer, but touches anyone who cares about and associates themselves with that person, including family members, friends, and community members. Pride is something that we can share.

Other museum theaters

Museums offer many possible ‘theatres’ where visitors’ contributions can be performed and interpreted for other visitors:

  • exhibition spaces
  • permanent collections
  • public programs such as panel discussions, guided tours, and creative workshops
  • online museum spaces (See The Phillips Collection’s uCurate)

Museums can use objects and physical spaces as well as intangible heritage such as the practice of angklung, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Experiences from the field?

I’m curious to hear from museum professionals. Do you provide opportunities for visitors to perform in your museum? What are some of the management and design considerations that make it possible for visitors to create useful content/experiences for other visitors? Is visitor pride a relevant goal or outcome for your institution?

On a final, mostly-related note…

I find the Freer|Sackler to be a remarkably caring institution. (My personal impression is that they have the most warm and welcoming security guards of any museum I have been to.) Their Performing Indonesia program suggests there can be great harmony between an educational and scholarly mission, and programming that fosters visitor wellbeing. I am excited to continue exploring their programs.

The unexpected pleasures of the ‘tour guiding’ visit

The past week and a half comprised the lead up to and aftermath of my wedding. As a result, I spent 40% of my time worrying about other people, 30% feeling elated and happy, and 30% feeling completely exhausted. Still, I was determined to publish a new post before the end of this week.

Yesterday, I sat down at my computer to brainstorm. I was reminded of the Sex and the City episode where Carrie struggles to find an angle for her latest column.

Remember that guy who wore sandals, Randal the sandal guy? We had a couple of dates. Six years ago? Is that anything? – Carrie Bradshaw, ‘Unoriginal Sin’

My thought process was similar.

Weddings. Museums and weddings? Museums and marriage? Is there anything here?

I didn’t get far with this line of inquiry. However, after reflecting on my week, I realized that I had in fact visited a number of museums and cultural heritage sites in an effort to show my family around while they were visiting from Australia for the wedding.

Thinking about the different places we visited, I noticed that they were not necessarily the institutions and sites that I would have prioritized had I been gallivanting on my own. Yet, the visits were memorable—because I was with my family.

I also noticed that of all the places we visited, the cultural sites were the locations where we took the most group pictures. I suspect this is because museums and heritage sites offer more attractive backdrops than restaurants and shopping malls. However, another possibility is that cultural sites offer a ‘sense of occasion’—a uniquely therapeutic and empowering asset. (The importance of this ‘sense of occasion’ in social museum work was recently brought to my attention by Adriane Boag, Coordinator of the National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Alzheimer’s Program, during one of the program’s two-day training workshops.)

We go to museums for many reasons; to learn, to relax, and to experience beauty are just a few examples. Sometimes, however, we go to museums simply because it is something we can do with the people we love (who may have also travelled ten thousand miles to be with us).

Museum visits are inherently social and provide numerous moments of connection. These were some of ours:

  • National Mall – Walking through the mall, my mum and I reminisced about our 2008 trip to DC and the many museums and exhibits we visited.
  • The White House – When my family asked me to point out The White House, I had to refer to Google Maps and laughed when I realized how frighteningly little I actually knew about DC.
  • Lincoln Memorial – We walked our tired legs all the way back from Chinatown to visit the memorial. My jetlagged father fell asleep in the middle of the steps while my mum and I quietly chatted in a shady spot. My brother and I were the only ones with enough energy left to trudge up the steps to the top where we shared some nice moments taking photos in front of Lincoln’s statue. photo (1) copy
  • Maryland State House (Annapolis) – We enjoyed a rainy, yet beautiful walk to get there, took some great group shots, and later impressed my new mother-in-law with news of our visit.
  • Historic Annapolis Museum – In the museum store, we found some great thank you gifts for various people. The museum itself provided material for later conversation, as my mum and I were able to discuss what we had learned over coffee a few days later.

So in closing, I am reminded that, often, cultural and heritage sites enliven our relationships and offer us a sense of wellbeing without even trying—but simply by existing, and by inviting us in.

For further reading on the ways that museums enrich our relationships see Silverman, L. H. (2010). The social work of museums. New York, NY: Routledge.