How can we move towards the flourishing museum, to enable museums as places of joy, hope, empathy and abundance? This is constantly at the top of my mind lately. And I know we can do this, we just need direction, guidance, and maybe a smoothed path to help us go forward—something to point to that says, here, this is a way. This is what I’ve been working on for about two years. I’ve had ups and downs, some acceptances, some rejections. It’s all good.
This week I had a breakthrough of sorts with my positive museology framework development process. I am continually working out how the framework can function but it has, honestly, given me the most trouble. I think it might be that I’m working it backwards. I need to look at all the parts before deciding what the parts are. Make sense? Clear as mud? At the same time, I am working on a journal article, temporarily titled, the Infecting Museums with Joy: 10 Ways, due this summer. The contents of this article have sort of paralleled some of the larger pieces I am trying write outlining the Positive Museology framework. For about two months now I have grappled with how to sort out the Ways. Drawing from the immense pool of sources found in both the positive disciplines and in contemplative studies--not to mention the work from museum studies--distilling them down into bite-sized, useful, and appropriate pieces is not easy, especially because, a) I am impatient and excited, and b) I have less time to write now that I am a director of a program. But after grappling specifically with the Ways article and also trying to write the PM chapter, I finally made a preliminary decision to move forward with these topics as the "ways" or the "paths" (this is the breakthrough):
I admit that I’m still figuring out precisely what this positive museology looks like (let’s shorten it to PM for fun), so showing examples of it, seems a little bass ackwards. But I guess I’m willing to be a little inductive here. I realized, as I was writing yet another scholarly piece about PM, that at this moment, museums were wholesale DOING PM, right before my eyes! I’ll keep building the case, synthesizing the evidence, and crafting the framework, but I had to take this breath from my research to make the point. There seems to be no better evidence of PM at work than during the response to our current crisis. Almost immediately, museums pulled themselves up to a place of care, offering ways to help people cope with their isolation and lack of socialization. Some offered ways to calm, others offered playfulness and humor and even more helped people stay engaged and creative. Amazing. We can take a look at what museums are doing on the ground using Barbara Frederickson’s 10 positive emotions from her Broaden and Build Theory: Joy, Gratitude, Serenity, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe, and Love. These are some of the ingredients that lead to flourishing.
Here are some examples, check them out:
For those who have rejected my ideas on PM, calling them “too academic” or “not for practice,” perhaps you were shortsighted, because museums are doing exactly what I thought them to be capable of, to rise to the top, to be places that enable flourishing. THAT is practice and theory at work. I’m proud of you, museum-land. I knew you could do it!
If you have more you can share with me, please leave comments below! Let’s gather all the good things museums are doing in response to the shut-down and pandemic.
5.1.20. I continue to see so many examples of positive museology popping up. Shortly after I posted this blog, I learned of the amazing week-long event, Spring into Well-being hosted by the Association of Midwest Museums (AMM). A full week of free activities like meditation, virtual hike, and good news focus are on the menu. This is a shout out to AMM! Thank you!
The fresh spring breeze is a welcome thing each year. With it, comes birds chirping, the smells of growth and soil, and spring winds. This year the spring breeze comes just in time, to help us breathe in fresh new perspectives as well as fresh air. During this seasonal change, the blog challenge to myself has become clearer as time goes on (maybe it’s all those leisurely walks I’m taking). And time, as we all know, is completely whacked out right now. A day feels like a year sometimes. Even so, I have a better idea of what I want to do with my blog journal challenge now that another unfolding pandemic week has passed. For a couple of years now, I've been trying to develop this notion of positive museology; I've written a few blog posts on it already (you can find them here in the archive). I always want to do more of those, but I get stymied, stuck by the structures and processes that bind me as an academic.
