One artist’s vision is another visitor’s transcendent experience

Charlotte York of TV’s Sex and the City once described “great love” as a love that “shakes you to your core, after which you are never the same.” I think the same can and should be true of great museum visits—especially first time visits to a new museum.

I had a core-shaking, life-altering museum experience on Sunday when I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a museum devoted to showcasing the stories and artwork of self-taught practitioners working from places of inner reflection and intuition.

The American Visionary Art Museum experience is a welcome onslaught of color and diverse personal energies, reaching the visitor on multiple sensory, intellectual, and spiritual levels. I recently heard Jake Barton of Local Projects describe great museum engagement as something visitors “fall into,” and this seems apt to describe the complete immersion and fascination I felt from the moment I stepped past the visitor desk into the galleries.

I’ve realized I hold a special reverence for museums that are audaciously, unapologetically individualistic, defying traditional institutional norms and forging new ways of being. (For previous discussion on this subject, see my post about Glenstone.)

The traditional museum is often neat, unemotional, and subdued in its tone. The American Visionary Art Museum, however, lives charmingly and compellingly outside this box. It is intense, passionate, and bursting with opinions; it’s also polished but relatively “unedited.” The overall effect is incredibly respectful, compassionate, and in strong service of the Museum’s social justice mission.

Museums with this kind of passion and self-confidence seem perfectly positioned to facilitate transcendence and spirituality within and among their visitors. My experience at the American Visionary Art Museum supported this theory; the space was vibrant and alive, and reminded me why the museum is my church.

The Museum website lists seven education goals the first of which is: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.” The importance of this lesson was imparted to me from an early age by my mother who deeply embraced and celebrated people’s eccentricities. The Visionary Art Museum, with its deep veneration of imagination, intuition, and inner voice celebrates human eccentricity with humor and honesty, serving what I believe is an essential human need to be silly, creative, and vulnerable—and to witness these qualities in others. The experience was transcendent and reconnected me to the example set by my mother, a positive early-life experience.

The Museum takes a refreshingly direct approach to trauma and difference, directly addressing personal tragedy, injury and disability, mental illness, loss, racism, and family dysfunction. This frank approach reduces stigma and emphasizes the gifts that a unique identity and life experience can bring—while celebrating ownership of all aspects of one’s life (both good and bad).

Storytelling seemed to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the artworks, and I emerged at the end of my visit feeling like I’d just surfaced from a great book. Artist’s stories are the frame for interpreting the art, an approach that clearly communicates to visitors that people (and their experiences and visions) are the priority and the focus. The stories function in complete deference to the artist’s frame, ensuring the artist’s experience is unquestioned and the artist is held up as expert and owner.

I recently attended an inspiring session at the recent AAM Annual Meeting: Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences (click to download) led by Dawn Eshelman, Charles E. Fulcher Jr., Ben Garcia, Amber Harris, and Lois Silverman. Reflecting on the session handout and my visit to American Visionary Art Museum, I’m reminded of the importance of building ritual into museum experiences and celebrating inner narratives. Also, the ingredient of “surprised expectations” (cited in Charles E. Fulcher Jr.’s Seeing Deeper program) was at play for me during my visit.

Back in college when I was planning a career in social work, I took a child therapy practicum where clients’ inner narratives and belief systems—however peculiar or troubling—were the guiding forces of engagement, growth, and empathy. We know intuitively that this work is crucial for children, but often forget how essential these experiences are for adults. I’m happy to be reminded of this, and to reconnect with a version of myself that is energetic, idealistic, imaginative, and eager to know my own and others’ inner experiences.

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Eshelman, D., Fulcher, C. E., Garcia, B., Harris, A. & Silverman, L. H. (2016, May). Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences. Panel session at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.

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I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

Local history sites and belonging

My relationship with the town or city where I choose to live at a given moment matters to me deeply. I want to have routines, places for quiet contemplation, favorite restaurants, places to take out-of-town visitors; a regular farmers market is always nice. I also want to experience the history of a place.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do this when my husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon walking around Old Town Alexandria. It was one of those first few days when the sun came out in force, but the temperature was still crisp and the ground, still snowy. I suggested that we visit a local museum or historic site, perhaps the Friendship Firehouse Museum because I was intrigued by the word ‘friendship’ in its title.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum tells the story of the Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774 as Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting organization. It was a good choice for my husband and me because it appealed to our divergent interests. My husband, the engineer, enjoyed seeing the historic firefighting equipment and learning how it worked. And I liked learning about the quirky culture of the Company, particularly the members’ endearing idolization of George Washington and fondness for collecting objects that related to him.

