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

28 March 2012

A Twelfth Sounding: Dreaming New Thoughts

Between Self and Utopia

The chairs have been intriguingly rearranged into concentric, snowflake like circles. The plan is to share dreams and images, and facilitate the development of more collective imaginings. Julian Manley is a specialist in Psycho-Social Studies, particularly 'social dreaming', and has facilitated a number of such workshops over the last six years.

Social dreaming can create a bridge between the self and the environment - such as between the museum visitor and the museum environment - and thus encourage the creation of new spaces of engagement. In difficult situations, exhibitions displaying potentially problematic or traumatic materials and subjects, such spaces can be particularly useful, he argues, if not necessary. For sometimes people leave such sites with strong, perhaps negative feelings, and no ability to voice and vent them.

In social dreaming sessions, the images which can be seen in an exhibition can be brought into the workshop, and shared, expressing emotions through the symbolic language of those images.

What is social dreaming? The best way to explain it is to do it. So the delegates are asked to speak their nighttime dreams, or the images which arise in association with those shared by others.

This is a quiet session. People share recurring dreams, dreams of turbulence, dreams of buildings, of places, of people. Of running, flying, falling. A lot of these dreams talk about space, and the actions of people within it - when they misjudge it, or have to use it, or when familiar spaces change, or fall into ruin. Sites in which time and space collapse...

How can such sessions really be used within a museum context? How can this kind of thinking be used to make things mean differently? I do wonder, when we walk around a museum with a group or partner, and we talk and share, we are, in some sense, sharing those similar feelings, dreams, imaginings already. This social engagement with spaces and objects changes what they mean. That new meaning is no more or less valuable than the imaginings we have in our solitary contemplation; but they are of a very different character. When we set them in a defined context such as this, we change them once again - once again, perhaps, they become less personal, a level more objective and public. Do they allow us to come to some accommodation with strong, perhaps uncomfortable emotions which we might have experienced? To resolve unanswered questions and things which the exhibition did not enable us to express. What can a museum learn from this? What information about the displays, and how they should treat visitors, can they glean from such sessions? How would they - and should they - integrate such events into planning their exhibitions, activities and designs?

The delegates themselves raised a number of interesting questions about dreams, some of which question how such workshops might work, or be assumed to work. For instance, are dreams culturally specific? Are there shared symbols which are shared between individuals, and between cultures? And do those symbols mean the same thing in each context?

They wondered too whether there is something more vivid about the terrifying dream? Space and time do not do things they're supposed to do, and we seem to loose agency, loose control - which can be wonderful and frightening at the same time. What about lucid dreaming, where we are the architect? What about dreams of unknown things, of empty spaces and unrecognized people?

I wonder what I dream about when I'm in a museum, and how those dreams change depending upon who I'm with. Do I dream of space? Do I dream of unreal spaces, places beyond my immediate physical experience? Images both experienced and imagined? I suspect I do.

In sharing dreams, I argue we alter them. We share them to make them concrete, perhaps, to give them a reality, an existence outside our own heads. But they are not, as Elee and Will intimated yesterday, direct representations of those original dreams. For they are already memories, memories related, changed and reinterpreted, in these sessions, by the people around us.

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