Since the shifts brought about by the pandemic, and the strange freedom it brings to experiment (because, if not now, then when???), I am going to use this excuse to throw my academic chains to the spring wind. In this spirit, there are two things I want to do. First, simply write about a concept I come across in the positive and contemplative spheres, with each post being a study of sorts. My stopping point in the past came with connecting the concept to museology, but here I'm going to allow myself the chance to just write about the concept that I perceive will eventually fit with a positive museology, without worrying about what should be. I'm giving myself permission to not make the connection...yet. I feel that doing this now—in a holding pattern—will help me to connect it later. Writing is thinking, after all. Second, I want to go back to all those drafts of blog posts I've written over the years and never published. They are all potentially perfectly ready for blogging, but something always stopped me, perhaps a fear of "putting it out there" or a nervousness about being misunderstood. Part of my current self-challenge is to get over that fear, and to trust. Trusting in the unknown is terrifying, and I know what can happen with social media, twisting and interpreting in other directions. But I also have things to say and maybe they will connect to someone out there, maybe it will help even one person to think, "I am not alone." Connecting, through ideas, to even one new person is worth it to me. Three and a half weeks into this sequestering, the strongest sentiment I see emerging from the world now is, "we are in this together." I am taking that to heart.
Bonus: if you do not already know about this offering—MeditOcean—by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, check it out. So good!
Today I’m challenging myself. In the midst of the weird world we are all now experiencing, my mind is often lost, floating off in unintended directions. In normal times, once a week I spend a day focusing on my research, to read and write, aiming for eventual and hopeful vetted publication. For years now, I have known that I “should” blog; I have written so many drafts, ready to go, but they sit in my computer files, unpublished. The reason? I have a fear, of what I do not know. For over a decade now, I have published articles, written books, and presented at numerous conferences, but for some reason the blog has got me stymied (except for a few pieces I’ve posted here and there). And then today, during my daily yoga routine, it came to me. I decided to see blogging as journaling, a contemplative practice used by many across the world. I too journal, but it is completely inward and private. This contemplative journaling is reflective, meant to focus on the moment you find yourself in. In this weird time, I have also had a strong urge to create—paint, draw, craft. So why not combine all these things—blogging, journaling, creating—into a type of meditation that we can call a “blog”? So, here is the challenge to myself: During those research days, I will write a reflective blog about whatever has come up for that day.
The things I have been researching and writing about during those designated days have to do with flourishing, both as a person in this world and in museums. From my newest favorite book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Sprit of Business by Chris Laszlo and Judy Sorum Brown, flourishing is about the “…world for which we all yearn. It’s about “thriving,” “doing well,” and “prospering”…about “growing or developing in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as a result of a particularly congenial environment.” (p9). During this time of self- and mandated-sequestering, amazing acts of kindness, helpfulness, concern for others, calming, humor, and care are emerging through many sources—social media, the business sector, the cultural sector and more. These are the sorts of things I have been deeply investigating for my research (the science and spirit behind it) and so, now, I find myself in a world that is aiming for human flourishing far more than usual. What I’ve been investigating in my research is now more relevant than ever, and so, in my small way, I hope to add to this aim for flourishing.
Laszlo, C., Brown, (2014). Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business. Stanford University Press. Blogging as Reflective (& Artful) Practice: A Viral Challenge to Myself
'sWhile Six Dimensions of Wellness (National Wellness Institute) was derived around health and well-being overall, I immediately wanted to apply it to a museum setting when I first came across this model. Since I like to “mess around” with new ideas, I thought I’d use this model specifically in the museum context in one little case study. In this small adventure, this blog will detail the use the dimensions in one particular visit (to a new exhibition at the MSU's Eli and Edythe Broad Museum).
As in many fields developed since the Enlightenment, museums (and the study of them) has been heavily focused on the intellectual aspect of museum-being. Our field, along with many others, has enjoyed a period of intense questioning of assumptions and practices. Perhaps to counter this, the latest movement in museums has been very socially-focused, manifesting (at least in the States) as an intense concentration on the users in a “visitor-centered” approach—an intentional pointing away from an object-centered view. While both of these foci are valid and valuable, they suffer from an either/or viewpoint rather than a both/and mindset, positioning museums as being either about people OR about objects, rather than the relationship between them. Even from the visitor-centered perspective, which has generally been more holistic than the rigid instantiations of object-centered approaches, the view has still been somewhat limited (although there are many who are trying for a fuller approach). From the health industry comes the Whole Person Approach, which takes into consideration just what it sounds like—the WHOLE person, who is at once intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, social. This view acknowledges that every person is all of these things, all at once. This is messy. And that is probably why, over the years, we have separated out parts and pieces of people rather than study them in all their glorious messiness. But as a result of shining the light of inquiry on one aspect, we immediately cast the others into shadow. The current debate over the new ICOM museum definition may be a symptom of this swinging pendulum.