Initially, I wasn’t inspired to write about the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the blog. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my visit related to museums and social service. A week later, however, I was describing my visit to a co-worker from my area and the conversation quickly opened up into a larger discussion of place and history. To know something about my area’s history gave me a foothold in the conversation and a sense of pleasure, belonging, and social connection.

Later, I checked in on Tom Mayes’ fantastic ‘Why Do Old Places Matter?’ blog series on Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. Tom’s posts about ‘Continuity’ and ‘Community’ stood out as most helpful, describing the importance of old places in aiding our sense of continuity of time and place, and our collective experience of community.

For me, the wonderful collision of local history, continuity, and community is epitomized by a past visit to the Museum of Brisbane (my then-local history museum). During my visit to exhibit, The River, I learned about the history of the Walter Taylor Bridge, a bridge I frequented during my commute at that time, and which therefore felt significant to my life. Apparently, the Bridge towers once functioned as accommodation for toll collectors. Family, domesticity, and day-to-day life were once contained within the structure of the Bridge, and the sight of hanging laundry apparently once entertained passing motorists. Though this history doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I had often wondered about this funny bridge with its thick pylons and many windows. So this new knowledge delighted me and gave me a sense of my own place in Brisbane’s history.

Given the ability of old places to passively accomplish these important ends, what might be the possibilities for more active programs and initiatives to address particular social needs and serve particular groups within the community—using these resources?

A quick look at upcoming programs at Friendship Firehouse Museum suggests great uses of the resource of ‘place.’ The Museum offers related walking tours, thereby connecting firefighting history to the larger community and its geography. It also offers upcoming Mother’s and Father’s Day Open Houses where children can enjoy a special visit with the celebrated parent and receive a complimentary family portrait.

Since local history museums and sites provide a valuable source of memory for communities (perhaps particularly so for older members) they are potentially useful resources for reminiscing. I am reminded of one of my master’s thesis case studies, the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery reminiscing program, which uses local history objects to prompt sharing and personal recollections among groups of older adults.

Additionally, local history, especially when it is casually embedded in everyday life (such as a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk), is a great hook for people who don’t typically frequent museums—i.e. my husband.

That said, sites will not comprehensively serve the community simply by existing. The Incluseum recently published a confronting and incredibly important post by researcher, Emily Dawson. In it, Dawson reports on her research into exclusion and the reproduction of disadvantage within the museum. The post got me thinking about the importance of increased scholarship on and visibility for the more marginalized histories within each story.

Local history sites are in the position to say: You are a part of this community and so this is for you. However, to be effective in fostering genuine inclusion and belonging, they will likely need to bear this promise out through action that, as Dawson suggests, makes all feel considered and welcome.

When I worked in disability support, I remember being told that my job involved more than assisting clients to participate in the community; it involved helping them find ways to contribute to community. I think the question of how to invite contributions is an interesting one for local history sites. It represents a challenge in terms of how to open a seemingly limited story into an experience that genuinely involves all people. In a way, sites such as the Friendship Firehouse Museum have social potentials similar to the public library; they are safe places for people to find community. So I think it’s worth considering how to continue meeting this challenge, and I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

What can museums learn from parks?

Recently, I discovered a Northern Virginia gem: Green Spring Gardens. Two visits later, I began wondering whether this dynamically educational and therapeutic space could offer a fresh perspective on traditional museum approaches.

Green Spring Gardens is many things: a garden and park, a museum, and an intellectual hub for horticulture and conservation. The site is home to the Horticulture Center and Historic House; both buildings have gallery spaces and lively exhibition programs, and the Horticulture Center features a research library and glasshouse.

Reflecting on this unique nature-driven and largely outdoor museum, I decided to explore some of the special qualities of the ‘park,’ examine the ways that Green Spring embraces and augments the park paradigm, and look for applications within the more traditional museum setting. I managed to distill my observations into six key thoughts:

Parks are seen as essential.

