The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Eighth - Spirituality, perhaps Enlightenment

Lazarus Gent, Can Museums Meet Spiritual Needs? Should They?

Imagine a happy space. Now make a memory token. Imagine a tin passed around the room, the contents of which you can exchange for your token, should you so desire. Lazarus' research focusses upon an ethnographic study of projects which support spirituality and mental health.

It began with a project which used neolithic Northumbrian rock art , which has the potential, through its great age, lost intention, and abstract form, for multiple meaning making and healing. These spaces, to me, are already spaces of wonderment. I can wonder in the landscape, even a landscape lacking in what we might classically term art, but in landscapes hewn and formed both by man and the movements of eons. But there is a sense about these works, a sense of sacredness which come from absence, but it is a place of sacred intimacy. You can, through these objects, touch a person who vanished long ago, or find something of yourself which you lost or never even knew. They are, for certain, spaces of healing, whether you have a faith or otherwise, for they are places which allow a reconnection with something very trancelike and ancient, something very embedded in our root-consciousness. In these places, we encounter art in a very physical way, can wonder barefoot in the stonescape and immerse ourselves in the water. We touch the earth and sky. We become a part of the world once more, particularly important in a world of simulated images. We take time, have a chance to be mindful and unburdened, present in the space and connected to that which we were missing. We can be inspired to make dreams, dreaming selves and other things, but dreams which can have a concrete, tangible, life changing result.

What difference is made when the interaction with these wonderful beings - for I do not like to call these living stones artefacts or objects - occurs within a museum space. For their placement is critical. In museums, they become labelled and interpreted. We encounter the rocks through the words written about them, not about the rocks themselves. The sensory experience is mediated, controlled - noise comes from other galleries - we are managed in our understanding of things. We labour at understanding, and often forget the information. We cannot touch. Unlike the encounter in the field, which can last many hours, in the museum each rock was gazed upon for an average of five seconds, but spent twenty reading the label, and much more time interacting with the virtual simulation. But some people are still brave enough to touch.

Museums should - and I think they can - learn from this distinct difference. They don't have to alienate people from artwork. They don't have to perpetuate that sense of dissociation which so pervades our culture. Admittedly there are difficulties, practical and social. But if we are to engage with spiritual objects, to have theraputic and engaging experience, to make true inspirational, moral and emotional connections, we have to tackle these difficult problems. For we can find wonder, we can register the impact of the object, create an exchange, reciprocation. If you had something which encapsulated that transformative, powerful feeling of the field, in tangible form, and could you bring that into the museum?

In passing around the tin, we've exchanged these things, created a hoard of wonderment, and taken away a tangible link which we can link to those emotional memories. There's a question here about the relationship between the sign-signified, about the nature of the authentic object which chimes with that questioning of Helen and Darko and Zeljka. What is the real object? Perhaps it is not the corporeal thing, the interpretation which surrounds it. Perhaps, rather, the object, and its transformative power, comes from being able to touch - in every possible emboddied and conceptual way - the emotional space between.

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