New Year’s Resolution:’Be More Uncomfortable?’

by ryan

I’m not sure how many of y’alls check out the web-blog-sites on the side of this page, yet I would like to call attention to a really interesting series that ‘Museum 2.0’ guru Nina Simon has been exploring regarding the nature of discomfort in Museum experience. In my orientations with the school groups I often say something like, “this museum is very different that what you might expect.” Right away the visitor loses some familiarity with the experience and is forced to look at things in a different and possibly uncomfortable manner. Now, I think that we all use this break from the ‘comfort zone’ to provide memorable, educational, and positive experiences. I think that Nina’s articles provide some great insights about both the Exploratorium specifically and museum philosophy in general.

Nina lays out the four categories for individual posts as Content, Interaction, Programmatic, and Creature Comfort.

I would check out all four articles (I think three have been posted already), but here are some excerpts related to our museum. In the post Program Content Nina writes, This fall, I went with friends to see the new Mind exhibition at the Exploratorium. We went on opening weekend and elected to watch a couple of short films related to humor, including one by Mira Nair on the laughing clubs of India…The film was long for a museum (35 minutes) and geared towards adults, so the audience had thinned appreciably by the end, when a staff member invited all of us to join her on the floor of the museum for our own laughter club. About twenty of us stood near the main entrance in a circle, laughing loudly, laughing like monkeys, laughing like idiots, and heartily enjoying ourselves. I came out of it truly amazed by the power of the museum—not just to elicit laughter, but also to induce bizarre and voluntary acts of silliness in front of and with strangers. It was the kind of experience I wish I had at lots of museum programs—the staff and the content pulled me out of my comfort zone, engaged me in something unusual, and made me feel great.

In the article Interactive Content, she writes, “Example two comes from the Exploratorium’s Mind exhibition…in which people are instructed to match up four kinds of words: male names, female names, work-related words, and family-related words, with two categories…As I watched people race to sort cards into the right categories, I wondered why the Exploratorium chose the gender/work/family test instead of the most famous IAT, the Race Test. The Race Test, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, asks people to associate black and white faces with words related to good and evil. The unpleasant result is that most people, black and white, associate white more readily with good and black with evil. Finding out that you associate women with family feels less icky than discovering that you associate black people with evil. (I won’t go into the reasons…) Does that make it a more comfortable experience? Does it make it a less impactful one?”

These excepts provide a starting point for discussions about the possible benefits and worries that occur when visitors are asked to do something outside the ordinary. It was really helpful for me to read all the articles and think about how we work each day to simultaneously make people comfortable and allow them to experience valuable discomfort for educational purposes. We usually do a great job at naturally assessing the situations and deciding how much to push the individual. Yet its important to think about these things so that the visitors don’t feel like they’re staring down the barrel of a cannon.