I believe the best rewards in life come from making oneself vulnerable. To that end, I approach my work each day in way that allows for experimentation free from fear of failure (okay, sometimes I’m slightly afraid, but I don’t let it hinder me) because we learn from both our successes and our failures. With the opening of a Renzo Piano-designed wing in January 2012, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ushered in the next phase of the museum’s history. The spectacular architecture and increased focus on contemporary art (the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year) has provided increased opportunities for making connection between the historic and the contemporary.
In reflecting on An Elastic Manifesto for Museums, I thought about our Living Room Project. Domestic in scale and design, the Living Room functions as both visitor orientation space and contemporary art project at the same time. Inspired by the 2000 exhibit The Living Room by artist-in-residence Lee Mingwei, the room is designed to foster visitor learning and interaction in creative ways. In addition to collection resources and trained volunteers, twice a week visitors encounter a “living sculpture” in the form of a guest host who shares personal objects.
While much of what the Manifesto is about is relevant to this project, I’ve reflected on a few key points.
A different museum experience
By its nature, the Gardner is a different kind of museum. The arrangement of the collection, housed in an imaginative Italian palazzo with a central lush courtyard, is eclectic and seemingly idiosyncratic in many instances. And there are no wall labels to identify and explain works. The installation was a personal endeavor for Isabella Gardner. However, she is not here to tell us the stories behind her pieces or her personal connections to those objects.
Mingwei’s Living Room Project asks hosts to take on that role by choosing objects of personal significance and engage with visitors in conversation about those objects with the hope that visitors get into the mindset of thinking about and discussing works of art in a way that includes personal meaning and emotions. This experience is a bit unique and can befuddle visitors, especially the idea that this interaction is a work of art. Mingwei’s work is something that is “made” not entirely by him (he only comes to the museum periodically); the work of art is the experience of the host and visitor interacting in a unique moment. In that way, the work of art (like all works of art, I would argue) is different in each encounter and for each visitor. This is definitely a different kind of museum experience for most visitors. So far, they have welcomed and embraced this new opportunity.
Your presence is important
At its core, the Living Room project is about basic human interaction—one person learning about another person through sharing personal stories. The rewards of this open ended activity are powerful and what better place to encourage this than in a museum setting.
The rewards for me as a staff member have also been great. Because we are expanding the museum’s role in the larger Boston community, I have had the chance to meet some amazing people who I may not have met otherwise. Hosts do not have to be “museum people,” although many curators, educators and staff have participated. We’ve had artists, students, professors, lawyers, ballet dancers, and many more. I have learned something different from each one of them. This sociability, togetherness and relationship building is the foundation of the Living Room project. It not only enriches our visitors’ experience, but also feeds the souls of the staff.
Give up control
Last, but certainly not least, is the idea of letting go and trusting others. Mingwei’s work, the Living Room project included, explores issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness. Each week, I marvel at the generosity in which each host has shared a bit of himself or herself with our visitors through their stories and objects, often very personal and precious. For some this might be the scariest part of such a project; I essentially give control over to the hosts and trust it will work out as best it can that day. That’s a hard thing for most of us to do (me included), but it is essential for a project that is about multiple voices and building community.
The Living Room project is a work of art that belongs to Lee Mingwei, the museum, and every host and visitor that participate. That is a novel way to consider a work of art, I think. But that is what makes it powerful, successful and beautiful.
SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below. See all posts in the series by clicking here.