Museums, a way in to doubt?

Poet Jane Hirshfield’s hopeful insights into the role of poetry in helping to solve big social problems make a powerful case for the public celebration of uncertainty and nuance in the world.

I didn’t realize until my Memorial Day visits to Freer|Sackler and Hirshhorn Museum that the museum can also be a crucial ‘way in’ to uncertainty, and healthy doubt.

Like Hirshfield’s compelling argument in favor of poetry, museums are texts of doubt and ambiguity, of complexity and abundant gray area. This is one of their greatest strengths, and a possible asset to be leveraged in their emerging quest to contribute to social justice.

Hirshfield says ‘poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism.’ Museums too are particularly adept at offering more questions than answers, and reminding us just how much we haven’t yet considered. This sense of ourselves as social and intellectual ‘works in progress’ is a beautiful thing, and a potential way for museum experiences to help gradually heal social ills.

Doubt, I think, is an important precursor to empathy—which is a hot topic in the museum field today, and a difficult and skillful undertaking, for anyone. Empathy requires both the ability to connect with personal experiences by searching for similarity and shared meaning, and the ability to suspend assumption and be willing to expand or revise an existing understanding of human experience. This latter task requires you to doubt what you already think that you know about human emotion so that you are open to the complexities of someone else’s reality.

Great museum exhibits and programs unsettle our inherent dogmas, shake us down, and confront us with nuance and difference. This is one place where empathy could live and thrive in the museum. How do we, as museum professionals, work with the doubt and incompleteness that exists within all topics—science, art, history—to support healthy, empathetic communities?

‘Poems also create larger fields of possibilities,’ Hirshfield continues. Similarly, a great museum visit conveys a profound sense of incompleteness and therefore, potential. Ordinarily, we associate doubt and uncertainty with anxiety and fear. However, in the relative safety of the museum, experiencing one’s worldview as incomplete and nascent is actually quite therapeutic. It leaves you feeling less constrained.

Sometimes, the museum experience can border on absurd, and this too is helpful because it helps us reimagine notions of ordinariness and normality, and think more broadly.

A museum visit shouldn’t make you feel stupid (see my previous post about empowering exhibitions) nor should it provoke anxiety, but it shouldn’t make you feel infallible either.

Doubt inspires an unsettled and motivated curiosity. I’m reminded of David Carr’s recent remarks at Smithsonian Libraries during which he contended, ‘it is thinking, not “learning,” that makes us different.’ Learning, I think, implies something much more finite that what museums can really offer. Thinking, however, requires only the spark of an idea (or a doubt) and can then become a lifelong process.

For regular people living thoughtful, complex, authentic lives, Carr contends, ‘Knowledge of the museum kind is best when it helps such people over time to be more engaged, more curious, more empathetic, and more reflective; less judgmental; more aware of the fragile; and less afraid of ambiguity.’

Ambiguity is never more ubiquitous or celebrated than in the contemporary art museum (as I was reminded during my recent visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Many people are frustrated by the museum’s apparent refusal to clearly answer the question, ‘What does it mean?’ Yet, visitors are drawn in anyway—by the mystery and by the refreshing contact with something that isn’t necessarily complete or certain.

Even the most seemingly small mental ‘resets’ and moments of intellectual revision or confusion can feel pretty great, and probably work to counteract harmful ‘certainty’ on a larger scale.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is currently showing Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition by Darren Waterston, which reimagines James McNeill Whistler’s iconic Peacock Room (on display at Freer Gallery of Art) through its centerpiece work, Filthy Lucre. Filthy Lucre recreates the Peacock Room, and depicts it as a kind of decaying palace. Its surprising vibrancy and energy caused me to see the original Peacock Room in a very different light. Suddenly, the original room seemed static, quiet, and slightly dulled, yet also more authentic and real than the almost cartoonish Filthy Lucre. I’m now quite uncertain how I feel about the Peacock Room; what I think, what I feel, and what I imagine have been thrown into revision by the remixed version.

The remixing of ideas in the museum is therefore a valuable source of doubt, and intellectual revision. And museum exhibitions and programs might consider how they can nurture doubt and nuance within their audiences—by reframing concepts (as in the Peacock Room REMIX), by igniting questions, and by appropriately conveying the challenge (and reward) of true empathy.

Burns, C. (2015, May 13). A famous poet explains how great verse can help solve big social problems (and reads you a poem!)The Washington Post. 

Carr, D. (2015, February 26). Questions for an Open Cultural Institution: Thinking Together in Provocative PlacesSmithsonian Libraries.

Dropping in on museums

On the Monday before Christmas, I decided to combat pre-holiday restlessness with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see their (relatively new) exhibition, The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia.

I am starting to think of the Freer|Sackler as an old friend, someone I can drop in on casually when I’m bored, or unsettled, or somehow in need. Fittingly, my first visit (back in 2008) began when my mum and I stumbled through the Freer Gallery doors desperately seeking refuge from the scorching D.C. summer day outside.

I am truly fortunate to live in a city with so many free, conveniently-located cultural refuges. Providing a cultural space where visitors can enter easily, cheaply, and regularly is a powerful community service and one that I feel more museums might strive to facilitate and augment, if possible. This is one way that a museum could, if it made sense for the particular institution, become more like a park (see my past post on the subject).

Every museum is inevitably restricted by physical and geographical constraints and limited resources. However, I wonder how museums might augment what they already have to make themselves community spaces that support casual, drop-in visits. If a museum or exhibit can’t offer free admission, what are some other ways it can reduce barriers to entry and encourage regular, spontaneous visitation? I’ve noticed that many museums offer free admission days. Also, lunch-time museum programs seem like a great way to provide value and regularly varied content.

Here’s another thought: Could museums offer month-long passes, or multi-visit passes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could return to something you enjoyed, or split a museum’s galleries into multiple short visits, or return to a favorite exhibit with a friend—without having to pay for admission a second time? Perhaps this option would increase visitation without reducing admissions revenue? Does a market (beyond me) exist for such options?

Museums that are set up to support short, casual visits seem particularly child and family-friendly. The pressure (on caregivers) to make the visit meaningful and successful is possibly alleviated by the knowledge that they can easily come back another day. And if things go really well, then the ability to return easily becomes an opportunity to re-visit favorite displays or show them to other family members!

Based on my experience leading outings (both as a nanny and a support worker), free or ‘no-fuss’ exhibits and programs definitely feel more accessible than paid ones, and can frequently be undertaken more spontaneously.

Which museums do you frequent, and what museum qualities make this possible? Do you see value in drop-in style or narrowly focused visits? What might be the role of design in supporting these visits? In my experience, the museums with which you develop these kinds of relationships are lifelong companions, fondly remembered and indelibly imprinted on your experience. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Johnson Museum of Art, the many times I used the art to help my language students practice their English, and the peaceful times I spent looking out over my college campus from the fifth floor gallery.

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.