The Purpose of Museums= Love
“I go to a museum and see a painting someone living in the past has made, and I’m completely blown away. The nature of human beings has not changed. Everyone wants to avoid suffering and look for love.” – Dana Levin
I've come to believe that the purpose of museums is love. Yes, that’s right, love. It has taken me awhile to post this because, deep down, I was afraid to say it out loud. In a moment, you'll see the irony of this. Before we dive in, let’s talk a second about museums and their purpose. And then we can talk about love.
Round and round we go, year after year, decade after decade, the field (and others) ask, what is the purpose of the museum? Of course, this changes over time and with societal trends. For a long while—at least in our current lifetimes—the purpose has been associated with learning, about measurable, provable outcomes. I myself was never enamored with the “museums are about learning” refrain. To me, museums have been about meaning-making, a much broader category than learning (although learning is one kind of meaning-making). But now, I’m zooming out even further. I think even meaning-making is a part of something larger and more lofty: love.
Love and Fear
Recently, I’ve been immersed in research from the positive disciplines, and they too see love as an overarching emotion. But it was in my personal explorations, of yoga theory and practice, where I really began to understand the purpose of museums, in a book by Jennie Lee (2018a) called Breathing Love. In it, Lee says something so profound: there is only love and fear, nothing else. In all we do, we are thinking, doing, behaving in one or the other.
Could it be so simple, I thought? I am not a big believer in dualisms and prefer yes-and in everything I do, so I began to test this little (or not so little) notion. In daily interactions and thoughts, I started asking myself, “Is that love? Or is that fear?”
From this examination, I realized how much of what is out there in the world is based in fear. The content of the news, politics (big and small), emerging practices in my institution, the creation of policies of all kinds and at all levels. Similarly, many of the inner thoughts we have about ourselves and others also come from fear. Negative self-talk, silent judging of others, worry, anger, and more. In fact, this may have a biological association, as the amygdala (in the brain) is there to set you into fight or flight mode—that is its job—forcing you to see the worst in things. It works with even the smallest things like inner thoughts about others, judgement, right up to outwardly manifested actions and behaviors such as negative news headlines.
In my experiment, I began to try to reframe, to start to ask about how to make it come—whatever it may be—from love. The more I did this, the more I realized how right Jennie Lee was.
Now, I should note here that others have pointed this love and fear binary out to me many times, but I wasn’t ready to hear it until I read Lee’s book. Once I keyed in on it, I began to see it everywhere. Pleasantly surprised, it has come up in my teaching, my texts for class, care practices in my college, and even in my research.
What is Love?
How does this translate to the purpose of museums? Hold tight, almost there. Let’s first talk a bit about what love is. Love is a feeling, an action, a way of seeing, treatment, perspective, lens, an organizational strategy, a “language.” We know there are many kinds of love, from romantic love to the coveting of possessions, from loving ourselves to loving others. The ancient Greeks had definitions for many kinds of love such as agape (good will for one another, charity), eros (intimate, sexual love), philia (affectionate regard, friendship), storge (between parents and children), philautia (self love), and xenia (hospitality). Ultimately, love is about positive emotions—gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, amusement, pride, inspiration, awe, and joy— actually altering the inner chemistry of our bodies (Frederickson 2009) raising levels of oxytocin and progesterone—biological responses linked with trust, lifelong bonds, and intimacy. In fact, our evolutionary origins of love helped keep our ancestors alive. Feeling cared about sends soothing, calming oxytocin into your brain’s alarm system (the amygdala) and increases cortisol receptors in your hippocampus signaling your hypothalamus more rapidly to quit sending the stress hormones. Even more, social contact such as play and loving touch release opioids in your brain (Hanson 2013).
But the kind of love I am talking about is one about which Jennie Lee was speaking, from an interview with her about her book (Lee, 2018b):
Love is the meaning, the purpose, the beginning, and the end of life. It is the harmonizing, unifying energy of the Universe from which we all sprang and to which we all return…Love gives meaning to every breath and the breath is my constant reminder to offer and to receive love every day in every way I can, with each person I encounter, whether we ‘like’ each other humanly or not…Striving to source every choice, every communication and every action from love, keeps me anchored in the greatest meaning I can imagine for life, and it keeps me connected to pure joy. Love is joyful and so if we bring it full circle, I would conclude that the meaning of life is love and the joy that springs from it.
