CFM’s newly released TrendsWatch 2013 highlights the growing desire of people to disconnect from our perpetual tether to technology in general and the Internet in particular. This led to a Twitter exchange with Andrea Michelbach, a Masters candidate in museology at the University of Washington, who is working on research about the well-being of museum professionals. I asked Andrea to share her thoughts on the subject of unplugging, sparked by a course she took on “Information and Contemplation” through the Information School at UW.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” –JON KABAT-ZINN
|Photo Credit: Andrea Michelbach|
|Photo Credit: Andrea Michelbach|
Granted, museums may already be a force for mindfulness in today’s busy world. In Lois H. Silverman’s The Social Work of Museums (2010), she points out the ability of museums to “foster health by providing relief from physical tension and mental anxiety”—a claim akin to those made about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Silverman goes on to reference the attention restoration theory of psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who suggest that museums can help solve “directed attention fatigue.” Museums can also provide objects for focus, as one might focus on the breath in some forms of meditation, and they can cultivate compassion, by linking the self to others.
In this 2007 article (also published in Museum News), Adam Gopnik says that today the mindful museum is one that is “aware of itself, conscious of its own functions and living in this moment.” To Gopnik, this means a museum that:
- Focuses on objects (potential parallels with breath meditation)
- Puts the “good stuff” out front (acknowledges the limits of our attention)
- Does not explain the unexplainable (lives in the present, recognizing but not dwelling on difficult thoughts)
- Encourages conversation (emphasizes personal experiences over a prescribed right or wrong)
From the on-the-ground perspective of a museum professional, mindfulness may find an even more practical place in museums through:
Public Programs. Given that museums can be places that cultivate health, introspection, and transcendence, as Silverman suggests, they may be a natural place for to practice mindfulness. This could take the form of a regular program, such as the weekly Mindfulness Meditations at the Frye Art Museum, or one that occurs less frequently, such as the Slow Art Day coming up on April 27. What if mindfulness simply took the form of a handout: “mindful ways to engage with objects”?
Human Resources. By HR, I really mean all internal museum operations, including administration. What if meetings began with one minute of silence? What if job descriptions and work plans were more realistic about the time people actually need for full attention and reflection? What if museum professionals had time to think?
Education. Instead of focusing on meeting the curriculum requirements of public schools, informal museum education could focus on what is lacking in current formal educational practices, including mindfulness. What if instead of more-better-faster, we focused on less-present-slower? How could museum education teach kids to better stay in the moment and attune their attention? I am reminded of the “Take This Fish and Look at It” story and of Visual Thinking Strategies, which asks, “What more can we find?”
Curation & Interpretation. What if object interpretation strategies focused more on the present and less on the past? What do the people of today think about this object’s meaning? This has been explored, for example, by Fred Wilson Mining the Museum for contemporary meaning of historic artifacts, or Barbara Bloom envisioning how Judaic objects might converse with each other today. How might this approach be expanded to encompass other voices, as well?
There are undoubtedly numerous other ways mindfulness could find a meaningful place in museums. And maybe your museum is already giving mindfulness a home. If so, please share what you’re doing. The best way to begin exploring these ideas may be through conversation. Are we, as a field, mindful? Do we want to be more mindful? How are we doing that—or how might we—in our particular jobs, at our particular institutions?
Personally, as someone about to enter the museum field, I hope my first full-time museum job offers opportunities for mindfulness. Will I have time to think creatively and deeply? When I leave work, how “on” will I have to be through email and my phone? And once I am in that first position, how will I be able to influence my immediate sphere to be more mindful? I believe this approach to mindfulness will prepare me to be the person I want to be, living in the public world. I would love to hear from readers about their experiences with mindfulness in the workplace.