Last summer, I was drawn into an interesting conversation around a session for the 2017 American Association of Museum’s annual meeting. The session, initiated by Richard Rabinowitz, sought to “…critique the notion of attentiveness that has been an unspoken criterion for museum exhibits and programs…[to} explore whether the techniques developed by interpretive designers in the past generation— narrative, dialogue, interaction, simulation, role-playing, and other modes of experiential learning—can successfully meet the challenge of new cognitive styles brought by new and more diverse audiences…[and to] weigh in on whether museums need to and can develop new techniques, perhaps employing social media and multiple learning paths, and thereby redefine what we mean by an attentive audience.” In short, the question could be distilled this way: Is there an ubiquitous attention deficit disorder in the digital information age which has profoundly changed the way museum-goers learn? And, if so, does this demand a change in museum practice?
In the discussion, fellow panelist Alice Parman drew our attention to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead who theorized (way back in 1929) that all learning progresses through three stages, the first being romance in which the learner’s interest is aroused by some life experience igniting a curiosity and passion for further and deeper learning. Alice’s contention is that museums are particularly well adapted for inspiring this romantic stage of learning. I completely agree, and what follows are the remarks I delivered at the session elaborating on Alice’s timely reminder.
There is always a tension between what people find intriguing (or distracting) in the present and a more universal set of human wants and needs. In the moment, it can be hard to pull them apart. We can talk about what we perceive as new, but let’s also remember what is old. Museums have always been about seduction and we have to admit that our success as museum-makers in this regard has always been limited.
Think about a date with a cold, emotionally distant and didactic boor who only wants to talk about himself. Is that the guy you want a relationship with? Sure, some people wind up marrying that guy because they see the good in him, like how Elizabeth managed to warm up to Mr. Darcy. But that courtship took a long, long time to develop, a luxury most museums can’t afford.
There have always been a large number of prospective lovers who have resisted the amorous advances of museums. I do believe we need to go to charm school as a part of our practice. We need to be lovable or risk being loveless. Otherwise, who will care for us when we are old?
All great romances are built on reciprocity. Museum-goers love museums when museums show love in return. Ultimately, it’s a symbiotic relationship. In this culture and at this time, if we are to fall in love, the primary precondition is that we must be free to choose our lover. By the same standard, all the knowledge and good intentions in the world cannot cause a person to learn in the museum because the superpower of the museum is that the learner is completely free to take it or leave it.
How about we think of museum-going as a playful activity? Like loving someone or loving what you do? Courtship is a series of playful encounters when the process captures your imagination. It involves empathy, a fundamental imaginative process where we seek to understand what it is like to be another, making room for another in the space of your life. Museums might court their patrons as assiduously as people court each other.
Piaget defined play by two critical attributes: voluntary participation and doing it for its own sake: for pleasure. By this definition, it’s a misconception that play is the opposite of seriousness. This duality is rooted in a kind of secular Calvinism, in other words, an utterly unnecessary glorification of suffering. If we take Piaget at his word, a biologist who is motivated by sheer curiosity about the natural world, is playing. The historian who revels in detective work as they try to imagine and recreate the past by piecing together the scraps of evidence, is playing. The artist or writer who is absorbed in introspection and a desire to express what they find, is playing. It is not an accident of language that we “play” music or go to the theater to see “plays.” And this is something very serious.
If play has an antonym, it is not seriousness. The opposite of play is drudgery. In other words: doing shit because you have to, instead of doing it because you want to.
This helps explain why museums undercut their missions when they design approaches that feel obligatory, where museum-goers feel trapped, lectured at, hectored, or even shamed or scolded. Who wants to have dinner with a boor? Even a whiff of coercion is enough to end a romantic encounter. It’s a buzzkill. And the same goes for museums.
It’s useful to unpack pleasure while we’re at it, since pleasure is so often conflated with frivolity. Pleasure isn’t always something naughty or frivolous, nor is it simple. We humans experience pleasure in an awesome variety of ways, many of which can be pretty specific to us as individuals. Pleasure is terribly complicated. Sometimes we are attracted to a romance that is dangerous, unsettling, rationally inexplicable. On reflection, it becomes obvious that pleasure isn’t limited to warm-and-fuzzy sensations. Shakespeare’s most popular plays are tragedies, but 500 years later many of us still pay good money to have our feelings stirred by their moral dilemmas and ambiguities. Pleasure is often tinged with anxiety, wonder, sadness, astonishment, grieving or the realization of a new insight. Isn’t that strange and wonderful?
