The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Part of the fun of the Visitor Studies Association conference two weeks ago was getting to bat around provocative ideas with some terrific colleagues. My own lob into the fray was a brief talk asking what we’d gain by seeing museum visits — even to science museums and the like — as aesthetic experiences. Here’s the gist of it.
It helped that one of my fellow panelists, Jennifer Novak-Leonard, had just talked about impact assessment in the performing arts. Everyone knows a symphony or a contemporary dance performance is an aesthetic experience, right? But in the museum world — even in art museum category, I’m afraid — what dominates the conversation about purposes and outcomes is learning. That fits the Enlightenment roots of museums, sure, but based on my experience researching audiences in the cultural sector (from Baroque music to science centers to zoos) it leaves out what matters most.
When we ask visitors why they came to the museum today, the top two responses are usually something about having fun and something about spending time with family or friends (the specifics depend on how we ask the question). Coming in third is learning something new or exploring the museum’s content area (natural history, wildlife biology, art history, whatever).
Whatever else it is, museum-going is a pleasure-seeking activity. Learning can be pleasurable, of course, and it’s a key ingredient in the stew. But it’s not, in itself, what draws people to museums. As the logicians would say, learning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a successful museum experience.
Yet what is our entire apparatus of museum evaluation built around? What are the funders paying us to assess? What do we set our exhibit and program outcomes around? Not our visitors’ first two goals, pleasure and social interaction — despite the fact that both of these are getting attention as components of a healthy, sustainable society. We focus almost exclusively on their third priority, learning.
Of course, we acknowledge that museum experiences have to be engaging, stimulating — pleasurable — in order to hold people’s attention long enough for them to learn something. But the hierarchy is clear: pleasure (if it’s present in our conversation at all) is the means to an end: it’s one of many things that can contribute to the desired outcome (learning). What if, for once, we flipped that and saw learning as one thing that can contribute to pleasure? What if pleasure, that basic building block of human and social happiness, were the highest goal?
In other words, what if museums took a page from the performing arts and thought of exhibits and programs as aesthetic experiences? By “aesthetic” I don’t mean “beautiful” or even visually striking. I’m using the word in a broad sense based on a tradition that runs from Aristotle to Kant and Schiller and right up through 20th century formalism. An aesthetic experience is one that’s intrinsically, not instrumentally important. It feels purposeful but doesn’t serve any purpose external to itself — except pleasure. It’s a sensory experience but somehow weaves sensation and rational understanding into a whole that transcends both parts, with results that are emotional. It’s a species of play. ...
Theater directors and songwriters and choreographers get this (the good ones, anyway). But museum curators and exhibit designers don’t seem to. Think of the kinds of aesthetic pleasure that museums don’t typically offer, but could:
The pleasure of laughing, which I very rarely see in museums. The rest of our culture is fueled in part by irony other forms of humor. And the social sciences have shown how crucial humor is to human social relationships. So why are museums almost never funny? I know, science museums try to make jokes in order to be more relevant to kids, but the results are usually pretty lame. And don’t get me started on exhibitions about humor...
The pleasure of story, which exhibits people talk about but haven’t yet become good at. When’s the last time you were in suspense about how an exhibit would end? Or felt the pleasure of connecting to the mind of the storyteller through her words, voice, tone, sensibility?
The pleasure of mystery, of grappling with the unexplained or the ineffable. As Julian Spalding put it in a terrific book a few years back, ‘Where is the museum about what we don’t yet know?’ Artists often harness the power of the mysterious. But in most museums every choice needs to be defended rationally. Where’s the line between explaining something and explaining it away?
The pleasure of feeling sad, even crying. If you’re not sure that’s a pleasure, ask any novelist. There’s plenty of talk these days in the museum field about the “affective” component of learning. But isn’t that our rationalizing impulse right there? Jim Elkins’s lovely book Pictures and Tears is more about artworks than art museums.
When we start to think about the human experiences we don’t have at museums, we can see how limited the ambitions of most museums really are — how they’ve shackled themselves by insisting on the subordination of pleasure to learning. We could picture success differently: in terms of how effectively we use objects, environments, language, social dynamics, etc. to give people pleasure. What would museums look like — what could they accomplish — if some of the energy and creativity that’s currently going into “learning outcomes” were applied to “happiness outcomes”?
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