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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:

Peter Paul Rubens, St Thomas, c 1611

Peter Paul Rubens, St Thomas, c. 1611

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:

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627

My meaning-making technique was winning, as I peered and took detailed photos, forgetting the label entirely.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627 (detail)

Brugghen, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1627 (detail)

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!

108 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amy #

    Wonderful reflection and insight. I love context but am mindful that sometimes I spend more time reading the text than I do looking at the object. I need to come back and read this again after I meditate a while!

    29 April 2013
  2. Liz Wearne #

    Alli!!!! I’ve been dipping in & out of your travels and wonderings here & this post struck me, particularly after a recent trip to MONA which challenged my own craving for a mindful experience. Keep writing, you’re wonderful!! Love ya cuz xxx

    22 July 2013
  3. petsoe #

    Hi Alli, this is wonderfull! I recognize many things you are telling … Emotion is the key word for my museum visits … With an allusion to a Bible text: it gaves my heart more space, it is not breath-taking but breath-giving …
    I really love art history – the science – knowledge – discussions about background and meaning of works of art. But that’s all secondary to experiencing the artwork. Arthistorical explanations CAN help, but many times they do’nt.
    Many times I can have the same feelings if I’m looking in my art books and catalogues … maybe not so dense as in front of the real works, but it is still working …
    Greetings from another #MuseumPilgrim (@PSoemers), I allow myself to distillate some tweets out of your blog 😉

    16 November 2013
  4. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing. The next time I go to a museum or exhibition I will keep this in mind!

    Some brief thoughts, upon reflection: as culture evolves and we turn ever more into a world reliant on easy and accessible information, museums, like any other institution, need to think long and hard about how to maintain their relevance.

    Museums need to provide an experience that meets the increasing demands and tastes of their consumers. You can no longer collect a stack of relics along the sides of hallways and expect people to marvel at them (Cairo Museum, anyone?). Tell a story, engage the viewer, bring them on a journey… make it easier for the less mindful among us to be engaged.

    People change. Organisations change. Museums, if they don’t want to become a relic of the past, need to do so as well.

    30 January 2015
    • Thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that those in the museum sector need to work hard to change ineffective old ways and keep up with the new possibilities (or better still, imagine new pathways forward). There are a lot of people in the sector who are doing just that. I’m prepping a post with links to many – I hope you can follow along and check them out. It’s a super interesting space to work in.

      30 January 2015
      • Thanks. I will follow along. I’m going to be in London and Paris for a couple of weeks in mid-2005. Aside from the Louvre and the British Museum (obligatory), any suggestions for one other museum in each of those cities to go to?

        30 January 2015
      • Only one in each? I suggest the Wellcome Collection (medical artifacts & art), the V&A (design) or the Horniman Museum (natural history, including amazing stuffed animals) in London. I’m less familiar with Paris, but fellow museo pro’s are telling me loud and clear Musée d’Orsay, and one suggestion for Musee du Vin (a wine museum!). Have a great time!

        Edit: You can find a wonderful album of photographs from inside and around Paris museums here: And a final suggestion to Musée Jacquemart-André, an incredible house and art museum.

        30 January 2015
  5. I have been to many museums especially those with many Historical artists and of course the magnificant Prado, the Reina Sophia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. I think one thing that would assist is having more personal tours throughout these museums and automation that makes the museum visits more personal for the observer. If people have something to interact with while at these journeys, I think it would make it more exciting and more would come. Maybe an interactive exchange or game would be fun as well. Thanks for this awesome post. See you soon at the museum!

    30 January 2015
    • Yep, the ability to provide personalized, interactive experiences at scale is a wonderful concept. Not an easy task! It’s a challenge that a number of museum professionals are thinking about and experimenting around. Thanks for your comment.

      30 January 2015
    • I like the idea… but lots of interactive stuff at the moment seems a little cheesy – its all still stuck in 90s technology. Haven’t seen anything done really well recently. What I do like is when they give you a headset and have a narrator or guide talk you through exhibits, it’s old school, but I find it (not having to read plaques, haha) adds to the experience.

      30 January 2015
  6. Jack #

    Reblogged this on The Missal and commented:
    Well done!

    30 January 2015
  7. What a cool, thoughtful post!

    30 January 2015
  8. andridaulay #

    Reblogged this on Coach Andri Daulay.

