Essays About the Humanizing Experiences that Have Changed Museums from Within and Without

Museums have long been viewed as exclusive, excluding, and as antiseptic to intimacy. Yet the intrusion of humanized experiences into museum spaces has revised this historical vision in the past few decades.  Professional organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums have called upon their members to reconceive museums as community cornerstones and promoters of physical and emotional well–being. Museum experiences – cultivated by curators, educators, artists, activists and marketers alike – have come into sharp focus as the reason for being for these communal spaces.  The once silent, hallowed spaces have come alive with the boisterous sounds of school children, the laughter and jovial conversation across groups of elders, the sounds of music, community art–making, and communal assembly. 

The eleven essays and centerpiece interview that make up this volume examine the kinds of human experiences and interactions that have converted the once unapproachable museum to a space of enlivenment and enrichment; experiences, furthermore, that take place most constructively and even transformatively in a museum context. All of the contributors to this collection bring experiential models to life in their essays: models of education, of sensory engagement, of celebrating cultural history, of confronting the past as a vehicle for changing the present and envisioning a different future, and of bridging the divides that were only deepened by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020. 

Why Experiences?

A range of answers to this question lies within each and every chapter of this book. Several contributors provide answers that are particularly direct and powerful. 

Reflecting on the college museum that hosted the innovative learning and teaching experiences that educator Garreth Heidt describes in his essay, he assesses the museum’s role in this way: 

the…museum saw itself as more than a repository for valuable artifacts where the learning was unidirectional, from object to person…. Instead, it saw itself as part of a dialogue, a space where ‘knowing was doing,’ where learning was relational, embodied, and alive…a space for participatory experiences where students encountered artwork and in doing so, encountered themselves.

Envisioning the museum as a sanctuary of sorts for people living with dementia and their care partners, Jessica Kay Ruhle, museum educator and director, views it through a lens of social justice and equity: “when museums prioritise this audience and offer opportunities for appropriate engagement and participation [read experience], the institutions make a public statement about the societal value of older adults and individuals with cognitive differences.”

And attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, when asked to reflect on why museums should prioritise their roles as creators and conveyors of experience, responds

When you live through something, when you experience something, it just has a reality that it can’t have when it’s imagined. I am much better prepared for the moment that I am in because I’ve been surrounded by people who have taught me really important things about struggle, …about being honest, …about perseverance, …about resilience. They’ve shown it to me and that experience has become really powerful as a form of modeling. And so if we can create museums that provide experiences that model things for people, that help them live, help them navigate complexity, help them overcome, help them get past trauma and struggle, then I can think of nothing more important we can do.

It is my hope as editor of this volume that our readers will engage with this collection of essays as one set of models intended to inspire rethought responses to this moment and the many unpredictable moments to come: models of outside–the–box teaching and learning, purposeful and persistent acts of inclusion, of restoration, of empathy, of community building, and of caring. We are just at the start of this conversation, and there are many more voices in many more places around the world from listening to which we can all benefit. All rooted in experience. And all within (or without) museum walls.

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