One of the most energizing things about my job is getting to go on site visits to museums all over New England. Sometimes it’s for a workshop or a behind-the-scenes tour, sometimes for networking events or exhibit openings, and sometimes it’s just for a field trip with my coworkers. Usually it’s somewhere I haven’t been before, but even when I have, as with our most recent field trip to the Harvard Art Museums, there’s always something new to satisfy my curiosity.
This time, it was a personalized museum-based oracular experience, led by Rainey Tisdale and Matt Kirchman, both trained guides in the Museum Sage technique. Each guide took a pair of us on an experience that’s part game of chance, part guided meditation through the museum galleries.
My colleague was brave enough to go first, so I got to enjoy watching her select random tiles from a bag held by our guide Matt, the numbers on which corresponded to the floor, room, and location of a random but specific artwork. While doing so, she was supposed to be thinking hard on her question about her life, which, we were directed, could be anything from ‘what color should I paint my living room?’ to a more serious relationship or career dilemma.
We escorted her (with her eyes closed) to ‘her piece’ and then Matt led her through a conversation (with notes taken by me as the companion-observer) about how the artwork related to her question, which she could choose to share or not. She did not, but I figured it would be fun to see how the conversation changed if I did when it was my turn.
Part of the experience is the sensory overload and dislocation of being guided blindly through the galleries. Fortunately, I did not have to go over any stairs with my eyes closed, because that would have ended poorly. It’s strange enough, circling the hallways on the second floor of the Harvard Art Museums, feeling the empty air of the courtyard to one side, and the gaps in the air from gallery entrances and staircases on the other side. It makes one feel quite insubstantial and unsure of whether there’s solid floor beneath one’s feet.
When Matt bid me open my eyes, I was standing in front of Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, a piece I have loved since childhood. Obviously, my first reaction was one of inarticulate but heartfelt joy and relief, especially since my colleague had been initially negatively taken aback by the piece she’d ended up with as her artistic oracle.
I like looking at and interpreting artworks. I like doing the same for literature (particularly poetry, which is meant to leave space for the reader to find herself within it). And I lived in Salem, Massachusetts for five years, so I have a reasonably high respect and tolerance for the ‘hoobie-joobie’ and arcane. So I was primed for the Museum Sage experience, and despite a few reservations about looking really silly, I did end up enjoying myself immensely. I also believe that the kinds of questions Matt asked as the guide would make it an easy experience for museum visitors of any familiarity or comfort level. And since one starts with that gut reaction – joy, confusion, comfort, familiarity, shock – there are no opportunities for ‘wrong’ answers, then or following.
The basic questions that led me through looking at the artwork were as follows:
- What are your first emotional reactions? What are your eyes drawn to first, what do you notice? [comfort, familiarity, her poise and dreaminess]
- Describe the artwork in front of you as if you were trying to get someone on the other end of a phone or someone without sight to be able to picture your piece. [young girl, perhaps twelve, bronze statue about 2.5 feet high on a pedestal about 2.5 feet high, with a satin ribbon and netted skirt. Her leotard straps are slightly off her shoulders and she’s standing in 4th position, one foot out in front of her, with her weight on her back foot, hands clasped loosely behind her, hair in a braid, chin raised, eyes distant]
- Is there anything about the construction of the piece (color, material, size, shape) that relates to or reflects on your life question? [the way she holds herself, the contrast of the flexibility and softness of her ribbon and tutu with strength of the bronze that forms her body]
- Would you be willing to share your question? [how best to be making space for my creative pursuits in an increasingly complicated and busy schedule]
- What advice do you feel this artwork is giving you in answer to your question? [readiness for movement, the calm before the leap, the discipline it takes to get good at an artform you love and look like it takes no work at all, the importance of taking a moment to yourself before jumping back into the fray]
- Finally, when all other conversation seems to have died down, go look at the label and read it. Does reading the title & label offer up any additional insights?
And in addition, as I was answering those questions, Matt was following up with active listening, adding in from time to time with questions like “I’m hearing you say ‘comfort’ a lot, does that apply in any way to your question?” or offering up a different point of view so one can look at the artwork, and the question, slightly differently.
So while I can see why some people compare it to using the museum like a deck of tarot cards, I think it’s actually better (and less potentially creepy), because while in tarot someone else reads the cards for you, in this case you’re using the artwork like an outside focus for your own thoughts. It’s kind of brilliant, if you feel like exposing the way your brain works to whomever you’re sharing the experience with.
And at the end, you have clarity (hopefully) or at least new determination about whatever your life question was, as well as a deeper understanding of an artwork and a whole new layer of associations to add to whatever you already did or didn’t know about that piece. I could have had difficulty with Little Dancer, knowing it so well already, for instance, but instead I simply have a new way to think about her, and can now consider her a visible, beautiful reminder of my personal creative goals.
Keep looking forward. Practice. Don’t let them see you sweat. Take your private moment when you can get it. Exercise discipline in pursuit of your craft. Relax, and when you’re ready, leap.
As a museum educator, I think this kind of experience can be a really useful tool to get people to interact with the museum in a new way, whether they’re constant museum goers or ‘newbies.’ It takes nothing but a bit of openness and a bit of observation on the participant’s part, and creation of a safe and conversational space on the guide’s part. After the field trip we spent a while talking to Matt and Rainey about how they envision using this technique in museums; it’s not easily scale-able to larger groups, and there’s no obvious existing business model to fit into. That being said, it’s interesting to consider offering this as an experience as a member perk or as a gift experience for people who are at a “questing” time of life; new parents, new high-school or college graduates, career-changers, the about-to-be or recently retired. (Although really, who isn’t at a questing time of life?) I’m guessing that in some situations the ‘game’ aspects would or could be enhanced, and in others the more meditative side would prevail. (Selecting your artwork through fortune cookies? Those folding paper fortune tellers everyone makes in fourth grade? A sketching or writing component for those who are uncomfortable speaking their reflections aloud?) Either way, I will be interested to see where this method of museum experiential intervention goes.
- If you want to hear more about Museum Sage, check out Season 3, Episode 2 of the Museum People podcast, where NEMA’s Dan Yaeger interviews Museum Sage founder Laurie Phillips.
- Looking to go check out Little Dancer for yourself? There’s a fun guide to get you started from The Met here. (And there’s a musical inspired by the statue that I wish I’d seen described here.) Can’t get to a museum with a version easily? The MFA Boston has some amazing detail images of their copy here.