Finding connections in words, images, and an imagined past

“In our world, it is knowledge and experience and communication that will best palliate and heal fear and emptiness.” – David Carr

I just finished reading David Carr’s A Place Not A Place, a poetic reflection on his experiences in museums and libraries over the course of his adult life. His accounts of his experiences and ideas about how such institutions can reach out to visitors and make their experiences educational and transformative are honest, raw, and sometimes frustrating and I feel a peculiar connection to his words. He grapples with how we can encourage connection and how easily we can disrupt this process, unknowingly and ignorantly pulling connection away from our viewers. And he talks about the fragility of our experiences and how they can mark us (scar, perhaps is a better word). Above all, however, he believes that as museum professionals and librarians we have an opportunity to provide access to life-altering content and to help our users make connections and find meaning. That, truly, can be powerful.

His text got me reflecting a little myself on recent experiences in museum settings. Certainly having worked in museum education I can understand his concerns for offering context, information, and connections in a way that draws people into the works. And I can also understand how easily we get in the way of quiet and profound reflection, of how easily a tour can excite or discourage, a discussion engage or alienate. I have seen docents dominate visitors and make them unsure of their own experiences, or to infuriate and embarrass them by putting them on the spot. I have also seen programs and tours delivered with such knowledge and enthusiasm that the viewers are drawn into the worlds created before them and leave in active discussions and undoubtedly in search of additional information and similar experiences. I have seen the same accomplished through sophisticated displays and interpretations. The latter, in fact, I experienced at the Cummer Museum of Art just recently.

What I found riveting about this museum was the connections to the past. David Carr references the importance of directing attention to the hand of the creator, which we sometimes lose amidst the controlled environment of a gallery space. The Cummer, in its attention to the history of the space, to the original eclectic collection of the founder, succeeded in spotlighting the mind at work behind the current collection areas. It created a connection to the vision of a woman that simply loved art and felt it deserved a prominent place in our society. A gallery space devoted to her donations, where a small Rubens was displayed alongside a Winslow Homer and a Childe Hassam, coupled with the historic gardens outside and the historic touches and photographs present in a restored version of a room in her home helped me to create a connection to the past based largely on another person’s experience–and it was absolutely riveting.