Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Humans are Capable of

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great museums of the world.  What is astounding about the place is not only the expanse of its "encyclopedic"collection, but the quality of the objects there.  You really are walking among the masterworks of the species.

Last weekend I spent three days as an ethnographer at the Museum.  This entailed wandering the museum observing people and striking up conversations with them about their experience of the museum.  It's all part of a larger project by the Met's to understand their visitors better.

The first day I spoke to about 30 people in conversations that ran from 3 minutes to 40.  At the beginning you are gathering the "top of mind" stuff - the stuff that is easy for people to articulate - for example, how they learn so much about history and other cultures or how inspiring they find the beautiful things in this beautiful place, or how we can't understand ourselves without understanding these roots and these capacities on display here.  How the place is a refuge.

By the second day, you've heard that, and you are paying attention to the moments when their articulateness breaks down, or where the eyes widen slightly and the hand gestures intensify.  You are on the hunt for the deeper moments that bind people to this place.  When a person got so absorbed in an object's craftsmanship - in the hours and days of labor and attention that must have gone into it - that they passed through that object to a connection to a real person who lived in another time and place.  Or when a person viscerally felt that they were not looking at a carving in a museum, but standing in ancient Egypt, seeing the chiselers hand, and hearing the flakes fly.  When they felt themselves torn from their normal now-ness and pinned down as just another pinpoint in the human panoply.  Or when a person driven to the breaking point by the mundane injustices of daily living came away from the Museum cleansed and re-calibrated with their sanity preserved.

On the third day, you continue with this, another 30 or so conversations, but also observing the visitors - watching to see what hints there are of the experiences and discombobulations that people confide.  It's fascinating, tiring work, and my little notebook was filled with jottings by the end.  

Now the challenge is to make sense of it all.  Or enough of it, at least.