I participated in Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum, a recently completed massive online open course (MOOC) presented by the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies department and Future Learn.
Week three of this course explored the role of our emotions in museums. At the conclusion of this lesson, Dr. Sheila Watson made three important observations.
First, some research has discovered that people who feel pity or sorrow are not as likely to want to change something as people who feel anger or rage.
Second, calling emotions good or bad is too simplistic.
Finally, if people are inspired to feel anger or rage at injustice and thus inspired to act, then anger and rage can be positive emotions.
This reminded me of a Franciscan blessing that is not as well known as the Peace Prayer of St. Francis.
What if our museums were more Franciscan?
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
Our museums should never provide easy answers or half-truths to our visitors. We should have deep and meaningful relationships with our guests.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom, and peace.
I’m intrigued that the research Dr. Watson cites agrees with this blessing. We need our anger to inspire us to act when confronted with injustice. Too often, museums have tried to remain “objective” when dealing with controversial subjects, which is actually an impossible thing to do. Museums are part of civil society, and play a role in correcting injustice. To do so, our museums need to make people angry so they will be more likely to do something.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy.
A blessing of tears should not be about pity or sorrow. The research Dr. Watson mentioned says that these emotions don’t inspire action. The blessing of tears is about compassion. More importantly, it’s about understanding the experience of another human being. Through our objects and the personal stories we tell, museums are powerfully equipped to help people understand each other. Feeling understood is one of the most profound ways that our pain can be turned to joy.
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
What good is a museum if it does not work to make a difference in the world? It can seem like daunting work sometimes, as we work to change the world with limited resources. But, with our holy foolishness, we press on, in the faith and hope that our work really will make a difference. Many times, we do succeed and often do what others claim cannot be done.
Here is my prayer for you and your museum: that you bravely bring more justice, beauty, and understanding into the world.
Image credit: Milwaukee Art Museum