NBC’s Parks and Recreation depicts a fierce rivalry and mutual disdain between the local parks department and the library department. The joke, I think, is partly based on the axiomatic idea that parks and libraries are essential services both highly deserving of resources and deeply necessary to communities. Why are museums typically left out of this esteemed group? What could museums do to better demonstrate how essential they truly are?

In her essay, ‘Museum as Soup Kitchen,’ Elaine Gurian (2010) wondered whether local museums could expand their traditional offerings with other services, becoming active community spaces. She also asked readers to consider the idea of local museums providing ‘“free indoor public parks”’ for days when outdoor activities are not possible (Gurian, 2010, p. 79).

Parks are inextricably embedded in the social fabric of communities, and in many cases, come to define neighborhoods. Can museums find similar security in their communities by figuring out ways to understand, provide, and market essential community services? Museums have special resources to offer, and as Gurian (2010) suggested, could use these assets to provide relevant community programs that are perceived by more people as essential.

Parks are social spaces.

Parks are arguably quite effective as ‘third places’ (a term developed by Ray Oldenburg). They are social gathering sites where people can visit easily and regularly to connect with others. Are museums also third places? In a 2010 post, Nina Simon questioned whether museums are really suitable as third places since they are markedly less casual and more intellectually focused than true third places.

I think gardens such as Green Spring suggest a possible middle ground—a visitor experience that is both social and intellectual. Green Spring has the accessibility characteristics of a third place with the intellectual richness of a museum (and the social purposefulness of a community center).

Parks are dynamic spaces.

During my second visit to Green Spring, I realized one of the most engaging qualities of the Gardens: the fact that it looks and feels different every time you visit. My first visit was on a Sunday afternoon when families were out taking photographs and people were walking their dogs. It was a relatively warm day and the whole park was bathed in sunlight. My second visit was on a weekday afternoon and, by chance, a much colder, gloomier day. Instead of families and dogs, I saw a school group enjoying the grounds and the educational programs. Due to the gloomy weather, the grounds looked much darker and more solemn, but equally beautiful.

I realized—parks are dynamic spaces, changing daily and taking on the characteristics of that day’s particular weather, seasonal influences, and visitor motivations. By comparison, I would argue that museums are frequently more static in their appearance and character. Though their visitor base may change depending on the time of year and day of the week, the exhibitions, programs, and displays generally remain unchanged for extended periods of time. I would probably not be able to visit the same museum twice in one week and have two distinctly different experiences.

Perhaps one of the reasons that parks appear so dynamic is that they embrace their many potential uses. They are explicitly multipurpose spaces where visitors can choose to engage in a myriad of acceptable ways. At a park like Green Spring, visitors engage with the displays in personal, active ways. They might sit on a bench and read a book, walk a dog, or have a family picnic. A school trip or family outing might use the space as an ‘outdoor classroom,’ as the website suggests.

Recently, I visited the U.S. Botanic Garden, and after thoroughly exploring the exhibits, I sat down on one of the many benches and read a book, enjoying the tranquil, multisensory surroundings. By providing the appropriate environmental supports (abundant seating in a variety of locations), this museum facilitated a diverse, but valid use of its space—much like a park.

A good example of a museum that encourages multiple routes of engagement is Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.

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Photo by David Konigsberg.

Parks strive for social equity.

Social Equity is one of the three pillars of the National Recreation and Parks Association (along with Conservation and Health and Wellness). This video of NRPA’s President and CEO, Barbara Tulipane, CAE helps explain the uniqueness and importance of this quality for parks.

Parks are characterized by open spaces and blurred boundaries, and in the case of free public parks, are open to all. Recently, in a post about autism friendly museum programmingTincture of Museum described ‘access’ in a way that I think aptly describes what parks do well:

 ‘ … it is not always physical things a museum does, the signage, ramps or toilets. It is often about a way of thinking, it is about creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and accepted. It is a mindset, an ethos.’ (Claire Madge, Tincture of Museum)

At Green Spring, the open outdoor spaces created a mindset for me where I felt quite comfortable walking right into the Historic House, having no idea what it was at the time and responding only to the following basic invitation: ‘Open’ (see below).

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Once inside, I was left to my own devices to explore. No one greeted me initially except for two equally confused fellow visitors who initially mistook me for a guide. The three of us ultimately had a great time exploring the gift shop and exhibitions without any of the usual supervision.

