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.

The changing conversations of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series

If you’ve ever seen Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (as I did recently) or stumbled upon the recently popular Tumblr page, What They See, you may have entertained the idea of museum objects as living entities with voices, opinions, and physical vantage points.

If so, you are well situated to appreciate one of the key curatorial principles of The Phillips Collection, explained as follows by founder, Duncan Phillips: ‘I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time’ (quoted here on Experiment Station). The practice of acquainting diverse artworks with one another to allow new relationships to emerge is a ‘hallmark’ of the museum, Gallery Educator, Ellen Stedtefeld, elaborated in the post.

During a recent visit to the Phillips with fellow museum blogger, Caitlin Kearney (check out her blog, Museum A Week), I was struck by the value of this approach for displaying works with powerful and enduring social relevance—such as permanent collection favorite, The Migration Series (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence.

Lawrence’s The Migration Series chronicles the large-scale northward migration of southern African Americans between the two world wars; the 60 panel series is divided between The Phillips Collection (which holds the odd-numbered works) and the Museum of Modern Art (which holds the even-numbered works) (see website).

As Dr. Celeste-Marie Bernier (African American Studies scholar) highlighted for me during a related lecture earlier in 2014, The Migration Series acts, in some ways, as historical record and memorial. Through this helpful lens, I see the series as a key artistic contribution towards greater social justice and historical empathy.

This visit was my third time viewing Lawrence’s Migration Series. Over this fourteen-month period of visiting the Phillips, exhibitions and displays have come and gone and The Migration Series has moved upstairs. So I have essentially seen three different iterations of Duncan Phillips’ ‘congenial spirits’ approach to displaying these works; that is, I have seen the series in three different relational and conversational contexts.

When I visited in December 2013, The Migration Series was being displayed ‘in conversation’ with Pakistani Voices, a body of work created through outreach workshops in Pakistan in which artists, students, educators, and museum professionals collaboratively developed artworks inspired by The Migration Series, and in a similar spirit of visual storytelling (see website).

When Lawrence’s panels were allowed to converse and connect with Pakistani Voices, the works took on a kind of universal and intercultural quality. They appeared more as distinct entities and less as a series as they empathized across physical space and culture. They assumed an educative role, with traces of Lawrence’s forthright, bold use of color and shape evident among the Pakistani Voices’ works. The conversations between these two series brought to mind shared human experience.

When I returned to the museum in November 2014, The Migration Series had moved to another floor alongside several exhibits including A Tribute to Anita Reiner, an exhibition honoring and showcasing the efforts of intrepid art collector, Anita Reiner. This time, I saw Lawrence’s works as a more clearly defined set, telling a powerfully cohesive story. Thinking back on The Migration Series in conversation with Ms Reiner’s eclectic, passionate, and open-minded collecting style evokes ideas about ‘the artist’ including the importance of supporting artists and the valuable role of arts supporters such as Ms Reiner. Retroactively reflecting on these possible connections is an interesting and valuable process.

Last week, I was fortunate to see The Migration Series presented alongside a selection from another of Lawrence’s series, a small exhibition titled Struggle…from the History of the American People. The Struggle series is aesthetically distinct from The Migration Series, something that immediately intrigued me and sparked interesting later discussion with Caitlin. Seeing these two distinct sets of works (by the same artist) in conversation with one another highlighted Lawrence’s versatility and intentionality. Consequently, the aesthetic qualities of The Migration Series seemed more deliberate and impactful, with a very authoritative narrative voice.

Have you seen The Migration Series in conversation with a different work or exhibition from the ones that I detail here? How did you experience Jacob Lawrence’s powerful storytelling when brought into conversation with a work or collection from a different artist, time, place, or style?

Have you ever noticed works or objects conversing within a gallery space, either during your visit or upon later reflection? Did these conversations influence your experience and your learning?

Based on my own experiences, I am curious about the role of Duncan Phillips’ curatorial approach for works with strong social relevance. Seeing the way that Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series interacted with diverse works (including some of his own) provided new ways of seeing and understanding the social importance of the works—i.e. for advancing intercultural understanding, for promoting the artist and the important social role of art, and for better understanding the artist’s aesthetic intentions.