I will use myself and a recent museum experience as an example. I chose this visit somewhat randomly, as it was the most recent one I have had and thought it best to choose an arbitrary visit rather than one I felt did the work I wanted to show. Here goes.
Case Application: In September, I attended the opening of new exhibit at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. The exhibit was a presentation of the work of Icelandic artist, Katrín Sigurðardóttir. You can take a look here for the overall details of the exhibit. But, for the present purpose of applying the Dimensions, I will focus on one of the galleries, Metamorphic—or, what I personally dubbed “the living room.” This installation consisted of plaster cast furniture from the artist’s childhood, sparsely distributed in a very large, airy gallery, over a floor-based design of craft paper. Each piece had clearly been damaged and repaired. It is described as “immersive,” and the visitor can wander amongst it all without barriers.
Figure 1. Looking through the Broad’s windows, from the exhibit, Metamorphic. Author’s photo.
My first experience of this exhibit was physical. The furniture was very sparsely distributed across a very large space, and this space, the Broad at MSU, was exceptionally interesting (the Broad is known for its complete lack of right angles). I took large strides across the room to go to the incredibly alluring window in the corner where I spent a moment looking at the clouds and the light setting over the evening (see Fig.1), taking in the beautiful convergence of building, sky, and light (spiritual). My immediate reaction (emotional) was annoyance—I was thinking, here is another strange installation in a contemporary art museum that I have no clue how to understand (hold on, it gets better). I am a museum studies professor (occupational, intellectual) and I tend to view exhibits from a pedagogical perspective more than as a “typical” visitor. Sometimes, I get impatient with certain kinds of installations (intellectual, emotional), but I decided to give it a chance and put more attention on it by carefully reading the beautifully done handout booklet provided on the wall (intellectual). Reading this helped me to understand what I was seeing and why (by the way, I am not typically a label-reader). The plaster furniture casts’ condition (broken and mended) was actually a part of the process of the installation (physical). It turns out that the artist purposefully ships the pieces unprotected to each new exhibit site. When the pieces arrive (in pieces), each time they break differently and she repairs them for that particular site (Fig.2). At that moment, my intellectual and occupational dimensions kicked into full gear. Much of my museum practice career was in collections management—caring for collections—and so the idea of turning the care ethic on its head completely intrigued me. I was totally fascinated and in love with this particular intention of the artist, that she purposefully used the typical “care” stage to wreck the pieces. It also piqued my interest (emotional) in questioning assumptions (one of my favorite things to do; occupational), and it made me stop and consider, “What is care”? “Who decides”? Later in the evening, I found myself explaining this very cool notion of the artist’s work to two different people (social) and I haven’t stopped thinking of it since. I am now writing about it, reflecting on it (intellectual).
Figure 2. Chair from Katrín Sigurðardóttir’s Metamorphic installation at the Broad. Author’s Photo.
Now let’s do a simple mini-analysis of my story description. The Whole Person experience was indeed, Whole. All of the aspects of the model occurred in that one visit to one gallery.
I would say this spread, in simple numbers, accurately describes the content of my experience. It was more intellectual and occupational than anything else, but did certainly involve the emotional and physical. It was least of all spiritual and social. However, I did have trouble trying to place or categorize wonder, curiosity, and exploration, which made up a lot of my experience after reading the brochure. Were those thoughts intellectual or emotional? It did feel like perhaps a dimension was missing from the model, but of course, it was developed for overall health and well-being, and might not tackle the unique elements of a museum visit. But, I thought the exercise was interesting and made my point at the outset of this blog: a museum visit is not solely about people. A museum visit is not solely about objects. There is a messy complexity to the situation that reveals itself when we attempt to home in on and consider even one aspect (person). In this exercise, that complexity shows.