Love as the purpose. It is the grand, overarching theme of a life well-lived. To be loved, to give love, and to live in love. That is the ultimate practice. There are plenty of sources from science on love as a central organizing emotion as well. Folks like Barbara Frederickson (psychology), Gina Hayden (leadership studies), and Paulo Friere (teaching), for instance—all support what Lee is saying, but Lee synthesizes it best, at least from my perspective.
Love as The Museum’s Purpose
What does my claim mean for museums? If the overarching purpose of museums is love—that is, our intentions and interactions, choices, and communications are all done with love in mind—our organizations become places that—from staff to visitor—cultivate and nurture kindness, compassion, gratitude, care, wellness, respect, fairness, honesty, and joy. Caring for visitors can come in many forms, from anticipating their needs for rest (seating), clear communication about their visit (signage & wayfinding), to saying the things that need to be said in our exhibits and programs, not being afraid of being human together. And, while it may seem obvious, when love is not a part of the work, the work can become exhausting, leading to burnout, an issue that is common in museum professionals (Van Damme, 2015). Infusing the notion of heartfelt love as an intention in the inner museum could address this trend and perhaps ameliorate it. Caring for our museum employees—all of them—should be part of the overall mission of love in the museum.
As Lee notes, practicing love is not easy. It takes persistence and determination. Whether you are doing it as a personal practice or you are enacting it throughout your organization, it must constantly be intentional. Intentionality takes conscious determination. This means that clarity, transparency, expectation, consistency, and most of all, modeling, must take place always. Room for failure, forgiveness, and ignorance must be made, and in fact, even this is part of love itself. Behind the scenes and out in the open, the practice needs to be continually renewed and implemented. If the practice of love is put into place in museums, and they are transparent about it, their purpose (i.e. love) will be clear.
Stephen Weil once defined the impact of museums as making a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives (Weil 1999). In my introductory museum studies course, we spend a lot of time talking about what museums are for, their purpose, and why they exist. At the time of writing this paper, there is a dramatic debate in the museum field’s global organization, International Council of Museums, about how to define “museum.” Imagine for a moment that the answer was simply, Museums are about love and care, to support human and natural flourishing over time and space. Imagine a future with this definition in place. How might it affect your museum?
Frederickson, B. (2009) Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ration That Will Change Your Life. Westminster: Potter/Ten Speed/ Harmony/Rodale.
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness. New York: Harmony.
Lee, J. (2018a). Breathing love: Meditation in action. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Worldwide
Lee, J. (2018b) Interview with Jennie Lee, https://excellencereporter.com/2018/03/15/jennie-lee-love-gives-meaning-to-every-breath-of-life/
Van Damme, M. (2015) Joyful museums: Together we can make work better (article). "http://www.joyfulmuseums.com/resources/joyful-museums-together-we-can-make-work-better/" originally published Fall 2015 http://www.nemanet.org/resources/publications/new-england-museums-now/" \t "_blank New England Museums Now.
Weil, S. E. (1999). “From Being About Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum.” Daedalus 128(3): 229-258.
I’ve been doing yoga, mostly hatha (body focused) yoga (or what I thought was hatha yoga) off and on for some 30 years, for the last 8 years, breathing practices, and in the past 3 years, I have taken it to the next level, adding mediation. When I finally got to this point, I found I wanted to know more about the yoga theory behind these practices and so I began a more intense exploration of the foundations of it. Most of this work has been on myself, a personal endeavor. But I have felt for many years that there is a connection to be made with museum work and theory. Please note that I am far from an expert on yoga philosophy, only an inspired student of it and I am still trying to sort out so many parts of it and how they all fit together. If I get something wrong, I am happy to have it noted.
I have started writing a blog post trying to link yoga to museums many times, but never knew where to start. Perhaps I was ahead of myself and simply needed to learn more. But recently, I read a fantastic article that beautifully explains how the Yoga Sutras might help with the librarian-patron interaction, The Yoga Sutra. Of librarianship: Towards and understanding of holistic advocacy, by Block and Proctor (2020). Yes, library, but if you’ve read any of my work, you’ll know that I think there is a strong alignment to be made between museums and libraries and the education of those who work in them. So, I often find inspiration in library research. And indeed this article inspired me. There’s another tidbit in this article that speaks to me: a holistic, integrated approach (another two topics I’ve written a lot about). Rather than waiting until I “know enough,” I am inspired to just share some thoughts. In this post, I will focus on one aspect from yoga theory, the Yoga Sutras, and two specific sets of guides from them, the yamas and niyamas, making the link from these to museums. There is so much more to say, but for now, this will be a good start.