    30 January 2015
  9. I enjoy looking at the other objects and different type of objects but more than anything my biggest and beautiful museum would be nature I love nature and I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that God has put on planet Earth enjoy the sheeps the wonders even sometimes the moon how close it can look here on earth.

    30 January 2015
  10. Reblogged this on luv96discovery.

    30 January 2015
  11. not an easy job….such a thoughtful post ! loved it

    30 January 2015
  12. mezoose #

    Reblogged this on Mezoose Creative Co..

    30 January 2015
  13. thenjuvi #

    Reblogged this on Queen-V.

    30 January 2015
  14. Really enjoyed this. I would love to see a level of interactivity added to museum visits. Of anything that could make them much more interesting that would be the way to go.

    30 January 2015
  15. Reblogged this on The ActivEast.

    30 January 2015
  16. Vizyonumuz Sahip olduğu uzman kadrosu ve teknolojik altyapısıyla müşterilerine sunduğu kaliteli hizmeti daima yükselterek sektöründe öncü bir şirket olmak.

    31 January 2015
  17. This is such a lovely thing :O ^_^

    31 January 2015
  18. interesting!

    31 January 2015
  19. Absolutely wonderful!!!

    31 January 2015
  20. I was attending graduate school back in the mid-1980’s in Youngstown, Ohio. Being originally from a rural area and having to adjust to an urban setting made for a hefty transitional challenge. However, to my amazement, right in the middle of the campus — which was just blocks away from the downtown area and along a busy thoroughfare — stood the Butler Museum of American Art. It’s Greco-Roman architecture seemed almost alien among the surrounding modernity, as though somehow transported from ancient times and plopped down in the late 20th-century. While traversing its various galleries, I felt as though transported myself into another world, pleasantly far removed from the exterior hustle-n-bustle. Of course, this was well before the proliferation of the internet, social media and smartphones, with personal computing barely off the ground, even. Still, I can recall the experience as somehow adhering to a kind of process — for lack of a better word — connected in two phases: 1) the need to exclude “others” in connecting with the objects on display; 2) the desire to include “others” in connecting with the same objects. Though I haven’t experimented with it myself, I feel inclined to envision the use of technology as the key enabling factor for a third phase added as complement to the process. I’m pulling all this off the top of my head, so I’ll be keeping up with your blog and the relevant sources to further my understanding. Thank you for opening me up to this matter.

    31 January 2015
    • Your two phase process and notion of a third is food for thought. Thank you and thanks for following along.

      1 February 2015
    • petsoe #

      Hi fbickham2012, I completely recognise the 2 phases you mention … Museums try to respond to the need of phase 3 by e.g. organising TweetUp’s (sharing impressions via Social Media). Danish museums launched Twitter-based , giving the opportunity to react to paintings (in test, no English interface at this moment). Enjoy!

      1 February 2015
      • Hi Peter, thanks so much for chiming in here! Is my understanding that this would be part of phase 2 (include others) incorrect? Does technology warrant a third phase on its own?

        1 February 2015
      • petsoe #

        Replying Alli and fbickham2012: Alli, I must admit I was not sure to call it phase 2 or phase 3! My thought was: phase 1 and 2 are inner processes in the person watching the objects. Museum’s responding to that could be seen as another phase, enabling new ways for the demand of both 1 and 2. The technology offered (using e.g. Twitter) is not sufficient on its own – needed is also ‘a listening and sometimes responding ear’ of the community AND the museums people. Maybe fbickham2012 could tell us more about what phase 3 could be?
        The 2 phases mentioned are also completely my own: if I get enthousiastic or curious about something, I want to share with and talk to others about that.
        Great that my favourite blogpost by you now gets new attention!

        1 February 2015
      • I thought you would be glad to hear of it, Peter! Thanks as always for the support.

        1 February 2015
      • I suppose, in that pre-Twitter era of the 1980’s, phase 3 would have been played out in 2 probable scenarios:

        1) After leaving the museum, I might later meet and mention to a friend some painting I’d seen and how it affected me, trying as best I could to describe it and remember the impression it’d made;

        2) If that friend happened to be in the museum and walking by, I’d point out the painting and say, “hey, take a look at this,” in which case I’d be able to share the experience and interact on the spot.

