The museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:

Mission

To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.

Vision

A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.

IMG_0908

Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.

Historic houses and legacies: letting spaces speak

Have you ever wondered what your historical legacy will be? Maybe you will positively alter the course of history and your possessions, stories, and spaces will be preserved somewhere in a museum or historic house. Maybe, by accident, you will cross paths with a significant moment in history. Likely, you will pass some kind of legacy to your family.

Where do legacies reside? They are found in stories and memories, of course, but they also inhabit physical spaces and objects. How such spaces tell their stories, and how visitors might listen and find personal meaning are potentially useful questions for museums and historic houses that care for these spaces.

I began pondering these questions after recent visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House—historic houses that tell the stories of the prominent social reformers for whom they are named. I wondered about the social service or therapeutic possibilities of spaces that house legacies of social change, such as Lincoln’s or Bethune’s.

IMG_0352

President Lincoln’s Cottage is quite different from a traditional museum, and leaves a lasting impression that is both visceral and intellectual. The rooms are relatively bare and do not contain exhibits in the traditional sense—just a few pieces of period furniture here and there. Instead of objects, they are filled with Lincoln’s ideas, experiences, and stories. These intangible pieces of history fill the spaces as completely as any exhibition would; the rooms don’t feel empty—which is surprising because, in a physical sense, they are.

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, historic headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune’s last D.C. residence, feels closer to a traditional museum, but shares some interesting similarities with the uniquely idea-based interpretive style of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The spaces are intended to evoke Bethune’s spirit, intellect, and obvious charisma, and they do it well.

During a recent lecture at the National Building Museum by design psychology founder, Dr Toby Israel, I learned that the spaces we select and the ways we curate and present them are deeply revealing of who we are. I began to appreciate this lasting ‘essence’ of a person or group as a valuable asset of the historic house.

My biggest takeaway from my historic house visits was the intense relationship between historic spaces, and visitor imagination and empathy. Standing in both of these sites, I did more than simply learn about their historical inhabitants, I experienced their lives, and personalities. I think physical space is important for these experiences. We need to imagine ourselves within the space to begin to empathize with its history.

Within Lincoln’s space, once a haven for Lincoln and his family, I sensed his earnestness, his limitations, his anxiety and frequent exhaustion. I idealized him less, and liked him more. Within Bethune Council House, I palpably sensed Bethune’s pride, confidence, and optimism. I got the impression she was a person unafraid to participate fully in the world, despite its oftentimes discriminatory attitudes towards her race and gender. Her inspiring presence danced self-assuredly in every room.

My visit to Bethune Council House made me realize that historic spaces might serve as identity blueprints because they tell us so much about their owners and users—both who they were and how they represented themselves in the world. My guide did an incredible job of drawing my attention to the significance of certain spaces and objects in the House. The scene below captures the importance of the House piano (not the original), its striking presence in the space, and its important role in promoting Bethune’s concern for equality internationally (see the flags).

IMG_0359

Her imagined office space (pictured below) highlights her struggle to represent herself as capable and strong, yet feminine—a difficult (but necessary) line to walk at the time for someone with Bethune’s aspirations, according to my guide.

IMG_0357

This conference table (see below) also tells an important story about how Bethune might have imagined her work: She was doing serious work for African American women and that required a serious conference table. To stand by this piece of history, which may have once given Bethune confidence, was affirming and empowering.

IMG_0358

Historic spaces might also remind us of social and political constraint and thereby engender a sense of pragmatic empathy for historical figures. (Lincoln and Bethune were both limited by their spheres of influence and had to choose their battles.) Historic spaces also bring us a little closer to the greatness within ourselves as we sense the strategy and ingenuity behind successful social change. So these experiences might build empathy and creativity, and re-invigorate our idealistic side.

Of course, when we visit museums such as Bethune Council House or Lincoln’s Cottage, we are experiencing selective interpretations of their lives rather than authentic, unbiased realities. We cannot actually step back in time and chat with Bethune by her real grand piano, or hang out with Lincoln on his porch. But we can occupy spaces they once occupied, and see where this leads us. Maybe we can know something about ourselves, at least through our own intellectual experience. Potential for personal growth and a renewed sense of wellbeing may reside here, in this unusual, and valuable experience.

Both Bethune Council House and Lincoln’s Cottage do an admirable job of stepping back and letting the spaces speak. Historic houses (and the intangible social assets that they house) seem like important social and community resources, even potential building blocks for innovative social programs. These institutions and their resources might make valuable sites for therapeutic programs. I am reminded of Lois Silverman’s work on the Museums as Therapeutic Agents (MATA) Collaborative project. The project included a tour of the historic Wylie House for people with life-threatening illness (and their partners) and encouraged participants to self-reflect, draw helpful historical parallels, and appreciate universal human challenge (Silverman, 2002).

Perhaps historic houses could use their legacies to support young people through special tours and workshops, or to reconnect people living with dementia with their sense of self through casual visits and discussions. Maybe they would be useful resources for programs for helping professionals (doctors, social workers) aimed at refreshing participants and averting professional burnout.

These are merely ideas for consideration, and discussion. Successful programs of this kind would likely require close collaborations with community organizations and social service professionals, potentially creating new opportunities for maintaining institutions’ contemporary relevance and community value.

Do you see any valuable connections between public history, legacies, and therapeutic and social programs? I think there’s something here. After all, why do we look to history if not to avoid repeating it, to be inspired, to feel comfort and a sense of shared experience, and to think critically about its applications to our own lives?

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

 

Silverman, L. H. (2002). The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, society, inequality (pp. 69-83). New York, NY: Routledge.

The magical museum

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


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

A11255.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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.)

IMG_0027

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Divergence runs until October 25.)

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

Reference

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

Just you and the museum

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

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

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

photo (1) copy 2

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 unexpected pleasures of the ‘tour guiding’ visit

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

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

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

My thought process was similar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!