An upcoming exhibition at MoMA, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, will reunite all 60 works in the series. After their long separation (and their time spent in the company of other works), I imagine they will have a lot to say to one another—and to their audience.

from The Migration Series - Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence – “Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

Museums and the pure joy of learning

The impact of museums on me 

I began this blog project to learn about museum practice and explore how I might contribute to the museum field. I was excited to explore D.C.’s cultural offerings and consider possible connections between museums, wellbeing, and social service.

Of course, I expected to learn a lot about museum practice. But I was less prepared for the immense casual learning (about art history, art practice, architecture, conservation, history) that my visits would inspire and the happiness this would bring me.

A month ago, I shared this sentiment on Twitter:

Then last week, with my mother visiting from Australia, I had a good excuse to visit several museums without focusing particularly on their relevance to the blog—and my thoughts about museums and the joy of learning crystalized enough for me to write this post. In short, I realized how much my museum expeditions have changed me for the better.

Through my desire to better understand visitor participation, I have become a more avid participator. These days, I can hardly walk past an interactive display, response prompt, or activity without engaging in some way. Along with this heightened interest in participation has come a newfound playfulness and desire to relate. Suddenly, I see opportunities to engage that I would not previously have noticed.

My initially-perfunctory effort to document my visits and provide visuals for the blog through photography has evolved into a genuine quest for beauty, intrigue, and new ways of seeing:

My phone (with its camera) is never far from my reach these days, and I don’t feel like I’m missing any real moments—something I admit I used to see as a reason for not taking photographs.

I have rediscovered some of my childlike awe, most recently, in the stunning presence of Richard Estes’ Realism at Smithsonian American Art Museum, an exhibition that had me continually running over to my companion (my mum, in this case) to point out particular works. I have also experienced a greater willingness to try new things and a deeper interest in ‘process’ and ‘experience.’ For example, I am increasingly eager to attempt art practice as a window into museum programs and collections.

Sketching Rodin's The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art's Drawing Salon

Sketching Rodin’s The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art’s Drawing Salon

While I admit I do tend to gravitate towards art museums, the blog project has helped me expand my horizons, prompting genuine interest in subjects such as architecture, urban planning, and horticulture.

I’m intrigued by these intangible museum visit outcomes, which relate less to specific facts learned and more to the emotional and identity outcomes that learning can inspire. Have you ever experienced emotional or identity outcomes in the museum, including experiences, interests, and realizations that helped you grow? If so, what were they? Museum professionals, do you ever plan for visitors to experience these kinds of outcomes? Have they ever emerged unexpectedly from your evaluations as ‘unanticipated outcomes’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum)?

This month, as I begin seriously searching for museum employment and volunteer opportunities (work permit in hand at last), I feel grateful to be striving towards a career that will afford me so many opportunities to learn, enquire, feel amazed, and develop myself.

For an aspiring museum professional, the opportunity to attend numerous museum exhibitions and programs has been a gift—and an important part of my professional and emotional education. I believe that all museum professionals and museum studies students should make time for this pursuit, and employers and academic programs should encourage and support this important process.

The opportunity to write has also been important for me, professionally and personally. Writing the blog has brought forth a more candid and expressive and less reserved side of me that has been valuable as I seek to learn from others and exchange ideas.

I look forward to continuing my blog project, and my ongoing personal education.

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by Library of Congress

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by the Library of Congress

The empowering exhibition

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s current exhibit, Days of Endless Time, promises to explore themes of nature, solitude, and escape through moving image works that attenuate and suspend time or evoke timelessness (see website) so when I visited with my mum last Wednesday, I expected any resulting blog post to focus on the exhibition’s meditative qualities. Unexpectedly, I was drawn down another path.

