What is the role of wonder in a museum experience? Can it be achieved in a traditional museum if you occupy the space between total novice and expert where many adults reside?

When I was a child, museum visits were full of wonder. A lot of that falls under what Summer Block describes as the magical thinking of childhood in this piece. As children, we know nothing of the world and therefore everything is possible. A museum was full of possibilities; things that were lovely, things that were scary, things that were alive. There’s a reason why the Night at the Museum movies (or Toy Story, or, when I was young, The Indian in the Cupboard) have been so successful. They show a world of objects coming to life that is assumed to be possible for kids. When every day is an explosion of new information (which, I’d say, is probably technically true for adults, too, but we know how to filter better than kids), you don’t really know where the line is between what you know and what you don’t know. 

I have only recently begun to enjoy visiting art museums. I have never taken an art history course in my life, but I am ~in the museum world~, so I feel like I should know better than to walk into an art museum as if I’m, like, allowed there or something. That is a crazy way to think! I’m a museum educator! I believe that museums are for everyone! I want people to feel empowered to make museums their own! I work every day to open up museum experiences so they’re not just for experts! And here I am, telling you that I thought art museum experiences were just for experts. Or, rather, I thought that I was not enough of an expert in art to have a legitimate experience in an art museum. I knew the line between what I know and don’t know about art is sooooo far on the novice end of things that I distrusted myself.

A few weeks ago, I visited my hometown art museum with my spouse and we had a grand old time. We took selfies and climbed on art (that you were allowed to climb on!) and talked about what things from our own lives the pictures on the walls reminded us of. We posed like sculptures and took breaks sprawled out on benches and imagined dialogues between people in paintings. It was a jin-yoo-wine fun time, and at the end I told him about how I’d just discovered art museums and what fun they can be. I will probably never have a deep knowledge of art history, but I can look closely and trust myself to have an emotional response. And I can allow myself to have an inquiring mind and dig out those facts and stories that interest me. And I can embrace the wonder of a whole bunch of objects collected in one place because we think they tell us something about what it means to be human.

On Sunday, I drove through rural Alabama to a town called Seale, where artist Butch Anthony lives and runs his Museum of Wonder. We meandered through his drive-through art galleries, and then spent time playing with the dogs that wander the property while we waited for him to arrive and open the museum. Inside the barn and adjoining spaces, Anthony’s art hangs next to taxidermied animals, found objects, and a variety of what he continuously referred to as “junk,” which I kind of love. His workshop is also in the same space, and we got to poke our heads in and talk a little bit about his process of creating art. It feels a little like an old roadside attraction and a little like a very well-curated flea market and a little like an art museum. And the experience had everyone in my party embracing the process of discovery, of coming around a corner and seeing something surprising. I left there feeling invigorated and curious and, yes, full of wonder. Get a glimpse in this video:

I also left there wondering about wonder in a traditional museum experience. The Museum of Wonder is a special place, because it’s an art installation in itself. Butch Anthony can control the entire experience, without reporting to a board of trustees or outside stakeholders. I work in a history museum. It can be difficult to sell the idea of wonder in a history museum, because we have the idea that visitors to a history museum can come away with an understanding of the real way things were in the past. We don’t want to inspire wonder, we want to instill knowledge. I have a couple of problems with this idea.

  1. There’s no one “real” historical narrative.
  2. Existential wonder is a part of the human experience.
  3. It’s putting reality and wonder at odds with each other, when they can and do live harmoniously together.

I think that if you inspire feelings of wonder in a visitor to a history museum, it’s because you have successfully engaged them in thinking about history as a real, living thing, and about people who lived in the past as real, [previously] living people. And, I think that encouraging feelings of wonder in the museum, whether in an art or history or science or whatever museum, will make people feel empowered to explore and to stoke the flames of curiosity. It will make them feel that the museum is safe for those who are not content experts, which most of us are not. It will allow them to play in informal educational environments, and to learn in ways that work for them about things that interest them. And that will, in turn, encourage them to create their own art or historical knowledge-making or science experiments or whatever.

When I have schoolkids on a tour of my museum, I always end by encouraging them to think of themselves as part of history, albeit a history that hasn’t quite been written yet. “Whose stories might we be hearing in a history museum in 20 years?” I ask. The moment when they realize that their own stories are still being written and might have historical impact is a moment when wonder dawns on their faces. And that’s awesome. I would love for us to find more ways to insert discovery, and exploration, and even wonder into all museum experiences.