So let’s unpack the new, the current predicament we find ourselves in.
Are museums just a bunch of losers? Failures at romance? Wallflowers at the dance? Is anyone paying attention? Is the thrill gone? Does everyone have their noses stuck in the tiny screens on the supercomputers they carry around in their pockets to the exclusion of all else? Have attention spans grown too weensy for anyone to truly appreciate what we (museums) have to offer?
It is true that we live in a time of many distractions, but by most measures museums are still busy places. In 2017, just try getting a walk-up ticket at the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the Yayoi Kusama show at the Hirshorn.
As museum-makers, we forget that we serve human beings beyond the narrow confines of the prefrontal cortex. I’d like to pose some rhetorical questions that could help us focus on the things that help museum-goers focus.
Museums are a medium that can encompass every medium known to humankind. Did we think about which media delivery vehicle might optimize the experiences of a diversity of museum-goers? Did we consider a wow? Or two or three? If variety is the spice of life, museums are part of that variety. Here’s a t-shirt analogy: Did we give people a range of things to look at from XL down to XS? Did we go beyond objects and labels to think about the settings and the tangible and physical ways to interact? If we hoped people would linger, did we give them a place to sit down? Did we provide the physical and psychological conditions conducive to attentiveness? Did we reward attentiveness?
Did we show things that have stories? Not a thesis, but drawing some perceptible and compelling connection to the lives of our fellow human beings? Were these people from all walks of life? Did we give consideration to the variety of people who come and pick stories that might resonate for many rather than for a select few? Do we think about the stories museum-goers bring with them and might later tell about their experiences with us? Did we think about who museum-goers are today and are likely to be in the future?
Did we stage things as a kind of drama where museum-goers participate, not merely as audience members, but as roleplayers? Was there an opportunity afforded to express oneself? Or did we stop at thinking only about what we wanted to express?
Did we study methodically by watching and listening to our guests? Did we honor what we learned from them and find a way to respond? Did this encounter change us as practitioners?
Did we recognize the social nature of museum-going and find ways to reinforce and reward the natural desire to see, talk, share, and learn with others?
Curiosity begins as a feeling. Inspiration is a feeling. Romance begins as a feeling. Did we reach people emotionally as well as cognitively? Did we plan and design for that? Did we think about what might cause someone to stop and pay attention? Did we try to inspire curiosity, or did we merely throw stuff out there with no thought to the potential impact?
Museums are better at prompting curiosity than satisfying it. Were we disciplined label writers? Did we anticipate the questions visitors are most likely to have? Did we pile on too much written information with labels starting above the head and nattering on below the knees? Did we write for our colleagues rather than for our guests, using insider language to exclude, knowingly or unwittingly, a broader swath of readers? Did we bury the lead, relegating the most interesting tidbit to the fourth paragraph? Did we acknowledge the mystery inherent in every discipline?
Did we buy that app just to pile on more information in addition to the info on the wall labels?
Our date might appreciate it if we buy them a pizza. It could get a little awkward if you buy more than your date can eat. But we never expect a date to consume the entire pizza with one mouthful, right?
If any of these questions are unfamiliar to the museum planners among us, I would suggest that we haven’t done everything we could to attract attention and generate romance.
Attention is a form of energy. We wake up each day with a fund of it, and we begin spending down that fund the moment we open our eyes. It is human nature that this fund is limited and must be restored. We have known for over a century that museums can be exhausting. It takes a lot of strength and endurance to love a museum.
We can squander energy on so many irrelevant and irritating things.
We have to be mindful not to beat the energy out of people. Our mission is to sustain the delight and playfulness inherent in the relationship.
Yes, romance can be stoked by the grand gesture, but it is also nurtured by a thousand small considerations; empathetic acknowledgements of our partner in the affair. Courtship means conceding some of our own prerogatives to show we care about someone other than ourselves. A little empathy. Is that so hard?
When a person invests their energy with us, it is an expression of romantic hope. People don’t very often come to museums closed to the experience any more than we go on a date with someone appealing without anticipation. The museum-goer is already in a receptive frame of mind. They tell us that by showing up. With all the competing distractions, they picked us! Wow! Imagine that.
Museum-goers want to fall in love with us. They really do. They want to laugh and cry, reflect on their lives, raise children with us and grow old together. Let’s not leave them looking for love in all the wrong places.