[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog May 2019]
In a recent conversation with a museum friend, I was reminded of something that’s been troubling me for a very long time during my career. After many years in the field—with a lot more hindsight—I can see a worrisome pattern behind the scenes of many museums. I want to preface this with the fact that I am aware that what I am about to write is probably not a museum-specific issue, but I know museums, and so I focus here on museums. Here it is: Despite the fact that the people who end up working in museums anecdotally do so because of their deep passion and love for objects, visitors, and interpretive processes, many museum professionals are miserable. Behind the scenes, stress levels are so high and the joy of what got them there in the first place is lost because of the angst they feel. I am not presenting a study here, just an observation from many years of working in museums and now many years of working on museums (and with museum professionals).
What can be done? How can we help make museum work more delightful? How can the initial passion a person feels when entering the field, be sustained long after working in the field? Answering these questions will be a big task. First, we need to figure out the reason(s) for such a strong trend. Well, actually, we really need systematic data and analysis to define the trend overall. I have some ideas about the possible reasons, but they are only anecdotal for now. One is the issue of treating a museum like a business and whether or not this is the right tactic for a cultural organization. The other is putting non-museum-trained people at the helm; should a person have museum training and experience or not? These have been perennial debates in museum circles for many years (at least U.S.). Another possibility, that goes without saying is probably the salary issue (museum salaries are notoriously low) but my colleagues (Michelle Epps and Emerging Museum Professionals) have recently done a thorough study on that and I point you to them on that topic.
In my quest to develop a Positive Museology, I am hoping, to help alleviate in some small way, this pressure. But it will take time to build this framework and dissemination much longer. Until then, I recommend a great Self-Care book by my friend and colleague Seema Rao, Objective Lessons: Self-Care for Museum Workers. If you are a museum professional that finds yourself particularly unhappy about your present job, this book might be a big help. It’s really a workbook, meant to guide museum workers to find their own personal meaning in life and in work. It is designed to follow in order (so no more decisions to make), starting with a focus on you, yourself, and only then shifting the focus to you and your work. It is a highly unusual book, filled with spaces and openings, but also exercises and guidance. It is your book, one that you write, draw, and reflect in. And it uses museum ideas and terminology to take you through this process; it is certainly reflective, could even be cathartic, and possibly even fun!
But if this book does not suit you, I might point you to something that I has been helpful to me of late, the Yamas and Niyamas (in particular, see Adele's great book about them). No, this is not a folk band from the 1960s; it is a set of guidelines from ancient Yoga theory (FYI Yoga is a method and theory, not just a set of moves in a yoga studio) that has offered guidance to people across the earth for thousands of years. Derived from the Yoga sutras in the Upanishads, the first two limbs of the 8-fold path, the Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) are a way to help a person sort out what is meaningful in their life. Adele calls them "jewels" because they are "rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a well-lived and joyful life," (15). Here they are, as defined by Adele:
Nonviolence--kindness and compassion for self and others
Truthfulness--expressing uniqueness and authenticity
Nonstealing--cultivating new skills and abilities
Nonexcess--appreciation and pleasure without excess
Nonposessiveness--intimacy without possession
Purity--cleansing our bodies, speech, thoughts (brings clarity)
Contentment--falling in love with your own life (brings joy)
Self-discipline--consciously choosing discipline and growth (brings refinement)
Self-study--knowing the self (brings freedom)
Surrender--paying attention to what life is asking of us (brings harmony)
The guidelines are meant to be understood and practiced together but my interest here is in self-care of museum professionals and this leans more heavily on the Niyamas end of things. Here, the idea is to "plant" these five "seeds" and nurture them. Applying them is about living skillfully, with the curiosity and spirit of adventure. Ultimately the goal is to strive toward the perfection of these and by doing so bringing to yourself clarity, joy, refinement, freedom, and harmony. Sounds good, eh? But it takes practice—that means persistent work and in fact, never-ending striving. No one ever said that life was easy; living skillfully takes skill and skill take practice.
Perhaps if nothing else, this is the lesson of this blog post—that nothing comes without practice. Even happiness. But, remember that it is important to take care of yourself first because only then can you care effectively for others (remember what they say about the oxygen mask on the airplane?)?
