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?
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.)
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