Ordinarily, I might be inclined to criticize a visitor experience that began with no greeting or acknowledgment or even confirmation that I was allowed to be present. However, on this occasion, it worked beautifully, making the experience fun and exciting and facilitating conversation with other visitors. The ‘park paradigm’ is wonderful in this sense—laidback, inclusive, unintimidating. I walked in wearing sneakers, yoga pants, and an oversized hoodie—an outfit that I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing into a very traditional museum. Ultimately, I did chat with a staff person at the end of this visit and on my return, and these experiences reinforced my initial impressions of the House as a casual, welcoming space.

Parks promote physical and mental wellbeing.

By encouraging exercise and time spent outdoors, parks actively improve visitors’ health and wellbeing.

They are also empathetic visitor spaces that anticipate and respond to visitor needs, particularly basic physical and social needs. They typically provide plentiful seating (even in unexpected places such as the glasshouse at the Green Spring Horticulture Center).

Parks help protect our natural world.

Through teaching about conservation, parks such as Green Spring help promote pro-environmental attitudes and respect for the natural world.

A ‘park-influenced museum’ (or a ‘museum-influenced park’)…

As I mentioned, Green Spring Gardens is more than a park. I feel it is a good example of how the special qualities of the park could enrich and deepen a museum experience, possibly enhancing its social equity, increasing its social and therapeutic impact, and elevating its ‘essential-service’ cachet. Though the ideas explored here might not be relevant for all institutions, they hopefully contribute to a dialogue about multidisciplinary approaches.

 

Reference

Gurian, E. (2010). Museum as soup kitchen. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(1), 71-85. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2009.00009.x

At home in the museum

Recently, I have been thinking about domesticity and ritual in the museum and their therapeutic value in this context.

When I think about the therapeutic potentials of the museum, I typically think about the beautiful artwork, the evocative objects and histories, and the magnificent spaces. But what about the potential for museums to act as ‘homes’—as sources of ritual, familiarity, and comfort?

I felt the first stirrings of poignant curiosity on this subject during my recent visit to the National Building Museum. Having little organic interest in architecture or urban planning, I expected to like (but not love) the museum. I also expected, perhaps narrow-mindedly, to learn a lot, but to feel very little.

I think the visit was particularly moving because of where I am in my life right now—newly married, but also recently transplanted and therefore lacking stability or a community that I feel a part of. Though I am gradually building a life for myself here in D.C., the topic of ‘home’ is nonetheless a powerful, emotive one for me right now.

The Building Museum was a potent reminder to me of the universal relevance of home and community. The discussion of dollhouses in the exhibition, House & Home, swept me back to my childhood, reminding me why I feel such enduring affection for these idyllic representations of home life. The experience induced a conflicted sense of comfort and longing, with a hint of nostalgia.

Another exhibition at the Building Museum titled Investigating Where We Live highlighted how museums can shine a spotlight on ordinary lives, rendering their beauty. This sharp, insightful exhibition was curated by local teens during an annual summer program. The students’ thoughtful exploration of D.C. neighborhoods made me feel simultaneously homesick for laidback, livable Brisbane (my most recent home) and excited to forge a place in the vibrant D.C. area.

I am intrigued by the way that similar experiences often (appear to) collide in time. On the day following my visit the Building Museum, I had the opportunity to see Urban Bungalow, the new exhibit at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. This quietly lovely show curated by fiber artist, Jennifer Lindsay, invites the participating artists to ‘envision the gallery as a home (and as a work of art),’ according to the exhibition page. The exhibition features an assortment of home-inspired pieces including furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and textiles. The collection is simultaneously eclectic and harmonious, further reinforcing, at least for me, the warmth of a home.

What I noticed (and what the exhibition page also alludes to) is the power of the gallery space to transform and elevate domestic routines into comforting and healing rituals. The displays evoked memories of both my past and present lives. I was reminded of my childhood and my parents’ fondness for Japanese-style décor, including (during my early years) a Japanese table where we would kneel to eat dinner each night. The exhibition made me realize that everyday life is artful and that art inheres in everyday life.

Themes of domesticity and ritual lend themselves well to public programs that promote wellbeing, connectedness, and personal expression. For example, Urban Bungalow features a Sashiko Embroidery workshop and a Hand Spinning workshop—both offering creative, DIY experiences. Whether we are cooking, gardening, knitting … we naturally find immense satisfaction and empowerment in creating something that has both beauty and utility.