        In both scenarios, I would have been dealing with just one individual within a certain time-frame. However, in today’s social media environment, I would be dealing with multiple individuals — some of whom I’d never met before — in different locations and viewing my post at their own convenience at various times, plus I’d be able to provide not only my own immediate impressions of the painting but also a photo/link for their personal viewing. This would constitute an almost instantaneous fulfillment of phase 2 (including others), while at the same time preserving phase 1 (excluding others) by my not having to abandon the moment. Of course, this would all depend on my having a device with internet access — that’s the sticking point, isn’t it?

        For some reason, this all reminds me of a scene from the movie “Contact” where the character Ellie is viewing a supernova up-close and the only word she could find to describe it was “poetry!” — unfortunately, all of her equipment failed to record anything that occurred.

        3 February 2015
      • Hi Peter. (Pardon my manners) I was re-reading your earlier comment and somehow overlooked this part: “The technology offered (using e.g. Twitter) is not sufficient on its own – needed is also ‘a listening and sometimes responding ear’ of the community AND the museums people.” That’s something I’ll have to think on.

        3 February 2015
    • petsoe #

      Thank you Fred, I totally agree with you, I like the way you describe it! Yes, this device with internet access is crucial for our times .. One possibility: museums allowing photography and offering free wifi, or apps with links to Social Media. Another possibility: museums offering free download of high res pictures of artworks, so you can have your own favourite collection on your devices. I love e.g. what Merete Sanderhoff of National Gallery of Art in Copenhagen promotes (OpenGLAM-movement); see @msanderhoff on Twitter and videos like this one: . Also many presentations on Slideshare 🙂

      5 February 2015
    • Peter Soemers #

      Hi Fred, I cited your comment in my blogpost I mentioned this blogpost in: (in German). Alli already knows about it :). Have nice museum visits!

      28 June 2015
  21. ximogenx #

    wonderfully written

    31 January 2015
  22. Ah! I love this post. You were reacting to the painter’s touch and the light he brought to the canvas. It made you feel something. This is why the arts are so important!! We should FEEL… I never read the labels in museums as it takes me out of the moment of experiencing. Great post!

    31 January 2015
  23. Reblogged this on The Absolute Threshold.

    31 January 2015
  24. elizabethweaver #

    Reblogged this on Elizabeth Weaver and commented:
    meaning-maker…and you?

    31 January 2015
  25. elizabethweaver #

    So there’s a term, meaning maker. While I appreciate the work that goes into the text at museums, all I ever want to do is interact with the art. Thank you for this wonderful thoughtful post.

    31 January 2015
  26. Reblogged this on loreliscova's Blog and commented:
    Integración y combinación…

    31 January 2015
  27. Reblogged this on erinumberg.

    31 January 2015
  28. Reblogged this on ttaggroup's Blog.

    31 January 2015
  29. I consider that if a general museum (one not devoted to nor exhibiting a particular artist who has special art/display whose intent is to push a specific feeling) tried to move us to feel one way or another, it would just be another placard telling us what a thing SHOULD be, rather than letting the individual create within it’s own mind and spirit the expression of a piece.

    I do want also to say that in the last weeks I have been thinking about a movie: “Rembrandt’s J’accuse” which pointed out, what to me was humor, and the telling of a specific political and familial story in history in one painting, that without historical context, one might view the image as rather boring and stuffy but for the ‘odd’ faces peering out.

    1 February 2015
    • Thanks for your comment and for highlighting that movie for me. Instances of contradiction between our personal, emotional response and information about the object are a fascinating area to consider.

      1 February 2015
  30. 伟大 😉

    1 February 2015
  31. rahul pal #

    Reblogged this on rahul01031993's Blog.

    1 February 2015
  32. jmpod #

    I loved the idea of the meaning maker and the meaning taker – it got e really engaged and thinking that your term goes well beyond the museum, doesn’t it ? I have spent a lot of energy trying to find the right answer in life without understanding that I need to make my own answer….. So thanks for creating those dots for me to connect!

    1 February 2015
    • It’s a pleasure! I’m so pleased these museum-oriented ideas are having a wider application for you. I find my thinking in this space flows out in so many unpredictable ways too.

      1 February 2015
  33. marktheword68 #

    My wife advised me to start “meditating.” Right now I’m listening to Carlos Nakai on This has provided some relaxation I needed today after too much hustle and bustle, talk, talk, and getting twisted up in the internet and angry at my fellow human being (better said unresponsive company).

