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.

A11255.jpg

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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