At home in the museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To readers:

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

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

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


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








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

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.


O’Sullivan, M. (2014, September 18). ‘Divergence’ at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. The Washington Post. Retrieved from