Here's a simple game. Look at the circles above. Draw your own lines to define your "comfort zone." Which of these experiences would you include, and which would you put outside the realm of comfortability?
I finished reading the Museums and Social Issues journal on Civic Discourse, and it's brought up a groundswell of internal debate for me about museums and comfort. The crux of many of the articles in the journal is the difference between civic and civil dialogue, and the pursuit of energized, multi-voiced civic engagement that also feels safe and welcoming. How civil does the environment have to be to encourage civic participation? When does civil devolve into P.C. and stamp out civic possibility?
The hinge of this question is comfort. Yes, museums should be safe. But should they be comfortable? Should they feel familiar, or should they push you? How much safety do visitors need to feel comfortable participating, and how much squashes any interest in participation? It's the same question as the civic/civil. How do we balance comfort with challenge to create a great experience?
Four examples worth considering:
- Content comfort. An exhibit interprets a well-known and loved object or image as rooted in hate. Is that provocative in an insightful way, or overly confrontational?
- Interaction comfort. Visitors play a game that reveals their level of latent sexism. Is the experience revelatory or accusatory?
- Programmatic comfort. Floor staff pull visitors into an improvisational show. Do visitors feel like they have been swept into stardom or overexposed and humiliated?
- Creature comfort. Museums provide sparse seating and strict rules about food in the galleries. Does the furniture and rules promote "positive" museum behavior, or does it make visitors feel like they are in an unfriendly place?
My inclination in most situations is to challenge, confront, and yank people around--in the spirit of welcoming participation. So few experiences (museum or otherwise) encourage social, civic engagement. But I also appreciate the fact that inclusion in museums isn't just about participation--it's about safety as well. Some places, like the St. Louis City Museum, are able to offer a high level of comfort with a low level of safety. But the City Museum experience is more physical than emotional or intellectual. Maybe museums shouldn't offer cultural, civic thrills of the City Museum variety if the tradeoff is visitors feeling so uncomfortable that they avoid the institution.
Over the next four weeks, I'm going to dedicate a post to each of the four kinds of comfort mentioned above. There's often such a fine line with these things. The "Fear" exhibition currently at the California Science Center asks you to confront your fear of tarantulas, loud noises, and falling. Is that in the comfort zone? What about an exhibit that asks you to confront your fear of people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds? Would that go too far? How can we explore challenging content and encourage civic dialogue within a safe and positive--if not always comfortable--environment? Ultimately do some kinds of comfort (soft chairs? Supportive facilitators?) overcome the lack of others?
This is a post of questions. Hopefully we'll answer some over the next several weeks.
In October, I took a crew of ASTC attendees to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. The MJT provides a dark, confusing, unclear, beautiful experience. Some members of our group revelled in it; others were repelled. Every turn at the MJT is surprising, from encounters with fictitious x-ray bats to real dogs in the tea room. The first time I visited as a teenager, I was entirely uncomfortable, but conquering that discomfort turned it into a magical place unlike any other in my museum experience. It is the most emotionally evocative, soothing, challenging museum I frequent. And I believe it couldn't do that without being dark, labyrinthine, obtuse, and generally uncomfortable.
When have you had a (positive or negative) experience with comfort in a museum? With an exhibit? A program? A staff member? Another visitor? A chair?
Please share your stories, and I look forward to exploring this further with you over the coming Thursdays.