Adele, D. (2009). The yamas & niyamas: Exploring yoga's ethical practice. Duluth, MN: On-Word Bound Books.
Rao, S. (2017). Objective lessons: Self-care for museum workers. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
I promised that I would continue to explore this thing I’m calling Positive Museology, so this blog post is about a concept—well, more of a theory—from Positive Psychology. The Five Pillars of Well-being, dubbed PERMA, stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. A bit more detail:
This theory comes from many years of work by Martin Seligman and his colleagues (see https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/perma-model/ for details). According to Seligman (in his book, Flourish) the subject of positive psychology is well-being and PERMA are the five measurable elements that promote happiness within each of us; they are “the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake… because these elements are intrinsically motivating by themselves.” No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it. The goal of this well-being theory is to increase human flourishing by increasing PERMA.
So, what does it have to do with museums? I think it is broadly applicable in two ways: to museum work and to museum experiences. Museum work refers to that whole inner sanctum of the museum industry—the work, people, practices, activities, policies, etc.—the things that power the museum (I refer to this as the inner museum). Museum experience refers more to the visitors, their encounters and engagements with museal things and all the associations with those (let's call this the outer museum, although it is only a part of it in actuality). First, consider PERMA for the inner museum. Many museum workers are unhappy—underpaid, overworked, and politics abound. Reports such as this one from the author of Joyful Museums (van Damme, 2015) and books such as Seema Rao's Objective Lessons indicate that something is awry. What if museum administrations were to take a flourishing approach to their own internal culture by using PERMA? How might this affect not only the well-being of the workers, but the museum institution itself? I have not seen anything like PERMA discussed in our various museum communities; if any readers are aware of a museum using PERMA, I would love to hear more! But there are certainly many other kinds of institutions using it, and we would benefit from learning about their processes and approaches. Take a look at this blog post from the University of Calgary for an example.
For the outer museum, how could we apply PERMA? This might actually be a bit easier to tackle than trying to infiltrate the inner workings of the museum cold turkey, possibly making it a better place to start. Here's a simple example. At the beginning of the next exhibit planning (if it makes sense for the specific topic), consider PERMA along with the big idea, learning outcomes, and measures etc. What aspects of the exhibit might elicit positive emotions? How might we induce engagement? How can we forge positive relationships or help to cultivate them amongst visitors? What meaning-making would we like to see our visitors make (or how can we set up open-ended encounters to allow for such meaning-making)? And how might visitors leave our museum with a sense of accomplishment? Several museum frameworks allude to many of these elements (eg. Perry’s What Makes Learning Fun?), but none use them outright.
Take a look at PERMA and let me know if your institution intentionally uses these or if you have ideas about how to apply them. I see great value in the potential for museum flourishing.
Perry, D. L. (2012). What makes learning fun?: Principles for the design of intrinsically motivating museum exhibits. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Rao, S. (2018). Objective Lessons: Self-Care for Museum Workers (1st ed.). Middletown, DE: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Van Damme, M. (2015) Joyful museums: Together we can make work better. Retrieved from http://www.joyfulmuseums.com/resources/joyful-museums-together-we-can-make-work-better/, originally published in Fall 2015 New England Museums Now.
 Although I just got my hands on Randi Korn’s new book, Intentional Practice for Museums (2018) and I hope to dig into it soon.
[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog January 15, 2019.]