When I think about museums as ‘homes’ I am struck by how valuable they could be to people who are currently disadvantaged, vulnerable, or socially isolated. Collections that explore ordinary and domestic life seem to be perfect for programs that affirm individual experience such as ‘Personal Response’ tours (see Williams, 2010), reminiscing sessions, and community-curated exhibitions. They may also offer useful resources for extending the comfort of the museum through outreach—for example to hospitals, day centers, and other community service organizations. For these kinds of endeavors to be successful, museums will have to think empathetically (see the work of Gretchen Jennings) about the needs and life experiences of their participants so they can use museum resources in ways that genuinely engage and represent their communities, make them feel at home, and properly utilize their talents.

To readers:

I would love to hear more about the routines and rituals that bring you comfort. Have you experienced similar moments of comfort in the museum when you connected with something familiar—maybe something lost—or something wished for?

Tomorrow, I plan to put aside my anxieties (or at least try to) in celebration of the domestic. For me, this will hopefully involve (in a yet-to-be-determined order) going for a run, making dinner for me and my husband, and sitting down with a book and a cup of tea.

For a beautifully-written personal perspective on domestic ritual and its connections to health, healing, and family, see this piece by writer, Donna Trussell [@donnatrussell] via The Washington Post.

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The social rest space at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery reinforces comfort and creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

Permission to play

About a month ago, I was wandering through the Katzen Arts Center at American University when I came across something that immediately captured my attention. It was this simple message from artist, Jenny Wu, inviting visitors to play with her installation: 2014-10-08 09.11.09

Later that week, I emailed Jenny, curious to learn more. Jenny described her installation, Sandbox, (also a type of free-form video game, she explained) as a ‘playground’ for adults where they can explore textures, transform materials, and even water the artist’s plant.

Jenny explained, ‘The idea of play with the art is a combination of “me playing in the studio” and my fascination with human behaviors. I love the touch of the materials and textures, I perform transformation surgery on materials and give them new lives, and I want my audience to share that experience with me.’

Jenny also hopes to engage people in an active way, and allow them to observe and question their behavior. She shared this video of her earlier work, Come On Out and Play, which also invited an active, tactile visitor relationship. She said of this work, ‘People were really not afraid of touching art in a museum once they gained the permission!’

In the museum context, playing with or even altering the art on display is transgressive, highly participatory, and therefore, I think, quite fun. Of course, museum ‘playgrounds’ need not always be built around the art itself, but can also work well alongside the displays, offering visitors of all ages the chance to be spontaneous and creative as they connect with the collections. What I particularly like about Jenny’s concept though is how strongly the interactivity connects with the work itself.

Intrigued by my own burgeoning questions, I made a commitment to play hard in the museum every chance I got and to see what I could learn from an educator’s viewpoint. After all, play has inherent therapeutic impact, which could only be strengthened by the safety and authenticity of the museum context.

Play, according to an article by Peter Gray via Psychology Today, is defined largely by the player’s motivation and attitude; importantly, it is voluntary and motivated from within (Peter Gray, Psychology Today). Participating in an activity out of choice and because it is pleasurable is, obviously, good for you.

As Jenny Wu suggested, play is also active and purposeful, necessitating a commitment greater than just static observation. Joe Robinson via The Huffington Post explained that play nurtures our need for self-determination, connecting us with our natural drive for growth (Joe Robinson, The Huffington Post). An example is the way that my rockclimbing hobby provides me with constant challenges to confront and overcome.

Play is also therapeutic, allowing free expression and providing respite from anxiety. This article by Elena Santos via The Huffington Post identifies coloring as a valuable form of relaxation for adults.

My quest to play in the museum

I relish the opportunity to play. For over a year, I was lucky enough to play for a living while working as a nanny. I also have quite the silly side, which is always surprising to people who only know me as a rather quiet, serious individual.

So I set out on my play quest with the first stop at Pat Neuman’s studio during the annual Great Falls Studios Art Tour. My mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and I each chose a few studios to put on our personal tour schedule. I specifically requested Pat’s studio because her delightful blurb promised an active, artistic experience and seemed to extend to visitors of all ages.

