The magical museum

Inspired by the spirit of the holidays, I decided to look to my mother, one of my foremost professional role models, to address my questions and provide an educator’s insight into the role of imagination. My mum, Kathryn Lowe, is a skilled, versatile educator and a long-time advocate for personal, expressive learning and therapeutic experiences. Since childhood, I have admired her fearless efforts to bring individuality and imaginative storytelling into her students’ experiences. I discuss her responses throughout.


Last Tuesday, I was browsing through the National Gallery of Art when I found myself suddenly and completely entranced by several paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (visit Gallery 55 if you’re interested). The rich detail and lively activity in the works (see example below) held my attention in quiet fascination for a long time. I realized the works had drawn me into their world, happily displacing me into another time and place—an experience reminiscent of chalk drawings and Mary Poppins.

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Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Game of Hot Cockles c. 1775/1780 (Painting, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.6) Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The next day, Shaelyn Amaio published a thoughtful post about ‘wonder’ in the museum experience, which further piqued my interest in museums and imagination. Shaelyn’s post pointed out the inherent harmony between knowledge and wonder, reminding me that wonder and imagination are powerful resources for learning and connection.

Jennifer Sheppard’s recent post on DMA Canvas described the Dallas Museum of Art’s magical letter-writing activity, which invites children to correspond with the Museum’s family mascot, Arturo, through letters. Jennifer’s post recounted letters of openness, love, insight, and creativity in response to the imaginative exercise, and highlighted for me the striking genuineness that magical experiences can elicit.

An earlier DMA Canvas post about Arturo’s letters, by Amelia Wood, discussed the childhood magic of mail and got me wondering—what makes an object or experience magical? And furthermore, what do adults find magical? Reflecting on personal experience and time working in childcare, I know magic is often found in experiences that span time and distance, involve elements of surprise or anticipation, impress us with beauty and scale, or appeal to a personal need that we’re carrying.

My mum also pointed out that ‘open-ended prompts or cues’ such as ‘What would you do if…?’ can add magic and imagination to an activity. Giving permission to experience the senses (‘music/voices, lighting/color, touch’) and inspiring the inner child, for example, by allowing opportunities for verbal, physical, and creative expression also build imagination and magic into an experience, according to my mum.

The physical space can also support imagination. Physical spaces, my mum suggested, can ‘ignite creative thought through … fantasy/dream-like settings: to predict, to create, to re-arrange, to re-create, to use and build upon your own knowledge base.’ She also pointed out the role of memory in imaginative spaces, explaining that physical stimuli and the environment prompt memory, which we can use as a foundation for learning.

I recently visited a wonderful gallery in Old Town Alexandria, the Athenaeum. The building immediately captured my imagination with its beautiful (yet strangely unassuming) architecture. Going up the steps and then through the large wooden doors was homey and grand (and imagination-sparking).

I found the interior to be spacious and warm, neat but not stuffy; a bike was casually resting in one corner. The room projected a community-center feel and a kind of lovely, timeworn maturity that reminded me of the old music halls where I used to rehearse and perform as a child. The music playing in the background added another layer of warmth to my experience.

I sometimes wonder how museums can be both spaces for occasion and spaces that encourage easy, casual access and social equity. I think the answer might lie partly in creating an imaginative space. Certain spaces do a particularly good job of creating access and warmth in harmony with the grandeur and sense of occasion that often help make a museum visit special and memorable.

Museums are the sum of buildings, collections, people, and ideas. They are also experiences. And if we think of them as spaces for imagination, they become unique worlds of possibility—maybe even sanctuaries.

Museums offer the chance to safely live and play in another reality, in close proximity to objects and artworks, each one with their own intriguing career or life story. Yesterday, I was reading about the Smithsonian First Ladies Collection; curator, Lisa Kathleen Graddy pointed out that clothing (particularly when exhibited on mannequins) can help bring historical figures nearer to viewers (Graddy & Pastan, 2014), suggesting to me that imagination-sparking displays can aid visitors in feeling connection with and empathy towards objects and the stories they represent.

Jay Rounds (2006) proposed that museums provide opportunities for visitors to safely experiment with various identities. Though Rounds (2006) didn’t use the word ‘imagination,’ his writing seems to resonate strongly with the idea that museums are spaces for healthy fantasy and the ‘trying on’ of new ideas. Needs-driven learning may be uniquely powerful. My mum explained that imaginative experiences may be like ‘opening up a story and living it to satisfy a longing or goal.’

In Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014) argued that curators should ‘create free space, not occupy existing space’ (p. 154). I like this distinction very much because it suggests that museums should create possibilities rather than simply present information and objects.

Have you ever experienced a gallery or exhibition that created an imaginative, immersive space, opening up your experience or helping you to live a story that satisfied something important for you? Have you experienced the connection between imagination and memory, or between imagination and authentic experience?

