“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.
Pondering curiosity, wonder, meaning, and the foundations of museology.