By Meagan Estep, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable, Proud to Be Flesh: Cultural Spaces after the Internet
Have you ever had a transformative experience with a work of art?
If you have, maybe you were standing in front of an object in a museum. Perhaps you were on an educator-led tour, or listening to an audio guide. Maybe you were reading a brochure produced by the museum. Or maybe there was no “stuff” involved — just you and the object.
Museum educators love to talk about what it means to slow down, creating space to have something John Dewey called an Aesthetic Experience. In the galleries, when visitors take time to really drink in a work of art, magic can happen. Museum scholar David Carr calls this “becoming” — in other words, we can use objects as powerful teachers of something new; they transport us, add depth and dimension to our lives, and stir our emotions.
But does it matter how we use those objects, how we connect with them? And who gets to decide?
Curators might say that you need an in-real-life (IRL) experience along with some type of scholarly information to access an aesthetic experience. Educators might tell you that you need a participatory tour (or two) and a lot of open-ended questions. An artist might just ask you to quietly contemplate their work of art. But a social media manager, like me? We’ll probably want you to do whatever you want, however you want (as long as you post it).
During Tilt West’s recent roundtable Proud to be Flesh: Cultural Spaces After the Internet, prompter Marty Spellerberg framed our conversation with this question: As much of the world moves online, what’s next for engaging, enriching, in-real-life experiences of art and culture?
I would add to Marty’s question: With both digital and physical experiences blended in a museum setting, can we even distinguish one from the other? Are they even separate?
Here are my thoughts regarding online versus IRL experiences:
1. Deeply engaging experiences can look different for each museum visitor.
Sometimes I enjoy reading wall labels when I wander through a museum exhibition. There are other days when I simply like to look around. Generally speaking, I like to take “fancy photos” — especially when I’ve dragged a friend along with me. I force that person to stand in front of works of art, gazing contemplatively into the distance. Or I’ll ask my friend to do a casual #strideby, which isn’t casual at all, since they wouldn’t have walked in front of my camera unless I had asked them. Are any of these activities the “wrong” way to experience a museum?
No one way is right or wrong. Who are we, as museum professionals, to decide how another person should make meaning during their museum experience? In his 2009 book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk evaluates motivations behind a visitor’s experience. He outlines a series of specific reasons given by visitors for choosing to attend a museum, based on their needs and values. These five types of visitors are: Experience Seekers; Explorers; Facilitators; Rechargers; and Professionals. No one type of visitor motivation has greater value over any other. Nor does a visitor own only one identity type — -in fact, your motivations might change, based on the day or your mood.
2. Engaging through your phone is not less valid than engaging through your eyes, no matter how many critics tell us we are wrong to do so.
Mediated experiences look different for every visitor. Some folks enjoy reading wall text, some enjoy wandering aimlessly. Some like to travel in packs of friends and talk the entire time. Others like to use the museum as a contemplative space. And yes, using your phone mediates your experience in a museum — and that’s okay, too. If you facilitate your experience with your device, it is not a superficial experience.
A 2017 report noted that museum-goers preferred to be “entertained” rather than “educated” and wanted more “social interactions” as opposed to “quiet reflection” when they visited exhibitions. But, sometimes, we want everything — because we’re cultural omnivores. And 81% of those study participants also wanted digital experiences in museums. What better application to address all these desires — entertainment, social interaction, digital experience — than Instagram?
During our roundtable, one participant asked: But ARE people connecting with a work of art through a photo or a selfie? My colleague Jim Fishwick’s response: “I say yes. This is the social function of photography rather than an exercise in vanity.” And I tend to agree. By extending the museum experience to your device, you’re creating an external hard drive of your memory. Experiences are captured, saved, preserved.
3. The Museum of Ice Cream might be just as valid as any other museum.
Our roundtable also discussed the ever-controversial, always-trendy spaces that call themselves “museums,” like the Color Factory in New York or the Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco. This probably isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but I’m wondering if experiencing something like the installations in the Color Factory might entice visitors to eventually stop by another institution in New York, or at least consider how museums might contribute to the equation of future experiences they might have.
Call me crazy, but museums should be both fun and thought-provoking. Looking at @colorfactoryco or @museumoficecream’s Instagram feeds, I see both fun and thought in how visitors have staged, designed, and creatively constructed their Instagram images. These visitors are constructing their own experiences, not following expectations of what a traditional museum experience should be. And isn’t this what we want?
On site or online, museums must be open to experiences of all kinds. Not every experience with an object will be transformative. And not every object-based experience will be in front of that object. I used to think that in order to connect with a work of art, I had to slow down, think carefully, and quietly ponder the object’s existence. I’m no longer sure that’s the only way. Actually, online is not sub-par to IRL. Think about all the ways people use the Google Art Project, or other image viewers. At the end of the day, is the physical object essential for every type of aesthetic experience? Maybe. I don’t have all the answers, and neither do museums. But we must be open to letting our visitors discover meaning on their own terms, and through their own points of view (and lenses).
Meagan Estep is a museum educator who believes deeply in the power of online tools to create conversation. Meagan leads social media initiatives at the National Gallery of Art, where she creates participatory experiences using a variety of platforms. Previously, Meagan managed K-12 digital and educator initiatives at The Phillips Collection, designed interdisciplinary teacher resources at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and coordinated youth & family programs at both the Corcoran and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She received her MAT in art education from the Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, DC, and a BA in art history from the University of Richmond, Richmond, VA.