Inviting Intimate Conversations on Our Fears and Anxieties about the Future

Written by Justina Barrett, Catherine Ricketts, Greg Stuart, and Alicia Valencia

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art during this moment of unprecedented change in the face of the COVID-19, we’ve been thinking about our past in order to grapple with the anxieties we have about our future, as many of those who are reading this in 2020 are probably doing. It’s in this light that a public program we developed, called The Designer Is In, feels remarkably prescient.

In October of 2019, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the first stage of the exhibition, Designs for Different Futures, which is a collaboration with our institution, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition explores how contemporary designers imagine, respond to, and ask questions about the future. As we in the Public Programs department were in the planning stages for the exhibition, we were noticing that many of the issues tackled in the exhibition, including climate change, the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives, and the heightened role of digital surveillance–just to name a few–were making us feel anxious.

In talking with one of the curators of the exhibition, Michelle Millar Fisher, we envisioned that visitors would need a space to process, relax, and decompress after engaging with this content. This led to the creation of the Futures Therapy Lab, a space where on any given day, visitors could make art, peruse a library of books crowdsourced from staff and community members about themes in the exhibition, respond to questions on a share wall, and just generally hang out.

The Futures Therapy Lab was also designed to be an active programming space, with artist talks, drop-in art-making workshops, a program called SciFi Sundays–in which local science fiction authors would read excerpts of their works–and more.

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Visitors interact with the Futures Therapy Lab’s offerings.

Within the scope of programming we were developing for the Futures Therapy Lab, we felt we needed something more specifically tethered to the world of “therapy,” and in this lab space of experimentation, we wanted to engage visitors on a smaller scale at the level of intimate conversation, and we thought designers could fill this role with our visitors. We were certainly not imagining that they would replicate or replace the role of a trained and licensed therapist, but that if we approached the topic of therapy in a playful way, it could be an opportunity to engage our audiences in the kind of rich conversations we were imagining the exhibition would provoke. We also wanted to go into this project with the idea that a designer may not be interested in solving problems or bringing visitors to a meaningful resolution, but that it was more important to use this opportunity to pose questions and challenge assumptions, much like a good therapist would do.

To meet these goals, we implemented The Designer Is In, bringing designers and visitors together for discussion in the Lab after experiencing the exhibition. The cast of designers who could facilitate a purposeful experience in the Lab was central to the efficacy of this program. The design field is by nature broad, cross-disciplinary, and constantly evolving, and this is especially true in the case of the Designs for Different Futures exhibition which covers an expansive range of themes. Multiple and potentially conflicting ideas may come to mind when imagining the role of a “designer” – how they tackle big questions, work through problems, and test possible solutions. For our purposes, we looked for “designers-in-residence” who could explore these complex impressions together with visitors, and approach speculating about the future in constructive, collaborative ways. We reached out to artists, designers, and practitioners from the Philadelphia area who, not only grapple with similar questions or topics to the ones posed in the exhibition, but also maintain civically minded, people-centered creative practices that depend on the kinds of collaboration and conversations we intended to encourage.

For two hours on Thursdays and Saturdays, a designer-in-residence was available in the lab to speak one-on-one with visitors about the issues and content presented in the show. A total of 10 designers-in-residence participated in the Designer Is In, coming from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, including Maia Chao of Look at Art Get Paid; Paul Farber from Monument Lab; Yadan Luo from OLIN; Raja Schaar from Drexel University; Michelle Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania; Stephanie Carlisle of KieranTimberlake and Uncertain Terrain; Andrew Wit of WITO; Scott Page of Interface Studio; and Alex Gilliam of Tiny WPA. Our intention was not to have a designer-in-residence speak to the specifics of every object in the exhibition. Instead, each individual was to offer their own perspectives regarding designing and planning for the future, based on what they encounter in their own distinctive practices. We asked designers-in-residence to speculate with visitors about the experience of designing for the future in terms of their own disciplines, and provide deeper dives into specific themes when it made sense given their backgrounds.

To structure this experience, and further suggest therapeutic engagement, we designed an “intake form” for visitors to fill out before meeting with our designers-in-residence. The intake form included brief Likert scale questions to gauge a sense of confidence or apprehension in what design can accomplish. Below these initial questions, we included a brief description of the designer-in-residence present in the Lab that day, and a few different topics specific to their practice which could act as starting points for discussion, such as “Public Art and Belonging”, “Walls and Bridges”, and “Youth-Designed and Built Placespaces.” As part of the development process, we knew we needed to have outside collaborators working with us on the intake form and experience of The Designer Is In, so we partnered with Josephine Devanbu from Look At Art Get Paid and Paul Farber from Monument Lab. Devanbu and Farber helped us think through the experience of the interaction between a visitor and a designer-in-residence from start to finish, and with their input we designed an intake form that could provoke questions, start a dialogue, and guide the conversation.

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The designer is in fact “in,” and ready for visitors. Photo by Raja Schaar.

Now that we had built and designed the program, would visitors participate? Certainly, this is a question that precedes every public program, but we were dipping our toes even more into the unknown than usual. Fortunately, from the very beginning, we found that our designers-in-residence were almost continually engaged with visitors during their two hour stints, and visitors were spending as much as a half hour talking with them.

