The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
As some of you know, I’ve been thinking about what cultural institutions might gain if they let their own personalities and motivations shine through a little more. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing examples of subjectivity everywhere, including places far from concert halls or science museums.
I was camping last week with my family and some others in the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our group had arranged for a visit by the “raptor lady,” Gayle Bruntjens, who runs Upper Michigan Raptor Rehab with her husband. Working with a few volunteers and a network of other nonprofits and government agencies, they take in injured eagles, hawks, and owls from all over the U.P., give them veterinary care, and eventually re-release the ones that heal.
The less fortunate birds — victims of accidents or human abuse, some of it mind-boggling — end up residing permanently with Gayle and making unexpectedly adorable appearances in her educational presentations at schools, camps, etc.
On the surface, her talk to our group was just like the animal demonstrations that go on at nature centers, zoos, and science museums all over. She explained what differentiates the raptor family from other birds, told us what to do if we see an injured or orphaned bird, helped a few hawks and owls out of their wicker hampers to show around to us, and gave us some information about her nonprofit and its mission.
But before all that, she did something that I rarely see in more established, professionalized settings. She told us, in personal and forthrightly emotional terms, how she got into this work and what it means to her. She told us her story, as context for the birds’.
And it happens to be a good one: beating the odds on a rare form of brain cancer, switching careers to a dead-end night job that gave her time to dabble in genealogy and discover her Native American heritage, and serendipitously running into a friend who needed a hand with some wounded birds of prey. She now sees her work as a fruition, even maybe a destiny, and she feels connected to the birds on a spiritual level as well as an ecological one. In Anishnabe teaching, raptors are the Creator’s messengers, and Gayle sees herself as being a messenger for the messengers. ...
You didn’t need to buy that interpretation to feel the human connection she made with us around that circle of chairs. Her passion was as evident as her expertise, and it was infectious. We were learning not just about the birds, but about humans’ individual and cultural connections to those birds. There were shifting layers here, a complex mix of objective and subjective information, literal and metaphoric meaning. The mix was pleasurable in its own right (fun, warm, interesting), and it made us feel connected to the birds as well as to Gayle and her organization.
Which is exactly what many of our clients are hoping to achieve, from symphonies to natural history museums. I’m working these days with several cultural organizations that are actively wondering how to make what they do more “personally relevant.” What if they took a page from the Raptor Ladies of the world and stepped forward, as people, to tell us why they’re here, what their music or science or art or history or dance means to them? What if we could experience not just the product of their work (musical excellence, say, or scientific knowledge) but the process and passion that brought it to life — or even the human story that led to the moment we’re now experiencing?
Yet that kind of personal, subjective presence is often far from the minds of our clients. They’re thinking about technology, about programming choices, and especially about participatory engagement (which emphasizes the subjectivity of the audience rather than of the presenter, performer, exhibitor, etc.). When I bring it up, or when our audience research findings point in that direction, some become uneasy. They jump to extremes, worrying about a “cult of personality.”
Why is that? I’ve heard people say that large institutions don’t have an individual personality or voice: they’re collectives of many personalities and voices, so naturally they don’t display the singular, idiosyncratic sense of “self” that a solo practitioner like Gayle can present. For orchestral musicians, this is a point of pride: the job requires an almost heroic subordination of individual personality to the ensemble and to the conductor.
Fair enough. But I think it’s more than that. Some culture professionals seem afraid that subjectivity might rob them of credibility or weaken their authority. Isn’t it safer to speak as an institution, with all the scale and respect associated with it, than as a mere individual? Certainly the scientists at, say, a natural history museum are trained to emphasize objectivity: science isn’t about the (fallible) scientists, it’s about the (universal) principles and truths. Come to think of it, classical musicians are trained along similar lines.
I suspect that the resistance boils down to a kind of self-abnegation, a devaluing of individual worth. “We want it to be about the music/science/history/art/whatever,” they say, “not about us. Our job is to get out of the way.” And the unstated corollary may be: “Nobody would be interested in us. They’re here for something bigger.”
Not necessarily — or rather, not exclusively. Music, science, and these other disciplines are human pursuits, undertaken for and by people like you and me. Connecting with the people who present them to us, who mediate our experience of those domains, is a natural impulse. It doesn’t get in the way of the content; it helps us connect to it, like a hand extended to help someone across a stream. More importantly, it tells us, in emotional as well as intellectual terms, why we might want to cross that stream in the first place.
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