Getting Uncomfortable in Museums

Guest post by Suse Cairns, doctoral candidate in the PhD Fine Art program at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and blogger at http://museumgeek.wordpress.com.

This post has been a long time coming. When Mike first contacted me about the possibility of doing a guest post for Art Museum Teaching many weeks ago, I was too busy to immediately do so. I thought it was just a lack of time and clear head space. But even after the deadline driven urgency of that time had passed, I still hesitated and put off writing. Why? I was writing amply on other things, so it was no longer time that was the problem, nor general inspiration. So what was it? What was preventing me from starting this project?

It turns out that my problem was one of elasticity, or more accurately, a lack thereof. I was feeling stretched, and my avoidance of writing this post was a tactic to avoid the discomfort that brought.

Photo by Redfishingboat

Let me explain. When I write for my own blog, I have a very definite comfort zone. I have defined the intellectual space, and I know intimately its boundaries.  In fact, its boundaries are my boundaries. I can stretch or push them, I can expand them as far as I am comfortable, and still exist within a very safe space. I recognise the likely readers and know their vocabularies and topical touch points. I know intimately what’s been covered before and what people have responded to, because it has all been within my own domain. The community of readers is my community; the space is my environment. Even when I am exploring ideas that are at times uncomfortable and that push me to consider things that I have not previously, I still retain a certain level of control.

But I don’t have the same sense of easy intimacy with the Art Museum Teaching website or audience. I know less who reads this site, and the sorts of topics and ideas they will respond to. I have not worked as a museum educator myself, and was uncertain what I could contribute that would be of interest to those who are.

So even though I was undertaking an act that I do regularly (writing), I was on edge. Unnerved. Stretched.

Such feelings, then, seem to resonate with two concepts that are at the very focus of the current investigations here on Art Museum Teaching.

The first of those is of art museum education itself.  When students come into a museum, or come into contact with art – sometimes for the first time – they may be out of their own comfort zones. That sensation can be in response to the physical space of the museum, where students might not know the rules or customs of the space; and it can be intellectual, when students have not encountered or don’t know about art and may not understand its language or how the art world is constructed. In many cases, students will feel both these sensations – out of place and uncertain of the context in which they find themselves.

The second way this sense of being stretched beyond comfort resonates is in the professional space of the museum, when ideas like the Elastic Manifesto that push for experimentation require that the museum itself, and its staff, make themselves deliberately uncomfortable.

Innovation and learning both require a certain amount of discomfort. They need a step into unknown territory, which will often be accompanied by a reciprocal jolt of fear. For some people who crave the new and who yearn to explore new spaces, this will be a great sensation. Such natural adventurers will likely thrive from these conditions. But there are many who will find such sensations stressful and do what they can to avoid them.

Henry Kissinger said that “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” It is a useful angle for conceiving of the role of both art museum educators, and advocates for change and experimentation in the museum.

Visitor interacting with Doris Salcedo’s “Shibboleth” at the Tate Modern. Photo by truu.

Getting uncomfortable is important for growth, but mitigating that discomfort to keep it at an acceptable level is also useful. How can we provide scaffolding for that process, so that those who embark on the journey to somewhere new have the tools and permission to explore and accomplish, without fear that making an error will be cataclysmic? How can we make the museum space a safe environment for exploration and unknowning, both for students and staff?

I’d argue that one step in this process is for those who advocate for change in others spend a little time getting uncomfortable themselves, to remember the mildly unpleasant sensations the process can evoke. Stretching yourself, reaching beyond your normal boundaries can remind you that even small moves into unfamiliar territory can be challenging. Even writing this post, beyond my own ‘normal’ space, has required that I extend and stretch myself to find a creative solution. It has been a thoroughly rewarding process, but was neither easy nor fast. It required getting uncomfortable, and living in that state for an extended period of time. Being aware of such things is useful.

What do you think? How can we as museum professionals make sure that the museum is a safe space to get a little uncomfortable? How can we scaffold the process of experimentation, innovation, and learning, to draw out creativity and productivity, whilst mitigating the pain of the unknown?

(And if you don’t normally comment on posts, feel free to use this as an opportunity to get a little uncomfortable and step beyond your own safe space.)

3 thoughts on “Getting Uncomfortable in Museums”

  1. You proposal did a good job in asking people to move out of their comfort zone and step a bit into the unknown. Jenn DePrizio also expressed similar idea in “Experimenting in Museums: The Living Room Project”: I believe the best rewards in life come from making oneself vulnerable.

  2. Yeah I agree. What I think is interesting is how easy it is to feel vulnerable, even when just a slight shuffle sideways from your normal comfortable space. Writing this post really wasn’t far beyond my normal boundaries, but the impact of that small gap was significant. It’s easy to conceive of vulnerability as being something very far from normal, but it’s really just a tiny half-step to the left.

Share Your Perspective & Add to the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s