Aesthetic Experience in Arts and Health Research Analysis

Froggett, Lynn orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-8406-6231 (2017) Aesthetic Experience in Arts and Health Research Analysis. In: Arts, Health and Well-being: a theoretical inquiry for practice. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-4438-9136-3

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Museum based learning and cultural (un)consciousness

What do we keep stuff for? In particular what lies behind the cultural inclination to select, collect, conserve and display objects and keep them expensively in museums for public benefit? The regional Harris Museum local to the university where I work in Preston in the North West of England is home to a permanent collection and runs temporary exhibition programmes housed in a late 19th century building, resplendent with neo-classical portico and pediment of self-conscious grandeur, raised above the main city square on what appears from the front aspect to be a massive plinth. In fact the portico is for the birds. A side entrance allows access to human visitors via a gloomy, atrium tucked away underneath. Once inside, the museum offers a monumental setting, with rotunda and grand staircase from of four stories rising 120 feet to the lantern that surmounts the roof; the walls are embellished with stucco friezes. It is as if the visitor must be chastened and over-awed, the better to abase her before the high culture she is about to receive.

Following Adorno (2002) we might consider that the import of the cultural institution lies less in its overt function than in what it reveals of societal contradictions by virtue of its own dynamic relation to the social and political context, and the public it ostensibly serves. This changes over time and in its current form The Harris has become a site of struggle between modernisers who want to put culture at the heart of local regeneration, so transforming the museum into a civic hub, and conservationists who hope to preserve an emblem of Victorian civic pride intact for the edification of future citizens. In the febrile political climate of Brexit, the museum is also enmeshed in tensions between cosmopolitanism and provincial retranchement, and between sentimental nostalgia and the manic optimism of populism.

There is much in museum curation and education, as well, as in the contents of institutions such as The Harris that enables us to reflect on what we unconsciously value as a society, what we repudiate, and how these change through processes which at the time are themselves socially unconscious. I became interested in how cultural institutions relate to their publics, when it occurred to me that part of what they do is offer a space for the contemplation of what we might tacitly know, but have not yet conceived – or what we might call the ‘unthought knowns’ of cultural life (Bollas 1987). The function of the museum is as much to hold the line against a collective forgetting through memorialization (Mack 2003) as it is a repository for the evolving symbolic life of city, region or nation. Museum collections may literally ‘hold’ tacit or disavowed cultural knowledge until there is an interpretive community ready and willing to receive it. Such is arguably the case with historical records of slavery or the subjugation of aboriginal peoples. Over time, and in the particular quality of setting the museum can provide, we encounter objects that stimulate associations, thoughts and feelings whereby the unthought known can find symbolic form in material culture and be recognized. In this respect the educational function of the museum is not so much to inform us of culture as to hold up a mirror to it so that, as Winnicott (1971) would have put it, each generation discovers for themselves what is there to be found. As individuals when we visit a museum we encounter an array of objects into which we can project self states and aspects of our habitual relations to people and things. They may become objects of identification and identity formation (Newman and Maclean 2006). They may also offer an aesthetic third (Froggett and Trustram 2014) around which we can elaborate new symbolisations.

In this article, rather than approach the knowing and learning that takes place in museums from the field of museology, I take a psycho-societal perspective drawing on a psychoanalytically informed tradition of thinking on culture from British and Continental traditions that converges on the problem of our relation to the sensible world. The question of interest here is how what is socially unconscious, or in the hinterland of consciousness, can be apprehended through the collections that a museum houses. Museology in general has been more concerned with what we can ‘see’ than with what is ‘hidden’, although the accent on visual display has begun to change as the ‘post-museum’ seeks out new opportunities for encounter and communication with its audiences (Barrett 2011). This opens the door to a psycho-societal perspective that asks what emerges in the space of interaction between museum going publics, the museum contents (including its personnel), and the society on whose behalf this work is done. I shall give an example of the interpretive potentials of material objects followed by a brief overview of the educational function of the museum in its instructional and interactive modes. This will help to clarify the museum’s epistemic role (Born & Barry 2010, Muller et al 2006, Miettinen and Virkkunen 2005) in enabling an interaction with its objects that produces reflexive cultural knowledge.

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