Since time immemorial, the trio of mind/body/spirit have been a subject of discussion in human thought. The term is often used to describe three intertwined components of human existence that, when balanced, signify well-being and health. Typically, it is used as a holistic approach to human being. In museumland, we do mind and body well, but not so much spirit. Why is that? If this persistent trio seems to describe human experience, why would museums ignore one of the major elements of the whole being? In mind, we have the intellect, the learning, the knowing, the interpretation. There is no argument that this is a major component of the museum experience for the visitor. And lately, we've done well on body, acknowledging the importance of touch, smell, sound as well as our more prevalent focus on sight. But when we begin to enter the realm of spirit, things get fuzzy. Despite the fact that a.) most people are spiritual in some way (not necessarily religious) and b.) many exhibits and objects in museums lend themselves to spiritual experience, museums do not regularly consider or include spirit in their programs. Please note that spiritual experiences are not always the same as religious experiences. Anyone can get that feeling of deep connection, transcendence, a powerful feeling, no matter their religious beliefs. THAT is spirit. I will never forget my own experiences with such powerful moments in museums. For example, my encounter with the Pitt Rivers Museum—I’ve talked about it in detail in another blog post (see The Slow Museum Movement) so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it was an overwhelming sense of “being in a holy space” for me. The experience was awe-inspiring, powerful, deeply felt, and wholly focused. It allowed me to escape all other things in my life and come to the single moment of this emotional encounter. There were no real words to describe it but as I sit here thinking about it, I can easily recall the feelings and surroundings. In the experience, in other words, I couldn’t identify any separate units called mind or body or spirit; they were all integrated into one. I have heard others’ stories like this as well, such as participants in my research on numinous experiences (Latham, 2013) and Michael Spock’s Philadelphia Stories (Spock et al., 2000) and this amazing video (Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, 2009) made about Philadelphia museums (I cry every time I watch it).
In 2002, in a brilliant article called, Taking a wider view of museum outcomes and experiences: theory, research and magic, Lois Silverman asked, “Where is the magic in museums? Where is the Soul?” (p. 7). She was referring to those moments of enchantment, insight, transformation, and deep significance. Expressing frustration that, in museums, we are losing our “divine side of life, of the power of imagination, myth, dream and vision…” (Gablik in Silverman, 2002, p. 23).
I believe that museums have the capacity to elicit these deep feelings, the "magic" that Silverman spoke of. In fact, I think we need to raise the magic (i.e. the spirit) in museums to fit comfortably alongside mind and body.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, however, why do we speak of these three things separately in the first place? That leads us down a complicated epistemological history that I can’t to get into here. Instead, let's look at another culture and how they might see the three terms to make my point. In Japanese, there is a word that connects the three—kokoro (Livni, 2017). It is a difficult word to define in English where we link the three separate words, automatically implying a division that simply doesn’t exist in Japanese. But in Japanese culture, the three aren’t intrinsically connected as one—they are one. The effects of such a conception are enormous. The term is understood as integral and applied to all aspects of life (see examples in this blog), not as separately defined categories.
The fact is, however, we are English-speakers and we do and have used separate words for mind, body, and spirit for a very long time. This is hard to undo. Even so, in museums we can intentionally choose to look at all three when we consider our work—from programs to labels to collecting object descriptions and more—and not privilege one over the other. We can ask ourselves what the whole human being brings to this encounter, not just what this intellectual human being brings to this encounter.
Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. (2009, April 23). Spark. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/OgrH6NwhrFk
Latham, K. F. (2013). Numinous experiences with museum objects. Visitor Studies, 16(1), 3–20.
Livni, E. (2017, April 6). This Japanese word connecting mind, body, and spirit is also driving scientific discovery. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/946438/kokoro-a-japanese-word-connecting-mind-body-and-spirit-is-also-driving-scientific-discovery/
Silverman, L. H. (2002). Taking a wider view of museum outcomes and experiences: theory, research and magic. Journal of Education in Museums, 23, 3–8.
Spock, M., Paterson, J., McManus, A. E., Bedford, L., American Association of Museums, & Philadelphia Museum of Art. (2000). Philadelphia stories: A collection of pivotal museum memories. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.
[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog November 15, 2018.]
In trying to sort out what a Positive Museology might look like (see Blog from August 15, 2018), I am going to play around with different sets of concepts and frameworks out there in other fields and philosophies. The first one is from Positive Psychology, specifically the classification of Character Strengths and Virtues. If you are interested in this, you can find it here. Let’s go over these, and as we do, let’s think of them as a way to study or understand museums.
The Classification itself is a handbook developed from many years of work by multiple positive psychology researchers whose intention was to “create a systematic classification and measurements of widely valued positive traits” (Positive Psychology Program, 2016) by providing a theoretical framework to help practitioners in the field. Here are the six classes of virtues and under these are 24 character strengths.