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Halloween card-making

Complementing her strikingly-colorful pastel works, Pat’s main activity was a crayon and collage Halloween card-making table. After explaining her work, Pat gave an explicit invitation to her guests (all adults) to make a card. She eased the possible stress of getting started (mostly an issue for adults rather than children) by demonstrating a possible approach and suggesting techniques for success. Both myself and another visitor became happily absorbed in this relaxing, creative pursuit.

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Playing with extra-ordinary objects at the BMA

 

 

A few weeks later, another playful opportunity presented itself during a visit to The Baltimore Museum of Art: sculpture-making at The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects.

My husband told me later that he didn’t find this activity particularly interesting, but I think some subjectivity is par for the course with museum interactives. Personally, I enjoyed sorting through the eclectic objects encased in transparent boxes and wondering about their past lives. For me, exploring the uniqueness of each object was very playful.

Then, last wIMG_0049eek, at the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery I put my architectural skills to work, creating the blue building pictured.  I chose to leave it assembled, hoping that someone might later feel inspired to collaborate.

As I played my way through these cultural spaces, I asked myself how museum design features offer permission to play. Children generally need no invitation to play. They see something engaging; they dive in. Adults are a little harder to draw in and this is where I hoped to gain some further insight.

In a 2012 post, Nina Simon also wondered how museums might elicit adult participation in museum interactives, noting that ‘People of all ages are sensitive to the messages that design sends’ (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

Some thoughts on providing ‘permission to play’ (for adults)

  • Ensuring the space is appropriately scaled to accommodate adult participation is helpful. For example, in the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery, space to build is abundant, and furniture is large and comfortable. The chairs at the block building table are large enough to accommodate multiple adults at a time.
  • Including adult content ensures the space is respectful and welcoming of adults. Play Work Build opens with several displays examining historical toys and the museum’s collecting activities in this area. The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects also targets adult interest by featuring everyday objects such as an old playing card or crumpled shopping receipt. (See also Nina’s discussion on adult-friendly design.)
  • As Nina’s post suggested, including more muted colors in the activity may help adults feel more comfortable and less alienated. All the spaces I encountered reflected this idea and had a balance of bright and muted colors.
  • Providing platforms for sharing (Jenny Wu’s invitation to send her videos) and social media engagement such as twitter hashtags (#bmabigtable & #blocktastic) may increase an activity’s appeal for adults. The opportunities to tweet about my creations were appealing to me.
  • Offering tips on how to get started may help adults feel safe and prevent initial frustration. (Thank you to artist, Pat Neuman, for this insight.)
  • Ensuring the activity augments the displays and the museum’s mission demonstrates to both children and adults that their participation is powerful and relevant. Good design in this respect enhances both the educative value of the activity and its authenticity and power, thereby impacting wellbeing. See also Marianna Adam’s discussion (via Art Museum Teaching) about leveraging the museum’s uniqueness in family programs (paras. 7 & 8).
  • Making the activity so irresistibly fun that adults can’t help but participate is also an access option and the reason why my husband, my brothers, and I couldn’t resist playing on this incredible public rope playground in Manly, Queensland a few months ago:

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    Photo courtesy of my dad.

A brief caution?

While I was playing at Play Work Build, I noticed that one member of a group of three was fidgeting boredly while her two companions busily constructed a small city. She said something like, ‘I’m not good at this kind of thing,’ by way of explanation for why she wasn’t participating.

This comment got me thinking about the darker side of play. A quick observation of any group of children at play would likely reveal that fear of failure, insecurity, frustration, exclusion, and rejection can all quickly intrude upon a playful scene, sometimes fracturing engagement and introducing stress.

I wonder whether museums should consider some of these possible ‘play complications’ and design interactive spaces and activities that are supportive of varied needs and prepared to mitigate any breakdowns in connection.

Providing alternative ways to engage visitors (i.e. exhibitions to explore, videos to watch) seems like one option. Leaving activities open-ended and celebrating all responses (rather than stressing a ‘correct’ way of doing) is another. I’m also interested to hear other ideas on this …

Tell me your thoughts

Tell me how you play and what inspires you!

What are your great play memories and how could they inspire museum interactives?

What are your memorable museum play experiences?

How does play contribute to your personal wellbeing, and how can cultural programs make you feel sufficiently safe and excited to jump in and play?

Art museums and intellectual inclusion

As usual, I have been looking at programs and exhibitions that foster wellbeing or social change and asking the question, ‘What is the unique contribution of the museum to this impactful experience?

