22 Feb
Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

The Danish word hygge is hard to translate.  Books like the Little Book of Hygge, often translate the word as coziness.  These authors go on to share how that word is but a scarce approximation of its actual meaning.  This Danish cultural norm, a sort of way of being, is central to that nation’s high level of happiness.

Currently Pinterest is alight with hygge with pictures of arm knit blankets, roaring fires, and mugs of warm coffee.  Strictly speaking, hygge is about home life, but there are certain tenets that could help make art museum’s more appealing.

Create Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.  Art museums can feel like a sanctuary for those who already feel comfortable there.  But, there are unspoken codes of behavior.  Innocently point at artwork and you might catch the ire of a guard.  Bring a selfie stick, and you will meet another guard.  Should you wish to find a restroom, you will likely need to find another guard to help you find the way.  The signs are so subtle that they fade into the background.  In many ways, the challenge for museums is that they are only sanctuaries for those who are already initiated.  Yet, most museums profit, both fiscally and culturally, from attendance.  So, how can they help others see these spaces as a sanctuary?

Belonging is Key

Belonging is a central element in hygge. When you belong, you feel comfortable participating in the experience. Belonging is hard for museums, in certain ways.  Museums has many special interest groups, starting with the trustees, and moving down to the members. These groups often revel in their connection to the museum, and why shouldn’t they, as they paid for the privilege.

How can museums make all people feel like they belong in the museum community? This is the big question for museums.  There is no one golden bullet, oh if there was.  But, there are small steps.  Let’s go back to the guards.  They are basically the hosts to this party.  They spend more time with the visitors than any other department.  The Walker Art Museum has a wonderful staff, dressed in t-shirts and broad smiles, who makes sure to place welcoming visitors and safeguarding the art as equally important.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Human Scale

The human touch is essential in hygge.  Think about your most convivial moments in life.  There was the food, the décor, the music.  Or was it the people, their stories, their laughter.  People turn settings into stories.  In large spaces, the quality of human interaction is dissipated.  In intimate, human-sized spaces, you can engage with people in direct ways.  This is the same with art.  Small spaces encourage connectivity.  For better or for worse, I became an art historian because of the Cloisters.  In high school, I trekked to see the oil paintings in their glory.  I still remember stepping through a tiny door into an irregularly shaped room to gaze upon the Merode altarpiece.  This small work, resplendent in its workmanship, seemed to fill the space.

Human scale is not just about architecture.  Few museums have the architecture of the Cloisters.  Human scale is also about choosing to employ the space in ways that focus on people.  Seating groupings imply that one should linger.  Legible labels, rather than tiny print, implies that one should read.

In its essence, hygge is about setting the stay for most people to have an enjoyable experience.  In many ways, most art museums focus on installing art with an eye towards education and learning with little concern for the visitor’s pleasure. Yet, how can people learn if they don’t linger?


17 Feb

Art & #AlternativeFacts : Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion


Years ago, I was in a meeting with a favorite supervisor who bristled when I suggested that we might have a “fun facts” section on the app we were developing. I assure you that she wasn’t against fun.  She felt that “fact” was a dicey issue.  I have been thinking about this conversation often in the last few weeks.


Facts VS Opinions

A fact is something that can be proven and verified by multiple people. Facts can be measured, tested, and observed.  One can research facts.


I was born in 19XX. My birth certificate says it. My mother assures me that she trudged to the hospital in a snowstorm weakened by contractions. (Yes, I suffer from a generational affliction of hyperbole). My age is not my opinion; it is a fact.

Opinion is in opposition to fact. Opinions rest on feeling.  They cannot be measured or verified.  They are often idiosyncratic and self-validating.  You might feel as if you are freezing cold, even as temperatures swell to 100 degrees. But, the fact is that it is hot as all get out.perception

Realistically, there are many elements that we take as fact that can be disputed.  Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and he is still hailed with a national holiday for finding America.  Yet, he, arguably, fell short. Scholarship is a sort of information calculus bringing civilization closer to the truth, generating new “facts” and amending old ones. In other words, the ideas which we commonly call facts can be disputable and transmutable.  Facts are generally accepted and provable ideas.  They can change, but most likely are true.  Yet, they differ wholly from opinion.  Opinions are not provable.

The issue of facts and opinions are at the crux of our national politics currently.  Many intellectual practices, like science and statistics, work in a rigorous way to understand the world.  They research various phenomena that be used to inform action. Certainly, something like climate change is a theory, but one that is held by most scientists.  If there was an equilibrium from an unassailable fact to an unfounded opinion, climate change ranks heavily on the fact side due to the volume of evidence.

