Reacting to Objects: Mindfulness, Tech and Emotion
There’s been a lot of discussion about mindful looking and unplugging in museums of late. By pure coincidence, I’ve been thinking about looking at objects while traveling over the last 2 months, developing an understanding of how mindfulness and technology work together for me to connect emotionally with museum objects.
The Center for the Future of Museums identified mindfulness and ‘unplugging’ as a hot issue in its TrendsWatch 2013 report, and subsequent posts flesh out how the idea has evolved or provide examples of its application. Both Dana Allen-Greil (@danamuses) and Nina Simon (@ninaksimon) were triggered by this Facebook Home commercial to encourage more discussion or weigh into the debate. A culmination came in Slow Art Day being marked this last weekend by many institutions. These examples don’t cover all the discussion, but it largely revolves around the impact of technology on our ability to look at and connect with objects while in museums and how museums might react to this.
Soon after arriving in Europe, a friend Penny Edwell (@pennyedwell) asked me how I was coping in museums when I couldn’t read the interpretive texts. Being ashamedly mono-lingual (as so many Australians are), I’m lost when interpretive texts are not in English. I replied, smartphone in hand while standing between display cabinets in a museum, that I felt relieved and enjoying just ‘reacting to objects’. I’ve been turning this over in my mind ever since. Reacting to objects – what did I mean by that?
I’m an avid reader of interpretive texts, always aware a curator is trying to tell me something. I understand it’s often carefully considered, can be agonised over, labels may bounce between layers of approval as individual words are debated. With all this going into them, I’m attentive to the messages in interpretive text. But lately, I’ve become aware of spending more time reading text than looking at objects. I’ve felt an internal conflict and even caught a part of me scolding myself when reading instead of looking.
Regan Forrest (@interactivate) made the distinction between ‘meaning-makers’ and ‘meaning-readers’ in museum visitors. She identifies those who find interpretive text intrusive, disruptive, “shouty” or overbearing as ‘meaning-makers’. Distinct from visitors like me, a ‘meaning-reader’, who wants “to know what the ‘official’ answer is supposed to be”. Meaning-readers are attentive to interpretation and meaning-makers don’t want text at all. During the last two months, I’ve been a meaning-reader flung into the land of meaning-making. How have I fared? Can I train myself to be one or the other, or both?
In my need to find another way to connect, I instinctively turned to mindfulness. Clearing my mind of the surroundings and ignoring interpretation, I focus on the image, the physicality of an object and listen to how I react emotionally. Mindfulness has been a useful way to hear my emotions talking to objects in busy museum spaces. It’s let me identify objects I feel connected to in huge collections; it’s one method to navigate an ocean of images, not all of which I’m capable of connecting with. These objects and emotions on which I focus are then the topic of online conversation with whoever cares to listen and engage with me during my in-gallery tweeting. In this way, I feel mindfulness and technology are by no means mutually exclusive in the museum space.
I’m reminded of Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of wonder (pdf) as a quality of some objects. It correlates with my mindful looking beautifully, describing it as
intense, indeed enchanted looking. Looking may be called enchanted when the act of attention draws a circle around itself from which everything but the object is excluded, when intensity of regard blocks out all circumambient images, stills all murmuring voices.
It’s this space, inside the circle of wondrous looking, in which I’ve been spending a lot of time lately. I’ve come to feel my reaction to objects and am learning to trust this as the initial stage of meaning-making. I use this type of looking between online research and conversation. This again corresponds with Greenblatt, “to be sure, the viewer may have purchased a catalogue, read an inscription on the wall, or switched on a cassette player, but in the moment of wonder all of this apparatus seems mere static.” I’m sure now, technology and mindfulness can coexist in the museum.
This looking technique came up trumps in Madrid, in its golden triangle of art at the Prado, the Reina Sophia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. I used mindfulness to make my way through the Prado from the first moment. And so I found this painting:
I felt an instant desire to talk to this man, who was life-sized. He felt like a friend and a teacher. The way the light struck the edge of his book (which isn’t captured in the reproduction above), and his fingers sat between the pages, made me feel I could talk sensitively about big ideas. As the big main hall of the Prado echoed back into my awareness, I wanted to step into the frame and be in his company.
Or, after wandering an entire floor of the Thyssen-Bornemisza without being inspired by any of the works, I began to think my mindfulness technique was failing in the face of hunger and fatigue. And then I saw this:
My meaning-making technique was winning, as I peered and took detailed photos, forgetting the label entirely.
The space with the translucent apple and the glow of the candlelight, framed by hand gestures, spoke to me of intimacy and lowered voices over offerings and negotiations. I was so taken with the image and the emotions it evoked in me that I initially walked away without noting the title or artist.
I’m aware of missing out on stories, context and learning by disregarding interpretive text even when accessible to me in my own language. But by playing around with looking as I travel, I’m learning to see differently, rediscovering how my subjectivity and emotions can have a role in my museum experience. When researching later, I’ve found the emotions I feel when looking are rarely at odds with the story or meaning these objects are widely accepted to have. In fact, the emotions join hands with the meaning and both ring out louder. I’ve felt more deeply connected to these objects. I wonder if museums design exhibitions to allow a valuable experience to be had if the labels are ignored or read?
The space of mindful or wondrous looking is, I think, one way in which emotion can be woven back into the museum experience. I think of Courtney Johnston (@auchmill) and her proposed Museum of Emotions which is a space for feeling, not learning. Her experience of feeling images and objects rings true for me now, as I understand my looking is “me feeling myself into the images.” My emotions “exist in the air” between myself and the object. Museums continue to investigate ways to provide emotional experiences with their objects and exhibitions. But is it possible many visitors are not expecting emotional experiences when they visit a museum and so are not listening out for them? Is it possible visitors turn their emotional volume down when they enter the museum, expecting instead a cognitive space for learning?
I wonder if instead of museums creating emotional experiences, our visitors need to learn how to feel, to re-tune their receptors to emotion in the museum space? Is it appropriate for museums to teach visitors how to hear their emotions and how to give them space? Is this something museums are willing to do, be brokers for learning emotion? Is this technique transferable from art to social or natural history museums, or even science museums?
For new readers, I’ll take this chance to say Hi! I’m Alli Burness. Thanks for reading! I’m thrilled this post has been featured by WordPress. I’ve written plenty more and you can always chat to me on Twitter at @alli_burnie. I also edit a Tumblr about the #museumselfie and share videos of my museum experiences over on Vine. Enjoy!