August 05, 2011

Beyond learning: museums as aesthetic experiences

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”?

Anne Arenstein — August 06, 2011

It's about the look of a gallery, and it isn't.
Over 35 years ago when I was an intern at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I took a group of kids into what was then a medieval gallery designed to look like a cloister. To give them a sense of acoustics, I asked the kids to say hello as loudly as they could--and they were stunned. They got over being stunned and cooperated. I asked them to take it down to a ppp, which they did. Then I taught them a medieval Christmas chant (Nova! Nova!) as we processed around he gallery. One girl told me that the art looked different to her after we sang. How, I asked. More alive, she said.
One of the most memorable museum visits with our kids (then 9 and 12) was to the Spertus Museum in Chicago. The exhibition on American Jewish humor was a natural for laughter, which was plentiful--but the exhibition masterfully interspersed the grim realities and ironies that produced the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and Adam Sandler. The kids still remember details like the bulletin board where you could post--or copy--your favorite Jewish jokes.
Gary Larsen's exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences provoked much the same reaction--the hoots of laughter emerging from the galleries were as inviting as Larsen's subversive Far Side comics.
A synthesis between gallery and exhibition design will make for more intensive experiences. Sometimes all that's needed is permission to react visibly.

Matt Matcuk — August 09, 2011


Over the last year, we have been trying to change our concept of the fundamental goal of exhibition development. We now see that goal as: "creating exhibitions that provide an enjoyable, meaningful, social experience, by addressing the cognitive, sensory, and affective dimensions."

That the visitor experience must be enjoyable seems painfully self-evident, yet it is still regarded as suspect in some quarters.

That the experience is inherently social is generally accepted.

It's the "meaningful" part that gets tricky. Having a meaningful experience is different than having an educational one. In the words of one curator, “Visitors don’t come to the museum to be punished.” So although they do want to get meaning, and they may want to learn something, they don’t want to be taught. The museum is only an “informal learning environment” to those who study informal learning theory.

A “meaningful experience” is one by which we feel somehow changed and enriched. Roller coasters are fun but not meaningful—they don’t change or enrich me, they don't broaden my world. Gazing at dinosaur bones—or an Egyptian mummy—does.

Our visitors come to the museum for an enjoyable and meaningful social experience. Only part of that pleasure and meaning depends on cognitive gains. Maybe the smallest part.

Our museum isn't an "informal learning" environment, but a place for visitors to create meaning.

Gretchen Jennings — August 10, 2011

I've just blogged on the idea that the distinction between formal and informal learning is a false one - the process of learning is a unified one, and involves change - all kinds of change. It can include learning new facts but it also includes gaining enthusiasm and excitement about what is in the museum, making meaning, forging an identity, engaging in social communication - all of these things are transformative and thus are part of the learning experience. I think the formal/informal dichotomy is misleading and unhelpful. There's lots of research to support this. Museums need to concentrate less on justifying themselves to schools and begin communicating their value about what they do best, and that certainly includes enjoyment.

Phil Katz — August 19, 2011

Peter --

I just caught up with this post, and it makes even more disappointed that I missed VSA this year. I think you have tapped into something even deeper than the museum experience. It is not a new observation -- but still a true one -- that American culture has deep puritanical and practical streaks. These make it difficult for us, as a culture, to see education in any form as a pleasure.

Here, as always, we may gain some insight from Tocqueville, who wrote (in a chapter on poetry and democracy): "in the end democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it on man alone. Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature, but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves. ... In democracies the love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one's condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success, are so many spurs to urge men onward in the active professions they have embraced, without allowing them to deviate for an instant from the track. The main stress of the faculties is to this point. The imagination is not extinct, but its chief function is to devise what may be useful and to represent what is real."

-- Phil

Kris Wetterlund — September 06, 2011

Is it possible that visitors don't list learning as a number one objective when visiting museums because they just take it for granted that their visit is about learning? John Falk, in his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience likens this to what people say when asked why they ate at a restaurant. People seldom answer: "Because I was hungry!" but we all know that's a main reason. Falk suggests, and I think he's onto something, that learning isn't listed as a main objective for visiting museums because visitors assume we all know they came to find out something they didn't know before, in other words - to learn.

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