Museum pros, have you tried something in your museum that inspired imaginative responses or magical thinking from your visitors? What is the possible role of imagination in the design of programs, exhibits, and visitor experiences?

-Wishing you happy, magical holidays and a healthy dose of wonder for the New Year-

References

Graddy, L. K. & Pastan, A. (2014). the Smithsonian First Ladies collection. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Obrist, H.U. (2014). Ways of curating. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc.

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

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On fear, and imperfection

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The ideas of fear and fearlessness have been quietly turning over in my mind for some time. I think they are relevant to writing, museums, and social change, and so I hope they are relevant here too.

I recently discovered this article by Leanne Regalla via Boost Blog Traffic (thanks to a tweet by writer, Amy Butcher); Regalla suggested that developing empathy for your audience and understanding your readers’ basic drivers (for example, their desires and fears) are critical to successful blogging (Leanne Regalla, Boost Blog Traffic).

This got me thinking about the blogging experience and about those of you who read the blog, supporting my nascent development as a writer and museum thinker. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my own drivers, and in particular, my motivations for writing the blog. In fact, the questions ‘Why write?’ and ‘For whom?’ have been steeping in quiet unrest in my mind since a minor episode of ‘writer’s brattiness’ that occurred on Thanksgiving.

My post about personal responses had been ready to go since early that week, but I had been sitting on it because, although I liked the ideas it contained, I was dissatisfied with the way that it flowed. My fears about the post were reinforced when my husband (the blog’s informal editor) read the post on Thanksgiving morning and reviewed it with a lukewarm, ‘It’s good.’ Oh. No.

When my husband registered my obvious disappointment, he explained that he simply did not feel a personal connection to the subject matter. He correctly pointed out that I had probably influenced his judgment by saying that I wasn’t particularly crazy about the post. Hmmm ok, but the post is about personal connections, and actually, I kind of like the post; I’m just not sure others will.

I made some edits and published the post anyway. However, on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, I had a bit of a controlled tantrum—the kind where your behavior is civil and restrained, but you just won’t let a subject drop until you’ve exhausted yourself and your unfortunate audience. Should I have posted something I wasn’t completely thrilled with? In general, was I improving as a blogger?

Returning briefly to the idea of fundamental motivators, I think many of us who aspire to be creative and socially engaged have a quiet fear of not progressing and moving forward, and of failing to contribute the way we want to.

When I worked in human services, I helped shoulder other people’s vulnerabilities and although I had to give a lot of myself (energy, empathy, and general goodness) to do that successfully, I never had to expose my own inner world and my fears. I never had to ‘create’ anything that could potentially offend, fall flat, or simply be perceived as irrelevant. This is a new and occasionally frightening experience for me, which I suspect affects not only writers, but also museum folk (and artists) who frequently ‘create’ and ‘risk’ as stewards of culture and learning.

So given these fears, the question of ‘Why write?’ is important. The most compelling reason for me to write is to learn about museum work and to contribute, if I can, to a dialogue about culture and wellbeing. Despite the fact that I do not position myself as any kind of expert, I find I still need to approach the blog with a little fearlessness. The fear of being ‘wrong’ and of not improving, if allowed to flourish, could become large enough to derail the more important goal of learning about the museum field and contributing a social service perspective.

One thing I like about the genre of blogging is that a single contribution need not offer a definitive answer on a topic; it can simply be the beginning (or the middle) of an ongoing conversation. Wanting something to be ‘perfect’ before risking ourselves by sharing it is an understandable concern; however, I am glad that, on Thanksgiving, I favored imperfection over not sharing.

Recent museum-related posts from other bloggers have got me pondering the issue of perfectionism in museum work. Yesterday, on his blog ExhibiTricks, Paul Orselli asked ‘How Can Museums Respond Faster’ to issues of social concern such as recent events in Ferguson and New York . Commenter, Margaret, suggested that fear and the uncompromising desire for objectivity can hinder responsiveness (see Margaret’s comment).

Robert Weisberg, in his account of this year’s Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference, commented on the need for speed and agility rather than perfection when advancing museum technology (Robert Weisberg, Museum Digital Publishing Bliki).

The cost of ‘perfection’ and the successful management of fear and risk in writing and in socially-conscious museum work are something for me to chew on as I continue to create and risk in the hopes of sharing ideas and learning how I might contribute to the museum field.

Fellow bloggers and occasionally-insecure writers, educators, and curators please weigh in. Your imperfect, ‘in-progress’ ideas and reflections are greatly valued.

Museums, who are your fans? And how can you make them your partners?

Recently, I realized I have been guilty of museum favoritism.

Almost every day, I become more aware of the diverse and plentiful cultural offerings in the Washington, D.C. area. Frequently, people ask if I have heard of a particular museum or gallery and I happily say, ‘No, but it’s going on my list.’ This ever-expanding list reminds me that I have barely scratched the proverbial surface of local museum visiting possibility.

