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.