What are the Yoga Sutras?
Yoga is a philosophy and spiritual science. Despite popular understanding, it is not solely about poses or even the body. It gives guidance on how to live in the world but not of it, providing a spiritual technology for living (Lee, 2018). As Iyengar (2012) states, “yoga is neither faith nor superstition; it is a subject with a well-defined philosophy, grammar and goal, and epitomizes India’s spirituality,” (xxi). It is a system—a practical method—that unites the body, mind, and soul, and with a larger unity, which might be referred to as “God,” making one’s life more purposeful (Iyengar, 1993, ix; my emphasis). The (possible) first appearance of the word ‘yoga’ was in the Taittīrya Upanishad, dating from the sixth century BCE (2600 years ago) (Iyengar, 2012, xxi). Indeed, it is an ancient and wise system, and has withstood the test of time.
Yoga philosophy is very complicated, built over many years, it has grown and branched and influenced other systems, hence the long explanation here. Buddhism, which seems to be most well-known in western cultures, is derived from the ancient oral texts of yoga philosophy. But, there is no simple way to “define” the yoga system and its origins. What it has become today, at least in western world, is yet another branch on the long path yoga has taken.
There are several sources of this system such as the Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita. From these, come the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, a classic Indian text, written at least 1700 years ago based on Samkhya theory (Milcetich, n.d.). The Sutras consist of a 196 succinct bits of knowledge that guide one in the art, science, and philosophy of life (Iyengar, 1993). Divided into four chapters, or books—on contemplation, on practice, on properties and powers, and on emancipation and freedom—many interpretations exist, emphasizing some parts over others, for thousands of years (Iyengar, 1993). The Sutras are aphorisms providing a way of helping a person to learn from within. The most well-known of these are from book 2, the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas, guidance on how to live one’s life, both inner and outer.
The dont’s and do’s of the Yoga Sutras
In the Yoga Sutras, within the 8-limbed path are the five Yamas (dont’s) and five Niyamas (do’s). They are as follows (including my own words for them, built from many sources over the years):
Non-violence (peace): Kindness and compassion to self and others
Non-lying (truthfulness): Expressing uniqueness and authenticity
Non-stealing (generosity): Cultivate new skills and abilities
Non-excess (balance): Appreciation and pleasure without excess
Non-posessiveness (acceptance): Intimacy without possession
Cleanliness (purity/simplicity): Cleansing our bodies, speech, thoughts, and space.
Contentment: Falling in love with your own life.
Self-discipline (refinement): Consciously choosing discipline and growth
Self-study (introspection, freedom): Knowing the self
Surrender (harmony): Paying attention to what life is asking us
These guides are meant to be a guide for a life well lived. There is so much that can be said about these, but I ask the reader to explore the many sources of material on these available (and if you don’t know where to start, you can use my references here). My intention is to see how these might speak to Museum Being. Let’s take a tippy toe into museumland, and apply them to a museum well-lived. Inspired by the original yamas and niyamas, I tentatively suggest the museum yamas (dont’s) and niyamas (do’s) as guides for all museum work (and being):
Do no harm. Seek peace.
Be truthful. Have integrity.
Be generous. Cultivate curiosity.
Unclutter. Be intentional.
Create joy. Enable contentment.
Consciously choose growth.
Be self-aware. Enable freedom.
Pay attention. Harmonize.
Yoga philosophy has been guiding people successfully for thousands of years. Today, in fact, modern science (in particular neuroscience and quantum physics) is starting to find evidence-based connections to these aphorisms (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). With such evidence for its value, it is worth a consideration in our museum organizations. Museums today are not only going through a reckoning with the pandemic and racial justice but in general, are trying to find their place in today’s society and how they can be relevant into the future. Perhaps guidance from thousands of years of wisdom can inspire them to be in the world in a new way.
Stay tuned. There will be more on this. It’s a rich area to explore, so, more to come.