    I found your blog while attempting to learn more about, recommended by one of my mentors. I stumbled on your article by sheer luck. I paint a bit, write a bit, and play some music, all at amateur levels. When I see a new work of art that hits me in the solar plexis my first response is “why couldn’t I do that” so I want to rush home and paint. The second sensation is that the particular (the work of art) melds with the eternal and me, us, if you will, to all those who can sense or perceive the work. Mom taught or instilled in me a desire to memorize poetry, particularly useful to wade one’s way through a root canal.

    Here’s a poem that fits this thought, I think:

    “….Welcome all wonders at the site
    Eternity shut in a span,
    Summer in winter,
    Day in night,
    And God in Man,
    Great little wonder whose
    All embracing birth (as with all newborns!)
    Lifts Earth to Heaven
    Stoops Heaven to Earth…..”

    So yes the appreciation of the art spinning in wordless and wordfull wonder lifts us up, “….further up and further in…” (C.S. Lewis—The Witch, the Lion….).

    Well done. Mark Turley.

    1 February 2015
    • Hi Mark!
      I just shouted no no yeeeeees! Mark, the secret might be in not listening to all of the shoulds. Maybe listen to your insides, and if you can’t hear them, find your own way to listen until you can hear, see, touch, feel and maybe even express them! Do it for yourself, not what other people do or do not think or feel from it. The life that you exude is of value simply because you exude it.

      1 February 2015
      • This is a great little conversation. Elisa – your response speaks directly to a piece I’m writing now about the embodied (heard, seen, touched and felt) way of experiencing the museum with selfies.

        Mark – I love your idea of our individual responses to art being influenced by the many responses which are happening around an object, or “all those who can sense or perceive the work” as you say. Meditation has always seemed more powerful to me when practicing in a group. I suspect this effect is part of some methods of interpretation applied in the museum.

        And hoping I never have to wade through a root canal myself.

        1 February 2015
  34. Miss Joy #

    Love your post! Love to get your thoughts on my latest blogpost 🙂

    1 February 2015
  35. Reblogged this on toshioxgnu and commented:
    Es interesante lo que plantea 🙂

    1 February 2015
  36. Reblogged this on frosset.

    1 February 2015
  37. academix2015 #

    This is indeed a very unique article, which I cannot term as a mere blog. Here, the writer has perfectly contextualised technology and emotions simultaneously. What I want to know is, how do the museum curators and managers look towards the theory of technological determinism? Do effects of technological determinism manifest in a museum? Can be identify different periods of human civilisation with the help of different subjects, categories, and varieties of arts and artifacts? I am just curious to know how to find a relationship between humans and their technologies. How did the technologies affect the museum?

    2 February 2015
  38. Being still and just observe, very nice

    2 February 2015
  39. Reblogged this on Decorative Art.

    2 February 2015
  40. Reblogged this on Decorative Art.

    2 February 2015
  41. Reblogged this on Decorative Art.

    2 February 2015
  42. This is an extremely well-written and thought-provoking post! You’ve offered a lot to ponder & posed some excellent questions. Looking forward to more. Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

    2 February 2015
  43. Once I was at the Venice Biennale and there I’ve learned that the world’s mind is developing together with time….
    Well written post! Congrate!

    2 February 2015
  44. Reblogged this on That Ye May Learn and commented:
    Browsing through the Freshly Pressed blogs here, I discovered Museum in a Bottle. This particular entry was the first I saw, and, since I’m taking an art appreciation class this semester, the things said here really hit home. I was able to understand and appreciate what she explained about Reacting to Objects. I can’t recall if I’ve ever had the chance to visit an art museum, but the next time I do, I plan to take from my class and from this blog and take my time studying the art. What can I learn from it? Thank you so much for sharing this, making it available for me to discover.

    3 February 2015
  45. Reblogged this on swallowedwholetheatre and commented:
    It is amazing how objects can talk to us by letting ourselves being touched by them. The feelings of human beings and sensitivity are such a powerful source of energy.

    3 February 2015
  46. Reblogged this on Georgina Lester's Blog.

    3 February 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Looking and Wonder at the Venice Biennale | Museum in a Bottle
  2. 2013: a (crowdsourced) digest | Interactivate
  3. Reacting to Objects: Mindfulness, Tech and Emotion | newpathahead

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