When I first read about this classification, I noticed that it rang true for me, but the ringing wasn’t just personal or psychological. It was ringing bells in my museological thinking. Look these over and you’ll start to notice that all of the Virtues are areas that we talk about in museum work and theory, whether it is about the purpose of the museum or the content of a program of some sort.
The first Virtue: one cannot argue that museums are about some sort of knowledge, and in some cases, wisdom. In this Virtue category, we find creativity (yes), curiosity (of course!), judgement, love of learning and perspective. We’ll need to dig further into those in another blog. For now, let’s move on to the other virtues.
Courage might seem like an odd one to include in museological thinking but, in this case, let’s focus on the character of the museum itself: bravery, persistence, honesty, zest. Why shouldn’t a museum have these strengths? Why not aim for it? Bravery could refer to doing what is right versus “being safe” (we’ve seen lots of examples of those in the past). And certainly, I would hope all museums aim for honesty.
The third Virtue is Humanity, another one that seems obvious for museums as this is a large part of what museums aim to represent. This Virtue is made up of three simple, but powerful strengths: love, kindness, and social intelligence. Imagine the world that could be if our museums aimed for love and kindness. Even in the midst of telling difficult stories, if there is an intention of love and kindness always threading its way through, how might this affect museum visitors?
The fourth Virtue is my personal favorite, Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, hope, humor, gratitude, and spirituality. For me, this is the area in which I would class my research (another reason I like this framework is to help guide research on museums). If you gave me this Virtue alone for a museum, I would be satisfied. Many museums are about the appreciation of beauty; not necessarily beauty itself but the appreciation of it (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the ability to see it is an amazing gift). I firmly believe that we need more humor in most things, and especially in museums. This could manifest in the outer museum (exhibits, programs, front line, visitor services) but also in the inner museum, with staff who should enjoy their work, have fun doing it, and play around with ideas and each other. Spirituality in museums is something I have a bit of experience with and am working on fervently in my recent research. I take this word “spiritual” to not be religious but to mean, as Matthieu Ricard says, “something to do with the mind, dealing precisely with the mind and the way you experience the world” (On being podcast, date). Why have we veered away from the museum as a sacred space?
The Virtue Justice seems to be to be a hot one these days in museums so I doubt anyone would argue against its relevance to museum work. Just look at the strengths that make this up—teamwork, fairness and leadership—all things we have been doing in museums for a long time.
The final Virtue, Moderation, which includes forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-control may seem more difficult to fit. But I am willing to work on this, in the interest of doing an exercise, one that works our way towards a Positive Museology. You’ll see more of these brief meditations on positive and contemplative models from me in future blogs.
Positive Psychology Program. (2016, August 30). What is the classification of character strengths and virtues. Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/classification-character-strengths-virtues/
[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog September 15, 2018.]
The Slow Museum Movement. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Images of peaceful and serene spaces and calm experiences abound at the mention of it. I'm not sure this movement actually exists in museums as a whole yet, but there is certainly a trend in art museums (see for example, the Slow Art Day project). Dubbed the Slow Art Movement which follows other Slow trends such as slow food, slow space, slow exercise, slow professor (Berg & Seeber, 2017), and more, the idea is to focus on experience and observation and to enjoy the moment rather than racing on to do and see everything (Honoré, 2004),.
When I was growing up, I used to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts regularly. It became a comfortable place to go, a familiar place. And it was quiet and peaceful. I looked forward to my regular, quiet and personally meaningful visits. Ironically, it is that very peace that has somehow been taken for elitism in art museums (see a recent Washington Post article on this, Kennicot, 2018). For nearly two decades now, museums have become more and more frenetic, with blockbusters and masses of people coming to check a particular famous artwork off their list or to get a selfie with a well-known iconic object. In other words, museums have succumbed to the “mall” syndrome so famously described by Gopnik (2007) nearly 10 years ago.