Why then—with so many unchecked boxes—do I repeatedly visit (and often write about) the same institutions? Firstly, time and energy are not unlimited (even for someone with my flexible schedule) so I am drawn to what intrigues me most. Ease of access is also a factor that nudges me towards the familiar, a constraint imposed by my poor map-reading and GPS-following skills. But another component is clearly the fact that certain museums’ exhibitions and public programs speak to my personal drives for growth and unique experience.

A few days ago, during a thought-provoking visit to the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas’ latest F Street Gallery exhibition, What We Have Within, I began to appreciate my value as an increasingly dedicated and regular visitor to this particular museum. Chatting with my inspiring guide, Exhibit Coordinator, Fabian Goncalves, I noticed (as I had during my first visit) the compelling interests and values that I share with this institution, namely the importance of telling real stories and giving voice to social concerns. I began to wonder, am I a resource to this and other museums whose mission and values I particularly embrace?

Strategically speaking, how should museums approach and respond to visitors who (for lack of a better word) love what the museum does? Do museums know what they’re ‘selling,’ or better yet, what visitors are ‘buying’? Obviously, the answer depends partly on the type of visitor; people visit museums for numerous reasons and with limitless possible outcomes or takeaways. Visitor differences aside, I want to propose the idea of museum ‘fans,’ and then ask the question, ‘Museums, do you know who your fans are—and why?’

A Google search of ‘museum visitors as fans’ turned up mostly articles relating to museums and sports/popular culture and a few intriguing results for ‘fan museums.’ However, I did find this evaluation case study of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by evaluation firm, Randi Korn & Associates. The case study identified ‘fans’ as one of the three visitor groups of the museum, using the term to describe the most passionate, enthusiastic group (Randi Korn & Associates, 2012).

Since moving to the US and spending time living with my in-laws, I have been exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of baseball fan culture. I think it’s a wonderful example of the kind of thriving community that can grow from a shared passion, and I now have a new appreciation for the value of professional sports in contributing to community wellbeing and vitality. Fans, it seems, are truly the life and soul of baseball culture, contributing energy and character, and distinctly shaping the experience. Fans often use the phrase ‘our team,’ a linguistic choice that clearly reflects a sense of belonging and stewardship towards the team. I’m not sure exactly how an ‘our museum’ analogy would translate, but it’s an interesting notion. Certainly, understanding and cultivating visitors’ emotional investment in a museum could be a mutually rewarding enterprise.

Many museum membership programs strive to engage their more avid visitors with special opportunities to be involved in the museum’s cultural life. Similarly, crowdfunding projects, visitor-curated or crowdsourced displays, and active social media platforms offer passionate museum visitors the chance to contribute and collaborate. Who are museums attracting with these endeavors? What are participants’ hopes and motivations for participating? And how do these projects fit within the institution’s larger strategy and mission?

Recently, a visitor to the blog from local advertising agency, Brightline Interactive, introduced me to the concept of experiential marketing, which, as I understand it, aims to immerse consumers in a brand through inviting active participation and involvement. Since then, I have been pondering the possible connections between this concept and museum learning and mission engagement. For example, what are the possibilities for active involvement and immersion of ‘fans’ in a museum’s mission and brand?

If we think of fans as institutional resources (much like the collections, staff, and museum building), then what might be their possible roles? Fans may be potentially valuable members of a museum’s social network because they are able to spread a museum or exhibit’s message, raise awareness for issues of concern to the museum, and generally generate attention, for example, on social media (see below).

Although museums may struggle with the practical obstacles of connecting directly with passionate individuals, making the effort to seize small opportunities to acknowledge and celebrate visitors’ exciting connections and shared understandings could be valuable. For example, during my most recent visit to the AMA, my guide, Fabian, expressed his enjoyment of my visit, explaining that these experiences are valuable to him, as he knows they are to me also. This comment made me feel valued and connected to the museum.

As is often the case for me (being an emerging museum professional), this post is largely comprised of questions rather than answers. I sincerely hope that those with greater expertise in marketing, social networks, and museum branding will weigh in with relevant resources, thoughts, and critiques. I am also interested in the question of terminology. Is ‘fan’ an appropriate word here, or does a better option exist? Is the concept valid to begin with?

I wish to propose the following final question as food for thought:

What is the particular value of fans to museums that seek to engage in social work?

A recent post by Zac Stocks on the incluseum really highlighted for me the value of building community networks and creating strong self-sustaining systems of stakeholders when pursuing museum social work. Museums might consider looking to those users and visitors who share their vision in an effort to create enduring foundations for social change. 

What are your favorite cultural institutions and why? What could you contribute to these institutions? … I look forward to continuing my own museum pilgrimage (a term borrowed from Alli Burness), finding many more favorites, and sharing my stories and experiences with you.

 

Reference

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (2012). An audience research study for a natural history museum: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://www.randikorn.com/resources/burke-visitor-experience.php