Thursday, December 13, 2007

Straddling the Comfort Zone

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:
  1. 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?
  2. Interaction comfort. Visitors play a game that reveals their level of latent sexism. Is the experience revelatory or accusatory?
  3. Programmatic comfort. Floor staff pull visitors into an improvisational show. Do visitors feel like they have been swept into stardom or overexposed and humiliated?
  4. 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.

3 comments, add yours!:

rikomatic said...

The different holocaust museums confront these issues all the time, I think. The US Holocaust Museum in DC does an amazing job of confronting visitors with uncomfortable images, sounds, video and objects while also providing frequent resting places for people who are overwhelmed by it.

Every time I have visited, I am profoundly moved and empowered to live the dream of "never again." No other museum or exhibit has touched me this way.

That said, I have many friends (Jewish and non-Jew) who are absolutely repelled by the idea of going to a holocaust museum.

N said...

Civility has indeed become political correctness. I've been reflexively wishing people "happy holidays" this month, even though I'm an atheist and don't care a whit about the religious divisions that can be exacerbated by apparently wishing some a "merry Christmas." So I decided this morning to stop with the "holidays" and return to "Christmas," because it's just a freakin' day and I like to argue anyway.

So that's my gift to my fellow New Yorkers this season: intentional discord. I agree that confronting oneself and others with clashing opinions is necessary and important.

...or is it?

I was reading about this in an article in the CHE this morning. Cass Sunstein's piece included the following:

"...Let's explore an experiment conducted in Colorado in 2005, designed to cast light on the consequences of self-sorting. About 60 Americans were brought together and assembled into a number of groups, each consisting of five or six people. Members of each group were asked to deliberate on three of the most controversial issues of the day: Should states allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions? Should employers engage in affirmative action by giving a preference to members of traditionally disadvantaged groups? Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?

As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of "liberal" and "conservative" enclaves — the former from Boulder, the latter from Colorado Springs. It is widely known that Boulder tends to be liberal, and Colorado Springs tends to be conservative. Participants were screened to ensure that they generally conformed to those stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously both before and after 15 minutes of group discussion. What was the effect of that discussion?

In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others. Discussion made civil unions more popular among liberals and less popular among conservatives. Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion. Liberals, mildly favorable toward affirmative action before discussion, became strongly favorable toward affirmative action after discussion. Firmly negative about affirmative action before discussion, conservatives became fiercely negative about affirmative action after discussion."

The article is about how the Internet greatly enables niche and enclave building, for better but also for worse. I believe it is essential to progress and democracy that we, as educators, spur communication along the rift lines of opposing perspectives. Any teacher or museum that does so is doing a service to their students and society. I don't think you and I (and most other readers of M2.0) will disagree about that, Nina.

But that's the crux of the article -- we preach to our choirs. Can we get some anti-museum or anti-advocacy voices up here? Where's an antithesis to your thesis, Nina, so we might achieve synthesis? (Hail Hegel!)

I'll offer a weak attempt: there is a "too far," and I'm justified in staying away from it. Improv guru Keith Johnstone wrote that "those who say 'yes' have adventures, those who say 'no' stay safe." When does safety begin to trump adventure? When adventure becomes uncomfortable? Are the [generally older] people who stay away from discomfort wiser than those who seek it out? Does the natural aging process therefore foster conservative thought and action?

Also, are there some issues/exhibitions that can justifiably be avoided, because they're hollow? Many in the ASTC community favor ignoring the Intelligent Design movement over confronting or ridiculing it.

What about refunding? Can I ever ask for my money back after a contemporary art exhibition I didn't care for? (I send back unsavory dishes at restaurants, so why not?) Are there exhibits that are pointless, futile, annoying, deceptive? Should they exist (or receive taxpayer funding)? On the receiving end: M2.0 is about the user having a voice in the used, but are those voices ALWAYS useful?

...Is mine? :)

Yours in, as ever, temporary opposition,

Ariel Rolfe said...

I am so grateful to find this post - I wish there were more comments about it! I am a student of Museum Exhibition Planning and Design it seems like all we can talk about lately is controversy in museums. I came across this post because I'm researching for a paper about what it means to "push" visitors (Nina, your blog has been such a great resource for this, by the way). My paper is supposed to focus on the "real/unreal" in museums and my theory is that by consciously choosing to not present controversial issues or objects, museums are denying visitors a very real depiction of the world - of the things that they have confronted or will need to confront at some point in their life. The counter points, which you mentioned and "N" also pointed out, is that there is indeed a "too far." The problem, and maybe this is too simple but I'll say it anyway, is that visitors don't expect this out of museums... yet.

Many of us feel slightly vulnerable in regular museums because of the very rigid, structured and "no touch!" attitudes that so many places embody. And, then it seems museums are looking for how to can make a solid case for public funding, community/individual investment (of money and time) and as a vital tool with great educational value/resources... All while using the same old collections, buildings and other assets that they have interpreted in the same old ways they have for the past 10, 20, or 100 years. It's forcing museums and other types of institutions to re-think their strategic plans, missions and general branding. One of the popular ideas (at least in the Philadelphia area where I'm at - I assume it's a nation-wide occurrence) is for museums to be more involved with their communities and neighborhoods. I think that with the current trend of blurring the walls (literally and figuratively) which currently divide the museum from the communities surrounding it there is a really dynamic relationship that will happen in the future - where there will be expectations of museums surprising the visitor through exhibition design, content, participatory activities, and community/civic engagement. We're leaning away from the museum stereotype as a high-brow, school like environment to a more friendly conversation where people can feel free to agree and disagree (or, what I think as the "solving the world's problems" conversations after a couple of beers with friends/family). This in turn has potential to make museums places of communication and learning through conversations and in some cases, arguments. By presenting more of the controversial, or "real" issues, we as museum professionals, are showing vulnerability as an institution which in turn creates a special trust between museum and visitor. Eventually, it means a safe place for visitors and curators alike to engage in open dialogue about issues that would otherwise be awkward or offensive conversations.

Thanks for the topic - I guess I'll stop procrastinating and actually write my paper now.