But let me begin by recounting my initial impressions and subsequent thought process…

Upon entering the exhibit, I was struck by the dark gray walls, which contributed a complex energy into the space, reducing one’s visibility in the gallery and invoking a sense of greater privacy and seclusion. I immediately noted that the exhibition suspended not only time, but also expectation. As in Divergence, I noticed a recurring narrative of duality and contrast (with fluidity between opposing or contrasting ideas); movement/stillness, sound/silence, object/shadow, small/large, nature/man, creation/destruction all inhered and enmeshed throughout my visit.

The works evoked a kind of ‘unreality’ that was, at least for me, strangely acceptable and beautiful, even peaceful. The exhibit reminded me of the potential for museums to connect to a spiritual dimension or an augmented version of reality—and to be deeply seductive. My experience was somewhat reminiscent of my experience at Glenstone (see post) in that I felt restored (even energized) afterwards rather than fatigued. My mum, Kathy, astutely commented upon leaving that she felt slower, but not tired.

The experience was certainly therapeutic, but the complete reason why eluded me until the next morning when I read this essay by Axel Huttinger, posted by Paul Orselli on his blog, ExhibiTricks. Axel’s argument that exhibitions should motivate a desire to learn by providing ‘a sense of security and a certain amount of self-confidence’ got me pondering the concept of an empowering exhibition: an exhibition that offers security and supports self-efficacy.

I use the word ‘self-efficacy’ (a concept developed by psychologist, Albert Bandura) rather than self-esteem because, as my sister-in-law recently reminded me, self-efficacy describes your belief that you can do something, a similar notion to Axel’s assertion that exhibitions should convey to visitors ‘that they have understood, or can understand something’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Unhurried and undidactic, Days of Endless Time offers visitors a strong and pervasive sense of control and security by introducing concepts gently and with restraint and by limiting factual content. This experience supports viewers’ authority and encourages their confident engagement; one person’s experience or interpretation is as valid as the next’s. Also, many of the works seem to offer flexible entry and exit points for viewing and understanding them.

My mum later told me that she had first looked at each moving image to ascertain her own organic interpretation and only later considered the label if she was left wanting more information. In many cases, she was satisfied with her self-produced knowledge and sought no further explanation. The exhibition’s capacity to accommodate this confident, self-guided approach struck me as an empowering opportunity for self-made discovery.

Days of Endless Time invites a kind of investigative approach in which patience, curiosity, and a contemplative mind yield great reward. It seems to strive towards Axel’s idea of the exhibition as a ‘public laboratory, in which the visitors themselves become researchers and scientists’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Museums are places where ideas inhabit space—and you, as the visitor, are invited to co-exist in that space. Exhibitions that present mountains of information with little option to select ‘out’ may be alienating and tiring—even intimidating. Contrastingly, exhibitions that make you feel smart, receptive, capable, calm, and in control may be enormously empowering.

What do you think?

Mum and I enjoyed our own experience of the vastness of nature getting across the snowy Mall.

Mum and I enjoyed an apt prelude to the exhibition as we braved the snowy weather to get to the Museum.

Huttinger, A. (2015, January 6). What is innovative exhibition design? [Blog post]. ExhibiTricks. (See Axel’s company website)

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

The self-guided personal response tour

Inspiration 

Ray Williams’ (2010) article, ‘Honoring the Personal Response: A Strategy for Serving the Public Hunger for Connection’ made a case for art museums to assume profound relevance to individual lives.

I first encountered the article while completing my master’s thesis and immediately noticed that Williams’ proposal was reminiscent of my initial stirrings of professional interest in museums.

Williams’ (2010) ‘Personal Response’ tour invites participants to find museum works that resonate with special questions; the questions are designed to invite reflection and connect to personal experience.

Recently, I was reminded of the personal response tour by Shannon Karol’s post on DMA Canvas, which explored its use in promoting teambuilding and reflection among museum docents. Further research revealed the potential use of personal response tours for training medical students in empathy and self-awareness (see Gaufberg & Williams, 2011). I was intrigued by the versatility of the personal response and wanted to know more.

Why do we only look outside ourselves?