We collected reactions from visitors on the back page of the Intake Form, asking, “What’s one thing you want to take with you from your experience today?” Some expressed their reactions to the exhibition itself, which ranged from “Terrifying,” to “Yolo baby!” Those who felt tense after seeing the exhibition reported that they appreciated the opportunity to talk through that tension. At the end of their Designer Is In sessions, one wrote, “I feel better. Interesting collaborations and innovations. There really is good here!” Others, after seeing the exhibition, expressed a desire for human interaction: “I just want to connect, be in touch;” “Where is the human element amid so much technology?” Designer Is In offered just such an opportunity, and elicited responses like, “A pleasure to discuss this exhibit with a designer. [It made] this exhibition personal.” In addition to the personal nature of the program, visitors appreciated its informative quality: “Important to have experts communicating a well-informed perspective about design rather than reactive or overly optimistic models. Thank you for having experts present to interpret this exhibit,” wrote one visitor.

We concluded each designer’s residency with open-ended follow-up questions. One theme in their feedback was the benefit of this program to the designers’ own practice. The opportunity to speak about their work with a diverse cross-section of visitors sparked new ideas and offered fresh perspectives. For instance, designer-in-residence Raja Schaar reported having spoken to a neuroscientist, an international diplomat for climate change and women’s rights, a banker, a software developer, recent design graduates, kids in STEAM magnet schools, videographers, and dancers. These conversation partners offered her “a totally new perspective” and “a new strong argument point for [her] research.” Often, designers’ work is very specialized, and the Designer Is In program allowed our collaborators to test ideas and to practice discussing their work with the general public, proving mutual benefit.

Now that this program is finished, we’ve been asking ourselves what lessons we’ve learned, and how can these lessons be applicable to the broader museum community, regardless of whether this exhibition travels to your site or you have a dedicated programming space like our Futures Therapy Lab.

Communication is hard. Communication is crucial.

One of the challenges that we faced in developing this program is how to communicate what the program even is to visitors. While the experience of therapy might be one that many of our visitors share, it’s not expected in a museum setting, and it took a lot of explication, both on the part of our Futures Therapy Lab staff–educators who were on the front lines of communicating with the public in the space–and on the part of the designers-in-residence themselves. We could have done more to better communicate the nature of the program at the outset, and even–after some helpful feedback from one designer-in-residence–at the start of the exhibition before visitors even entered the Futures Therapy Lab.

A more positive outcome regarding communication around this program was the internal communication engendered amongst us as staff. Even though the four of us all worked in Public Programs at this time, we all have different programs we are responsible for, and somewhat different audiences. It was a nice opportunity to break down even the small silos that exist among us.

From “we” back to “me”

One of the biggest takeaways from this program, especially given how much our regularly scheduled programming and teaching takes the form of group conversations or even larger format lectures and performances that reach hundreds, is the importance of reaching our visitors one person at a time. Furthermore, by creating a public space for “therapy,” our hope is that this program in some small ways reduces the stigma regarding seeking treatment for mental health.

As we’ve been reflecting on this program through the lens of our own thoughts and anxieties during this period of global pandemic, this type of programming feels more relevant than ever. Live interpretation in special exhibitions in our museum has typically been limited to guided tours with volunteer docents. The Futures Therapy Lab and the Designer Is In more specifically gave us a footprint within the exhibition to populate with educators and collaborators; it opened us up more (in the art museum world) to strategies employed by progressive historic site and history museum practitioners when dealing with difficult content.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience trains its members to challenge visitors’ preconceptions, foster dialogue and spark civic action that enables the past to activate the future. Historic sites across the country that are responsibily interpreting the history of slavery and race have turned to live interpreters to do so.

In a post-pandemic America, museums will have to argue for why they matter even more. What if museums just become warehouses of objects with only online programming? These curated spaces of reflection and emotional engagement could be a reason to come into the building. The live, skilled facilitator helping visitors process the content of a gallery may prove to be the best return on investment museums will make.

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Illustration from Futures Therapy Lab staff member, Samuel Solomon, reflecting on The Designer Is In.

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About the Authors

JUSTINA BARRETT holds a master’s degree in early American material culture from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware complements well her interest and love of sharing Philadelphia with visitors. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she works as Site Manager for Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove, two historic homes in Fairmount Park administered by the Museum. She also designs programs and trains guides to share the Museums’ collections with the public. Working with Museum curators, preservation professionals, and other stakeholders, she advocates for preservation and public access to local historic sites.

CATHERINE RICKETTS works on performance programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a special focus on music programming. She is also an essayist and songwriter. Her writing on art, music, grief, and spirituality has been published in The Millions, Image, and Paste. Read and listen at http://www.catherinedanaricketts.com

GREG STUART is Coordinator of Adult Public Programs and Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to joining the PMA, he worked in Public Programs and Education at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, and as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

ALICIA VALENCIA is a former ArtTable Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working in Public Programs, and holds an MDes from Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. She completed her undergraduate education as a Brown|RISD Dual Degree student, earning an Sc.B in Psychology from Brown University and a BFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She has previously worked at the Boston Museum of Science in Early Childhood Interpretation, the Providence Children’s Museum, and the Decorative Arts and Design Department at the RISD Museum.

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Featured Image: Installation view of Another Generosity, a work in which visitors encounter an inflatable pod measuring 15 feet in diameter; first created in 2018 by Finnish architect Eero Lundén and designed in this incarnation in collaboration with Ron Aasholm and Carmen Lee. The pod slowly expands and contracts in the space, responding to changing levels of carbon dioxide as visitors exhale around it, and provoking questions about the ongoing effect of the human footprint on the environment.  Photo from philamuseum.org exhibition website.

One thought on “Inviting Intimate Conversations on Our Fears and Anxieties about the Future”

  1. Thank you for sharing! I was fortunate to observe many different schools groups in this exhibition in focused conversations guided by PMA educators. It had me thinking about how important art museum educators are to help students process their emotions. I blogged about it here: https://rka-learnwithus.com/social-and-emotional-learning-is-imperative-and-in-museum-educators-wheelhouse/ I am filing this post away with others about the essential-ness of museum educators!

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