References and other useful sources:
Adele, D. (2014). The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice. Two Harbors: On-Word Bound Books.
Bawra, B. V., Milcetich, W., Milcetich, M. (2008). Kapil's samkhya Patanjali's yoga: Commentary inspired from lectures of Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra; compiled and edited by William and Margot Milcetich. Ravenna, Ohio: Brahmrishi Yoga Publications.
Block, C. M., & Proctor, C. L. (June 01, 2020). The Yoga Sutra of librarianship: Towards an understanding of holistic advocacy. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 52, 2, 549-561.
Goleman, D. & Davidson, R. (2017). Altered Traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York: Penguin Random House.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2015). Core of the yoga sutras: The definitive guide to the philosophy of yoga. New York: HarperCollins.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (1993). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. London: Aquarian/Thorsons.
Lee, J. (2018). Breathing love: Meditation in action. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Worldwide.
Lee, J. (2016). True yoga: Practicing with the yoga sutras for happiness & spiritual fulfillment. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Worldwide.
Milcetich, M. (n.d.) Yoga and Vedic History.
Milcetich, M. (2014). Brahmrishi Yoga: 200 Teacher Training. Brahmrishi Yoga Publications.
What does it mean for a museum to be? Why does the museum exist and how?
For about a decade now I have been writing about museums from a scholarly perspective (but always also as a former practitioner) and in those years, I co-developed a holistic model that aims to involve all aspects of the museum—from behind the scenes to the public facing view—as a system that exists within other systems (Latham & Simmons, 2014). While the model simplifies the museum to inner and outer (and internal and external) systems, it does so as a way to talk about these different aspects of the museum, a device of sorts. But right about here in the process of talking about museums, I consistently find that I want a way to refer to the it on a broader level, acknowledging its more obvious, practical aspects (such as exhibition, interpretation, and collecting) to its more invisible components (purpose, process, character, status, etc) to its shifting meaning in society. Calling it simply “the museum” does not work because this is the common word for the outer museum (the public-facing aspect, and only one part of the whole). I want to encompass all of museums’ histories as well as its potential futures, and involve each kind of museum, over time and space. When talking about the individual human, we might say personhood or the more ontological, being. In the past year, I have come to think of this expansive, all-encompassing museum as museum being, which involves the fullness of its existence, not just the structure, the collection, the people, the visitors, but also the mission, the purpose, the processes, history, and the character of that museum. My research partner, Tim Gorichanaz and I have written about being as a potential contemplative aim for information institutions like libraries and museums:
We may think of being as a simple question of form and matter, i.e., substance, but such
definitions of being do not capture all that is meant when we speak of being. For instance, the
being of some things manifests as who, while that of others manifests as what; and there is quite a
different quality to I am than there is to it is. For humans, engaging with the question of being is
engaging with one’s existence as a subject, one’s distinction from other people and things, and
one’s presence and history. Put differently, being is a sense of one’s standing on solid ground, a
sense of wholeness and belonging, (Gorichanaz & Latham, 2019: 8).
Engaging with one’s existence as a subject, as distinct from other things, one’s presence and history, sense of belonging…if we consider the concept of museum being, what might we say that hasn’t been said in contemplations surrounding mission, purpose, etc? Can the term take us to a different level of thinking about the museum in the world, both as it sits now, and its trajectory from its beginnings to today? Is there another level to explore, one that is deeper or more lofty, longer-term, and more (dare I say) universal? Interestingly, with human beings, we might think of being as going inward, as interiority, or of being mindful. Some might say that this view of being is selfish, and that thinking of and about oneself leads to lack of consideration of others. In actuality, studies show that “when a person engages in mindfulness and other contemplative practices, they come to better understand their place in the web of life and even come to realize that their sense of a stable, transcendental self may be illusory,” (Gorichanaz & Latham, 2019: 8). Might it work this way for museum being as well? By thinking about museum existence, can this help us to understand better the museum’s place in the world and its nature as a constantly shifting entity? The notion of museums as fluid and evolving, dynamic and everchanging, is, in fact, the very need for this term. About people and mindfulness, Tim and I say:
Inwardness, then, is a path towards increasing attention and care for current issues, such as the
environment, sustainability, etc. ‘How we, in our interiority, experience our selves, other people,
and environments has direct relational and actional consequence to the world’…By seeing the
outer reflected by one’s own interiority, working mindfully with inner materials brings about
greater authenticity, integrity, and wisdom to reflect back onto the world (2019: 8).