Last week, (during my search for museum volunteer opportunities) I received some interesting answers with respect to art museums and the resources and pedagogies that make them ideal venues for intellectual inclusion.

These thoughts were inspired by attending Conversations at The Kreeger Museum, a program that offers art talks for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers. The talks facilitate discussion and connection through visual art and music (see link).

I arrived twenty minutes early for the program and was ushered through the gallery onto the back terrace where a small group of participants were already engaging with the two pieces of art on the agenda—sculptures, Torso Sheaf and Hurlou, by Jean Arp. The docent was moving around the sculptures, visually engaging participants’ attention on the works.

I found it wonderful that participants could arrive early and walk straight into a lively, dynamic discussion of the art. The close proximity to the art allowed participants to explore its detail, trace its shape with their hands (as the docent suggested), and soak in the natural warmth and light that was hitting the terrace.

At 11am, participants took their seats for a more formal discussion of the two works. Following this, they adjourned to another gallery to listen to a thoughtfully curated piano performance by Ralitza Patcheva.

My experience at this program gave me a new perspective on the roles and resources of art museums, and the potential for inclusive, educative experiences.

I would like to share a few observations and thoughts from my experience:

  1. Art is very intellectually accessible.

As I watched the docent skillfully engage the participants (including the caregivers), I noticed how effortlessly art affirms intellect, regardless of experience or background.

  1. Art offers multiple ‘ways in.’

Perhaps one of the reasons that art is so welcoming of all intellects and backgrounds is that it offers multiple levels on which to connect, including (in this case) poetry, history, music, movement (art has ‘energy’), and personal experience (art connects us to our histories).

  1. Art and education work together (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

In a recent blog post on Art Museum Teaching, Andrea de Pascual wrote about the art education collective, Invisible Pedagogies, and the work that they do to transform and innovate on traditional educational paradigms. She explained that she and her colleagues work to promote the idea that art and education should work together rather than separately (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

During the Conversations program, the docent clearly embraced this philosophy, frequently encouraging participants to engage with the works in both an educative and an artistic manner. She also allowed participants to experience themselves as creative or artistic beings by enquiring about their own artistic and musical hobbies and histories.

  1. Visitors are valuable knowledge-producers (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

Andrea also argued that museums should treat participants as knowledge-producers whose contributions are equally valuable as those produced by artists and curators (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

The docent facilitated and validated this knowledge production in several ways:

  • She frequently used participants’ comments as jumping off points for discussion.
  • She recalled participants’ comments and re-integrated them into the group’s newfound knowledge.
  • She helped participants to learn from each other by connecting one participant’s comment to another’s.
  • She asked participants to explain or re-interpret material for newcomers.
  1. Art education enriches all of us.

Conversations Program Manager, Rebecca Carr, explained to me afterward that the program is aimed equally at the older adult participants and the caregivers. This dual focus was very evident to me during the program as the docent frequently asked the caregivers to share their opinions and ideas. At the conclusion of the art discussion, the docent asked carers what they would remember and take away for further discussion. I thought this was an effective way to get the caregivers thinking about ways in which they could extend and continue the discussion beyond the museum walls.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the discussion and engaging with the works. Though I attended as a prospective volunteer, I was able to quickly integrate myself into the fabric of the group and feel like any other participant. Thus, the program accommodated the varied needs of participants while also creating a sense of ordinariness.

  1. Art museums are special places with valuable social assets.

Art museums offer access to unique resources and opportunities for inclusive art education:

  • art and authentic art experiences
  • curators, educators, and volunteers
  • museum scholarship and research
  • beautiful and safe surroundings

This program offers an important restorative experience for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers, arguably providing an essential service for organizations and families that need to share these uniquely beautiful and stimulating opportunities with their clients and loved ones.

I would be very interested to read any related opinions or research and would love to be directed to relevant resources—if anyone knows of any.

Note 1: My thinking on this topic has been greatly informed by my masters dissertation research. Two programs in particular have helped me greatly in developing ideas about programming for older adults living with dementia. If you are interested, check out National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Alzheimer’s Program and the collaborative Creative Aging program of The Phillips Collection and Iona Senior Services.

Note 2: Please forgive the absence of a photo. I was completely absorbed by the experience and forgot to take one!