Museums often focus heavily on the cultural and historical context of works, under-utilizing the broad and powerful potential of art to serve the community, Williams (2010) argued.

In her post about Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, Robin Matty articulated a similar idea after exploring the exhibition’s atypically personal approach to art, explaining ‘the standard art exhibit label doesn’t always mean much to the visitor’ (Robin Matty, The Traveling Museologist).

Traditional interpretative labels often imply we must look to external resources to understand and enjoy the displays.

But visitors’ personal histories can add immediacy to the visitor experience and contribute new richness and depth to the original works or objects, creating potentially useful resources for the museum and for other visitors.

My personal response experience 

I put together a short list of prompts to try out during a visit to one of my favorite D.C. museums, The Phillips Collection. Below are some of my highlights:

1. Find a work that makes you laugh: People who know each other at a party by Michael Schaff (Acrylic paint and colored pencil on construction paper, exhibited in Art and Wellness: Creative Aging) … Something about this slightly abstract, slightly disordered, and slightly absurd party scene delighted me, and made me laugh.

2. Find a work that, for you, embodies courage: The Migration Series, Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them. by Jacob Lawrence (between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, exhibited in The Migration Series) … When I discovered the title of this work, I realized that my interpretation was probably a little different than what Jacob Lawrence intended. Nevertheless, I found the work beautiful and empowering. Something about a focus on light …

3. Find a work that embodies love: The Dream by Marc Chagall (1939, Gouache on paper, permanent collection) … For me, this work was both domestically ordinary and dreamily surreal.

What I learned about personal responses in the museum

A personal response tour allows you to follow your own instincts and intrinsic interests when choosing what displays to seek out and focus on.

Formal, structured tours (while wonderful in their own way) can at times feel like a trip to the mall with someone who does not share your particular retail proclivities. Instead of looking closely at something that captivates you, you are compelled to focus on whatever the guide has chosen to focus on (or, to return to my shopping analogy, to feign interest in cooking gadgets for hours on end because that’s what your husband likes to shop for).

This self-directed quality does not preclude the personal response tour from being social; in fact, it opens up many possibilities for discussion and empathy. Seeing another’s perspective through the lens of a work or object may offer a more nuanced picture of that person’s unique experience. The personal response approach may also offer a powerful way of mentally logging and storing new knowledge.

These moments we share with a work can ignite curiosity and a desire to learn more. My sudden and intense love affair with Marc Chagall’s The Dream while visiting The Phillips primed me to later connect with another of his works, Composition, on a recent visit to The Kreeger Museum. The personal response is akin to an ‘emotional souvenir,’ creating continuity in the visitor experience and extending it beyond the time and space of the visit.

Finally, collections are both the lifeblood of the personal response, and the great asset of the museum. Therefore, museums may be uniquely situated to promote empathy, self-care, and sharing in this way.

Exhibition idea …

As I finish this post, I am arriving at what I think could be an interesting exhibition idea incorporating the personal response. The exhibition would encourage visitors to record their personal responses to the particular artworks or objects (perhaps on post-its?) and affix them beside the relevant pieces. Subsequent visitors could respond to either the work alone or the preceding visitor responses.

This would build on the concept of Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, as discussed in Robin Matty’s post, by adding a new layer of interpersonal sharing and active participation. The exhibition would seamlessly coalesce participation, co-curation, and interpretation.

Reflecting on recent events in Ferguson 

Could the ‘personal response’ approach to interpreting museum objects provide some direction for museums striving to serve their communities in times of grief or trauma?

Your experiences

If anyone feels subsequently inspired to try a self-guided personal response tour I would love to hear from you. Also, if you discover any amazing prompts, please let me know.

(You could try this at ANY exhibition. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AN ART EXHIBIT.)

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The curators of Investigating Where We Live (currently on display at the National Building Museum) shared their personal reflections about community and place and invited visitors to do the same.

References

Gaufberg, E. & Williams, R. (2011). Reflection in a museum setting: The Personal Responses Tour. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 3(4), 546-549. doi: 10.4300/JGME-D-11-00036.1

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

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.

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.