While interiority may not exactly be where we go with museum being, the notion does inspire a certain sense of self-awareness and investigation, a way of going deeper. Thinking about the museum from this perspective may permit us to see the bigger picture, one that spans both temporal and geographical elements. Doing this existential work might aid museums in asking bigger questions about themselves, about their integrity, value, authenticity, and as entities that are seen to hold great wisdom and truth. If museums claim to be trustworthy institutions that represent humanity, it might do well to have a more philosophical perspective to explore them.
Gorichanaz, T., and Latham, K.F. (2019). Contemplative aims for information. Information Research, 24(3), paper 836. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/24-3/paper836.html
Latham, K. F., & Simmons, J. E. (2014). Foundations of museum studies: Evolving systems of knowledge. ABC-CLIO Libraries Unlimited.
I have said for years—to my students and to anyone who would listen—that all museum professionals need a philosophy, something that guides them so they are clear about their direction and not wandering willy-nilly into the museum landscape. Today I was re-reading Jay Rounds' (2004) excellent article about curiosity-driven museum visitors, within which he pointed out that most museum visitors spend their time without direction in exhibits, not knowing where to go or how to do a visit, “Many museum visitors … meander about the museum, sampling randomly here and there, ignoring most of the exhibits, choosing in a seemingly haphazard manner those to which they do attend carefully,” (p.390). This statement sparked again my fervent belief that museum professionals too, tend to choose a "seemingly haphazard manner" to their work. Ironically, most (many?) museum professionals are passionate about their work and are in the field because they love what they do (or the idea of it). So why, I wonder, do I encounter so many professionals who don't have a framework for their work, for the meaning of their place in this work, and for how this work fits in the world at large?
In teaching about having a museum philosophy, I admit that my approach has not been explicit. My way of helping students develop their own philosophy is to give them a fuller picture from which they can choose. I do this by providing alternate viewpoints on each topic and letting them respond and react, and this is admittedly not a goal I have articulated outright. I don’t want to spoon-feed them what I think; that would get us nowhere fast, so I give them options, perhaps for them unwittingly so. It seems that if I were to say to a new student, "hey you, develop a philosophy" that would be equally not so productive, for it takes time to develop what you think about such things, through learning and experience. Even so, to produce productive, thoughtful, and intentional future professionals, I think they need to have a philosophy going in, even if it is just a beginning or even an intention to strive for a philosophy.
So, what do I mean by a personal museum philosophy? By this I mean a clear set of descriptions and/or principles by which we do our work, make our decisions, and affect our field. What do we feel are the core features of museums, what are museums for, and what should happen in them? What is my personal museum philosophy? I knew you were going to ask that. Ironically, I have never articulated it in written form. Instead I've let it come through my teaching and research. But I'm going to take an initial stab at it here. One thing about a personal museum philosophy to note—it is dynamic. As you grow, it changes, as it should. As you learn and gain experience, you should regularly re-visit your philosophy around it. Here’s a first pass for my personal museum philosophy:
* the core of the museum is the person-document transaction, the encounter between a person and the objects that represent some thing in the world (over time & space)
* understanding the museum, its role in society and with individuals, its functioning and purpose, requires a holistic approach
* museums should be transparent, communicative, and trustworthy
* museums are about meaning-making, of which learning is a part, but museums are not only "educational" entities
* museums are there to spark curiosity, cause wonder, inspire learning, and transport you to another world
* the museum is a dance between the workers, the visitors, and the content (including people of the past)—it is a partnership between all these entities
* the museum is complex site of multi-directional (i.e. nonlinear) communication
* museums should experiment, play, and consider open-endedness in their programming in order to help their organization (and the field) grow and learn
* museums ultimately should be about helping people to flourish
It takes work to articulate this, even from someone who is aware of it (eg. me). With each of these bullets I could write an entire paragraph that gets deeper into the weeds. But for now, I will use this draft to tweak, amend, build and sharpen my philosophy. Won’t you join me? What’s your personal museum philosophy?
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.
Self-care for museum professionals
[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.
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.