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  • Dr. Kiersten F. Latham

Back to the Mindful Museum

What does meditation have to do with museum studies?

It may seem like an odd thing to ask. What does one have to do with the other? Meditation is a spiritual exercise, a practice that is personal, inward and quiet. Museums, on the other hand, are social places and are about knowledge, not religion or spiritual matters. Aren’t they?

Yet, more and more, in my studies I am seeing the relationship between the two. It began with my own doctoral research on numinous experiences with museum objects. My interest in this came from a deep curiosity about this reported phenomenon in the museum context (Cameron & Gatewood, 2003, 2012 and Gatewood & Cameron, 2004). I myself had had such experiences, and of course, that’s where my curiosity began. Numinous refers to deeply felt, often spiritually perceived, experiences and my study was about these intense encounters with museum objects. What were they like? Was there an “essence” (is it a shared occurrence with notable features)? I have spent many years now with this topic and it still intrigues me.

And then one day a few years ago, I visited a museum that has since come to be known as my “favorite museum in the world.” Those of you who know me or have taken a class from me, will know what museum this is. It is a very small, but intensely packed, beautiful place called the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. When I walked into this museum for the first time, I burst into tears; heaving, sobbing, unstoppable, tears. I couldn’t explain my reaction. I had an overwhelming sensation that I was “in church” (yet, I do not attend church)—but there was no doubt, this encounter was a spiritual one. When I look back on that day to try to figure out what transpired, there is no logical or objective way to explain it. Granted, I knew about the Pitt Rivers Museum before that visit, as I had studied it many years earlier as an anthropology undergraduate and then again as an academic in museum studies. But how can this account for my uncontrollable, and highly unexpected, outpouring of emotion? It was a profound experience and one that has stayed with me, even guided me, in my academic pursuits.

In the years since my doctoral work and encounters like this one, I have increasingly come to see the museum as a rich source of potentially deeply felt experiences, as a site of meaning-making--beyond education or instruction. My sense, many years ago, was that museums are first, sites of meaning-making and that the more popular function of learning is a part of that, but only a part. In fact, the focus has for many years been intensely on museums as sites of learning; so if learning is only one part of the meaning-making function of museums, then what else is there? Over the years, many museum writers have pined for the museum as a site for transformation (Carr, Gopnik, Silverman, Janes, Packer, Storr, and others). Many museums today burst with activity, sound, energy. Busy-ness and noisy-ness are lauded; quiet, contemplative spaces are considered traditional and old-fashioned. Today’s emerging professionals are often taught that success involves quantitative goals, socializing, and experiential products rather than smaller, local, more qualitative encounters. But today, several writers continue to ask, why can’t museums be about transformation and meaning-making rather than solely focused on learning? What might a transformative museum look like? What would a spiritual experience in a museum consist of? Can museums help with well-being? To use terminology from positive psychology, how can museums help people flourish?

Recently, I have decided to focus more fully on the profound and pleasurable in museum contexts (see Kari & Hartel, 2007 for an excellent description of this area of study in LIS). Specifically, I am investigating the intersection of Contemplative Studies (CS), positive psychology (eg. Seligman, 2012; Langer, 1989), and museology. Recent articles in museum journals hint at the turn we are taking towards this area of interest in museums (see for example, one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [Echarri & Urpi, 2018] and one about a Rothko painting [Smith & Zimmerman, 2017]). For some, the museum may be taking the form of a secular site for spirituality. This sounds highly oxymoronic, but the tangled web that is now Contemplative Studies (Komjathy, 2018), an emerging field, along with the quickly accruing work in museology on health (eg. Dodd & Jones, 2014), well-being (eg. Chaterjee & Noble, 2013), mindfulness (eg. Janes, 2010, Gopnik, 2007), and more (eg. Carr, 2003, 2006; Kaplan, et al., 1993; Packer & Bond, 2010) shows that something is clearly going on (and I want to know more!).

So, as I embark on this new (or at least more concentrated) chapter in my research, I will share findings and discoveries with you along the way. I officially begin my journey this spring at an iConference session in Sheffield, UK. Several other exciting things are planned as well, so stay tuned to this blog and let me know in comments if this topic is of interest to you, what your museum might be doing contemplatively, and your overall thoughts about it.

Reference List

Cameron, C.M. & Gatewood, J.B. (2003). Seeking numinous experiences in the unremembered past. Ethnology 42(1), 55-71.

Cameron, C.M. & Gatewood, J.B. (2012). The numen experience in heritage tourism. In The cultural moment in tourism, L. Smith, E. Waterton, & S. Watson, eds. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Carr, D. (2003). The Promise of Cultural Institutions. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Carr, D. (2006). A place not a place: Reflection and possibility in museums and libraries. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Chatterjee, H. & Noble, G. (2013). Museums, health and well-being. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Dodd, J. & Jones, C. (2014). Mind, body, spirit: How museums impact health and wellbeing. Leicester, England: Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

Echarri, F. & Urpi, C. (2018). Mindfulness in art contemplation. The story of a Rothko experience. Journal of Museum Education, 43(1), 35-46.

Gatewood, J.B. & Cameron, C.M. (2004). Battlefield pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park. Ethnology, 43(3), 193-216.

Gopnik, A. (2007). The mindful museum. Museum News, (Nov. ⁄ Dec),

Janes, R.R. (2010). The mindful museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(3), 325-338.

Kaplan, S., Bardwell, L.V. & Slakter, D.B. (1993). The museum as a restorative environment. Environment and Behavior, 25(6), 725–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916593256004.

Kari, J. & Hartel, J. (2007). Information and higher things in life: Addressing the pleasurable and the profound in information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(8), 1131-1147.

Komjathy, L. (2018). Introducing contemplative studies. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley Blackwell.

Langer, E.J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Packer, J. & Bond, N. (2010). Museums as restorative environments. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 421–36.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2012) Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Smith, J.S. & Zimmermann, C. (2017). The sanctuary series: Co-creating transformative museum experiences. Journal of Museum Education, 42(4), 362-368.