'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.