Making the Call Between Fact, Fiction, and Opinion

I have been fooled, many times.  Having gone to University of Wisconsin, Madison, I have never once been fooled by the Onion.  But, Hard Times has gotten me more than once.  Admit it, you have too. We are all susceptible, particularly given the volume of information we are taking in every day.  We are making quick decisions to file ideas into one of three bins: fact, fiction, or opinion.

Here is where critical thinking skills and preexisting knowledge play in.  Armed with plenty of both, you should have a 95% chance of getting ideas into the right category. But, critical thinking is a not a born skill.  It must be honed, tested, and maintained. One needs to deal with complicated issues, regularly, and without shutting down.  One must be willing to be wrong and to be faced with ideas that contradict your beliefs.

Here is where art comes in. Understanding an artwork is about diving through layers of ideas and history.  Even something seemingly factual might be open to interpretation. Remember how my birthday is a fact? For most artworks, the date of creation, its birthday if you will, is interpretive.  It is hard to determine the exact day that a craftsman put a finishing touch on that 5000-year-old sarcophagus.  Scholars often use research to create an approximate date, which is basically an educated guess.  Dates, materials, artists…there are so many elements of art that art verifiable…as close to fact as we can get.

Nothing is more open to interpretation than the meaning of artwork.  Why did the ancient Indus Valley people create images of unicorns on their shipping seals? What does the artist hope for you to think when seeing his large metallic rocks out in the garden? What could a wall of faint pencil lines possibly mean? I can’t tell you.  This is not because I haven’t thought about it.  I have talked about the answer to each of those questions with groups of museum visitors of all ages.  I can’t answer these questions, because there is no single answer.  There are several opinions, and no single opinion is right.

Art allows thinker to experience the spectrum between fact and opinion.  Thinking about art is a chance, a low stacks chance, mind you, to face the complications of ideas. There is something powerful about realizing your idea is not universal and that your opinion differs from others.  It can help you see that what you thought was fact is opinion.  Also, it helps you see that you shouldn’t relegate the opinions of others to the fiction/ fake news bin.

Appreciating the nuances of ideas takes time.  One grows skills in deciding the relative merit of a fact or its position on the fact to opinion spectrum.  This takes me back to the “fast facts” section of the app.  There is nothing fast about becoming a critical thinker. Art is, however, an ideal chance to hone your skills at mastering the ability to understand the breadth and complications of information.

16 Feb

The Art of Facts: Four Ways that Art Protects You in the World of “Fake News”

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

  1. Observation: They say seeing is believing. Sure, there are plenty of invisible, real phenomenon, including the gravitational pull that prevent you from flying off the earth as you read this. But, so much of our understanding of the universe is based on observation.  Attempt to draw something you see.  For your drawing to have any verisimilitude at all, you will need to really look closely.  You will face surprising thoughts like, “Even though I know the top is round, it sure looks like an oval.” In other words, you will spend time understanding the object that you are drawing.

How it helps you with fake news? First, the better you understand something, the more likely you will be able to fish out falsity.  But, even more, observation is a skill. With honed skills, you can become astute at assessing any variety of information.

  1. Sources: Most information about artwork is interpreted by curators and educators, based on research. Museum visitors receive information from several sources (labels, educators, family guides). If it is on a label, you can assume it is verifiable or generally accepted. The informed museum visitor also knows to take the information overheard from another patron, about the aliens who made this sculpture, for example, as unlikely.

How it helps with fake news? It’s all in knowing the source. You learn to know where to find information that in generally acceptable and when to disregard information.

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum  1992.252.1

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum

  1. Uncertainty: When I used to work in museums, I often said, “the only thing we say categorically is that you can’t say anything categorically”. Museum labels are often filled with conditional phrasing. (Notice how I constructed this sentence conditionally). While the labels offer generally acceptable information, they also often highlight where there are debates.  There is so much about art that isn’t or can’t be known.  Take ancient Japanese pottery.  Made 4000 years ago, this civilization leaves no written records.  Art historians don’t know why they created these pots.  Were they functional? Ceremonial? We don’t know.

How it helps with fake news? One challenge is that as elements emerge, news stories change.  This can make some criticize traditional news sources as being incredible.  Instead, the nimble thinker, say one who has faced much less scary challenges thinking about art, can handle these complications with ease.

  1. Meaning-Making: Understanding art is about making sense of visual information, most often through reading textual information or hearing oral information. In other words, it is all about being good at making meaning from all sorts of sources.

How it helps with fake news? You can use your skills to decide if something is fake news or #alternative facts.  You can decide how likely something is to be real or factual where visual or textual. You will be able to sniff out fake news and appreciate real sources.