I miss the peaceful museum. I am saddened that these potentially contemplative and transformative spaces are becoming a circus—loud, busy, and impersonal. Case in point, I finally saw the Mona Lisa this summer. I know, it's crazy that a museum scholar (who works overseas a lot) has not yet witnessed this work of art. I've even facilitated an exhibition around her (see MLX4). But the first time I went to the Louvre, many many years ago, the gallery to the Mona Lisa was closed, so I was not able to see it. This year while I was in Paris, I put it on my "checklist," but interestingly enough, I was not excited to see it. I knew well about the crowds, about the impossibility of actually getting anywhere near the painting. But I wanted to experience it, crowds and all. And I had another goal. To turn around and look at what the Mona Lisa was looking at. Latour and Lowe (2010) wrote a fabulous article (you should read it!) about Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” and the relationship between originals and copies. In it, they focused on Veronese’s La Nozze di Cana, a HUGE painting taken from a Venetian monastery and installed in the Louvre. Recently, a full-scale digital replica was made and installed in the painting’s original location in Venice. It is the original painting—that was removed from its home many years ago—that the Mona Lisa looks at day after day. And it is this painting, that few pay attention to when they visit the far more famous painting across the room.
My adventure began by trying to find the Mona Lisa in the massive labyrinths of the Louvre (not very good wayfinding there, phew!). When I finally stepped into the stream that was clearly the "way to La Jaconde," I smiled the whole way. The increase in crowds made me laugh out loud; it was so extreme that it was funny. And of course, I got there, and couldn't get anywhere near her. The crowd was thick, the glow of the phones bright. But that didn't matter to me. I took pictures of people taking pictures of her. I wondered, was anyone actually looking at her? Could anyone be having a calming, transformative experience with her? I don’t think so. Maybe the awakened Buddhist monk could have focused on her, but it was a madhouse and for me, there was no way to have a peaceful experience. I purposefully spent time facing the Mona Lisa, before I turned around, giving my full attention to La Nozze di Cana. It took my breath away. The space in front of it was nearly empty. I imagined the tale of the copy told by Latour and Lowe and tried to visualize that giant painting in its original home in Venice, with its tall ceilings and natural light (as opposed to the hideous drop ceilings and canned lighting in the Louvre gallery). I tuned out the crowds and imagined standing in the monastery, feeling the grandness of this huge painting. Even though the crowd was still on the other side, it felt quieter when I was looking at La Nozze. Overall, it was a much nicer experience than the one with the Mona Lisa. [I even sent the MuseLab a postcard from the Louvre with this painting as a focus.]
I tell this story as a reminder that looking, observing, and just sitting are ok things to do, especially in museums. We have become so accustomed to busy-ness that we seem to forget that we need quiet-ness as well. Thankfully, some museums understand this need. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, for example, offers a series of workshops, focused on slowing down—using the senses, silence, poetry, and looking at one single object. And, for many years, museum educator, Annie Storr has been developing her technique for attentive looking in (mostly) art museums, called Exercises for the Quiet Eye where slow looking is often paramount. Art museums are on to something and all kinds of museums would benefit from trying out some slow practices and offerings. Outside of art museums, the examples are thinner but still quite good. For example, the Manchester Museum in the UK, a university natural and cultural history museum, has been offering quiet morning hours for several years now. Initially developed for families with autistic children, the have now launched the Museum of Calm for visitors for find the noisy and busy conditions in the Museum not conducive to engagement.
There is value to slowing down, and the museum can be a particularly good site for such activity. In fact, the issue gives us pause, an opportunity to consider what we expect from a museum experience. Think of a time when you visited a museum that left you feeling rejuvenated, calm, peaceful, and gratified. What was that visit like? Who were you with? What was happening around you? What facilitated your positive experience?
Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2017). Slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.
Gopnik, A. (December 01, 2007). The Mindful Museum. Museum News, 36.
Honoré, C. (2005). In praise of slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. London: Orion.
Latour, B., & Lowe, A. (2010). The migration of the aura, or how to explore the original through its facsimiles. In T. Bartscherer (Ed.), Switching Codes (pp. 275–297). University Of Chicago Press.
Smith, J. S., & Zimmermann, C. (2017). The sanctuary series: Co-creating transformative museum experiences. Journal of Museum Education, 42(4), 362–368. https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2017.1371520