Statement | A good museum makes you shiver

“Museums are often initially seen as knowledge institutions, something we are, but we want to go further than conveying facts: We want to touch visitors’ emotions: anger, sadness, pleasure. Only when you get to that layer will the art stay with you and you can do something with it in your own life.” Says Carmen Willems, director of the renovated Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, i NRC (24/8). A museum as an emotional place! What a logical and yet contradictory view. It is missing, for example, in the international museum definition, which was updated this summer. Apart from ‘enjoyment’ there is no room for emotion, for how art can touch, make you feel part of the world.

There is a word for that feeling: resonance. For us, it should be the central concept in art.

The term was introduced a few years ago by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, as an antonym for alienation. Because these are very alienating times – turn on the news and everyone seems to be losing their minds. When we suffer from alienation, resonance is the medicine, says Rosa.

In the essay Living in times of acceleration (2016) Rosa argues that three things par excellence can evoke the overwhelming, humbling, moving sense of belonging: religion, nature and art. But the country is fragmented and the cities are getting bigger, so that religion and nature play an ever smaller role in many people’s daily lives. We are slowly becoming more and more alienated, partly due to a lack of that vibrant, connected feeling. So there is a fine task for art.

According to good capitalist practice, there is now too much emphasis in the art sector on the number of visitors. This number fetish reduces the visit to a number. But what do the numbers say if visitors don’t get the maximum opportunity to experience the live connection? If a hundred thousand visitors walk through an exhibition with a shrug, is that exhibition a success?

Eye to eye with a painting

No, so the quality of the visit. To be touched, that time stops for a moment when you come face to face with a painting. That you don’t know what, but that something is undeniably happening to you. For us, you even get mad at a work of art. But that there is a before and an after, that your day, life, world is a little different after the visit. That should be the point.

It sounds great, only everyone knows: such moments are difficult to predict. Nevertheless, museums (and other art institutions) should fully commit to increasing the conditions under which resonance can take place.

For example, as museum director Carmen Willems also suggests, museums should place less emphasis on knowledge sharing. This task is obviously important, but too much information can make visitors feel like they need to learn something. This makes the school and therefore not fun for all non-nerds, it also ensures that visitors get ‘in the head’ and approach the art cerebrally, rather than with their emotions. It is difficult to be deeply affected when you are busy remembering years and analyzing currents.

Karin Borghouts

What is also important to this sense of resonance is the breathing space that works of art are given. It is more difficult to experience the close connection with a work of art when there is another work of art close by, to your left or right, begging for your attention. Think of the overwhelming nature or of cathedrals. It is the almost infinite space that makes this possible.

Museums could act more as hosts: investing, for example, in comfortable seating, plants, open conversations with museum staff, in humanity. In this way, the visitor is invited to be vulnerable, only in this way can the desired resonance occur.

Also read: Don’t confuse autonomous art with creative industry

No telephones

So please stop encouraging visitors to use their phones too. Those things suck people into the infinite black frame – only Malevich is allowed to do that.

In 2019, the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam showed a work by Mark Rothko in a controversial way: solo. The museum could probably have had more visitors if it had ‘just’ exhibited the artwork, but that way the quality of the visit was considered more important. It was one room with one work that one person could look at at a time. In front of it is a waiting room with meditative music. Everything revolved around the emotional nature of the artwork. It is no coincidence that this exhibition received so much attention and praise at the time.

That feeling doesn’t stop when you leave the museum. It has greater and long lasting effects. You are shaking. It changes your day, your world, your life. Something has resonated, you have become human again.

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