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  • Dr. Kiersten F. Latham

Magic in Museums: Mind Body Spirit

Since time immemorial, the trio of mind/body/spirit have been a subject of discussion in human thought. The term is often used to describe three intertwined components of human existence that, when balanced, signify well-being and health. Typically, it is used as a holistic approach to human being. In museumland, we do mind and body well, but not so much spirit. Why is that? If this persistent trio seems to describe human experience, why would museums ignore one of the major elements of the whole being? In mind, we have the intellect, the learning, the knowing, the interpretation. There is no argument that this is a major component of the museum experience for the visitor. And lately, we've done well on body, acknowledging the importance of touch, smell, sound as well as our more prevalent focus on sight. But when we begin to enter the realm of spirit, things get fuzzy. Despite the fact that a.) most people are spiritual in some way (not necessarily religious) and b.) many exhibits and objects in museums lend themselves to spiritual experience, museums do not regularly consider or include spirit in their programs. Please note that spiritual experiences are not always the same as religious experiences. Anyone can get that feeling of deep connection, transcendence, a powerful feeling, no matter their religious beliefs. THAT is spirit. I will never forget my own experiences with such powerful moments in museums. For example, my encounter with the Pitt Rivers Museum—I’ve talked about it in detail in another blog post (see The Slow Museum Movement) so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it was an overwhelming sense of “being in a holy space” for me. The experience was awe-inspiring, powerful, deeply felt, and wholly focused. It allowed me to escape all other things in my life and come to the single moment of this emotional encounter. There were no real words to describe it but as I sit here thinking about it, I can easily recall the feelings and surroundings. In the experience, in other words, I couldn’t identify any separate units called mind or body or spirit; they were all integrated into one. I have heard others’ stories like this as well, such as participants in my research on numinous experiences (Latham, 2013) and Michael Spock’s Philadelphia Stories (Spock et al., 2000) and this amazing video (Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, 2009) made about Philadelphia museums (I cry every time I watch it).

In 2002, in a brilliant article called, Taking a wider view of museum outcomes and experiences: theory, research and magic, Lois Silverman asked, “Where is the magic in museums? Where is the Soul?” (p. 7). She was referring to those moments of enchantment, insight, transformation, and deep significance. Expressing frustration that, in museums, we are losing our “divine side of life, of the power of imagination, myth, dream and vision…” (Gablik in Silverman, 2002, p. 23).

I believe that museums have the capacity to elicit these deep feelings, the "magic" that Silverman spoke of. In fact, I think we need to raise the magic (i.e. the spirit) in museums to fit comfortably alongside mind and body.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, however, why do we speak of these three things separately in the first place? That leads us down a complicated epistemological history that I can’t to get into here. Instead, let's look at another culture and how they might see the three terms to make my point. In Japanese, there is a word that connects the three—kokoro (Livni, 2017). It is a difficult word to define in English where we link the three separate words, automatically implying a division that simply doesn’t exist in Japanese. But in Japanese culture, the three aren’t intrinsically connected as one—they are one. The effects of such a conception are enormous. The term is understood as integral and applied to all aspects of life (see examples in this blog), not as separately defined categories.

The fact is, however, we are English-speakers and we do and have used separate words for mind, body, and spirit for a very long time. This is hard to undo. Even so, in museums we can intentionally choose to look at all three when we consider our work—from programs to labels to collecting object descriptions and more—and not privilege one over the other. We can ask ourselves what the whole human being brings to this encounter, not just what this intellectual human being brings to this encounter.


Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. (2009, April 23). Spark. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/OgrH6NwhrFk

Latham, K. F. (2013). Numinous experiences with museum objects. Visitor Studies, 16(1), 3–20.

Livni, E. (2017, April 6). This Japanese word connecting mind, body, and spirit is also driving scientific discovery. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/946438/kokoro-a-japanese-word-connecting-mind-body-and-spirit-is-also-driving-scientific-discovery/

Silverman, L. H. (2002). Taking a wider view of museum outcomes and experiences: theory, research and magic. Journal of Education in Museums, 23, 3–8.

Spock, M., Paterson, J., McManus, A. E., Bedford, L., American Association of Museums, & Philadelphia Museum of Art. (2000). Philadelphia stories: A collection of pivotal museum memories. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.