Monday, February 19, 2018

More than We Imagine: Imagination

Alex Chinneck
Imagination is one of those words–or ideas–along with creative, curious, inventive, etc. that we use freely and, in my mind, sling around altogether too easily. I do this myself. Then one day, that word or idea suddenly insists on being considered newly, seriously, in another light. It demands I pay attention to what I am saying, what I mean…or at least what I think we mean.

Most of us have our own definition(s) of imagination. Yet, each of us probably means something different when we do so. We may think of imagination as holding an image in our mind. Sometimes we refer to imagination as a recreation of something that exists and sometimes as something that is far from reality that we have made up. We find imagination in mission statements, learning frameworks, and outcomes. We invite visitors to, "Learn, imagine, create." We like to quote Einstein’s assertion that “Imagination is more important than knowledge".  Sometimes we use imagination, creativity, and fantasy interchangeably.

In this mix, we do find clues about imagination as we commonly know it. It is a mental representation of a thought or an idea. It is pretending, leans into fantasy, and is associated with creativity. This, however, is a limited view of imagination and its potential. This is hardly surprising considering the complex, interconnected nature of the mind and its processes.

Imagination is more than sparking ideas, pretending to be a pirate or fairy princess, or daydreaming. Entwined with knowledge, thinking, and experience, imagination is a source of knowledge as well as transforms knowledge. Through imagination we both learn about reality and escape from reality through imagination.

I recently came across a definition for imagination (referencing Crespi et al) in an article in American Journal of Play by Larry Vandervert (Vol. 9, No. 2. December 2017).

The term ‘imagination’ is considered here as the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses, typically derived from creative integration of past experiences, learning, or other information…production of novelty through imagination thus takes place through deriving elements of verbal or visual thought from perception and memory and combining them in new ways.

Besides the title, “Vygotsky Meets Neuroscience,” several things drew my attention. First, I seldom come across a pause in an article or book to define a term like imagination, let alone one that distinguishes a faculty from a disposition from a quality. Like most people, I was familiar with imagination as forming something new. But I had thought less about the sources for these novel ideas or images, something the next part of the definition addressed.

Imagination draws from multiple, extensive sources of ideas and images–what we have learned, experienced and remember; what we are perceiving now; and what we are not immediately sensing but have previously experienced. We can form images of objects and spaces that are visible and sensible and that are hidden too. We can even form new images in our minds based on something we have not experienced or only partially experienced with the help of what we have seen, heard, or felt before. Imaginings don’t need to be finished or complete.

Consequently imagination serves as a faculty for considering what is possible that is not now happening, for considering alternative actions, and even for changing the rules for possible worlds. If we can integrate past experiences, learning, and information, we can resolve a conflict, design a new strategy to deal with a vexing problem, step into new situations, remake failed systems, create a more compassionate world, discover new forms of expression, open doors to new thinking.

Imagination in the Everyday-Extraordinary
When we imagine, we are not just extracting images from a mental vault. Rather we are plumbing for and remixing ideas and images, sounds, sensations, and memories in fresh, novel, original ways. In response to the moment and situation or to some prompt we may not even be aware of, we connect facts not ordinarily viewed together, we invert normal circumstances, and we bridge what is here and not-here. The more I look into imagination, the more I see its rich and varied expressions in the ordinary and extraordinary moments across our lives and lifespans.

Assisted by our imaginations, we navigate through space, moving from place to place, exploring, and going on adventures. When we think about our location, where we want to go, and how to get there, we are projecting our movement through space on an imaginary map. We imagine different routes to get to the same place and walk, bike, or drive there…when we are not using Google Maps.

Empathy, important in social relations, understanding and caring for others, involves recognizing and imagining what someone else might be feeling, experiencing, or saying. Bringing to mind what it might be like for another person dealing with a situation or feelings can help us plan how to welcome, include, listen, help, and engage with them.

In a similar way, assuming another perspective involves imagining what we might sense or understand if we were in another–or another person’s–position. Much like a hypothesis, we can imagine what their position, size, vantage point, or previous experiences might afford them, without actually seeing what they are actually doing or where they are. We work with another vantage point when we take turns, play a game, or collaborate.   

Nazca Lineas, Peru (Photo Diego Delso)
Engaging our imaginations allows us to mentally travel beyond the here-and-now. In suspending the present time and place, we imagine far away landscapes and places, distant times, and other cultures. Feeling as if we are stepping into a painting or a photograph, walking through the glass into a diorama, entering a story, living in the historic past changes our connection to the world and, for the moment, to ourselves.

Imagination is sometimes a creative response to what is being experienced or dreamed. We construct imagined worlds, small and large, with powerful words, arresting images, deep stories, and evocative objects. Fiction, art, and music are imaginations that not only take us to another place and time but also offer a different truth about the world.

Imagination stretches from the deepest personal meaning for each of us into new futures for all of us. On an individual scale, imagination is a companion to our evolving selves. It provides us with visions of who we might be, who we want to become, and how we might change. At the same time, imagination allows us to glimpse what is possible in an uncertain future–at that moment–a moment that moves on. We don’t know the outcome of the imagined change, but we’ve had that glimpse and what we saw can change us.

Expanding Imagination
Everyone has an imagination, a powerful tool for navigating daily routines, meeting small and large challenges, delighting ourselves, and moving our thinking to new places. This marvel rests right at the convergence of museums’ interests around learning, connecting with people, and changing lives.

How can museums create the conditions that stimulate, engage, and support the imaginations of visitors, staff, volunteers, and trustees?

Time is one significant condition for encouraging imagination. When we play, explore, act on our curiosity, wonder, tinker, pursue interests, figure out how things work, and play with different facts, our imaginations flex and flourish. This benefits from–or perhaps requires–time for sinking into the moment and following it. Museums are well aware of the challenges of limited time and escaping from its constraints. They know to take time into account in creating experiences, eliminating distractions, and scaling experiences to available time. Museums can also work with their own imaginations to develop:

• Rich, multi-sensory experiences
• Invitations to be a novice
• Reasons to go beyond the current time and space
• Experiences and opportunities that engage and provoke
• Reasons to exercise their own imagination

Rich, multi-sensory experiences. Imagination allows us to form new ideas, images, and concepts of external objects that are not immediately present to our senses. Nevertheless, we need to nourish and enrich these very senses. The sights, sounds, textures, and sometimes smells and flavors of museum environments and experiences engage our senses, evoke memories, and offer new connections. While strongly multi-sensory, museums must also be thoughtful about creating evocative, relevant, and meaningful sensory experiences that attune and heighten our awareness of our senses. 

Invitations to be a novice. Children are novices in their world yet they understand enough about how the world works to have hunches and make predictions about what might happen or explain why something happened in the past. With their imaginations they explore, think about, and understand other ways the world might work and possible ways people might act. Adults too can be novices in situations, not fully understanding how things work and using their imaginations to test possibilities and work out problems.

Reasons to go beyond the current time and space. Our imaginations allow us to reach beyond the apparent limitations of our current place and moment. Sometimes we need a reason to go past our here-and-now; a way to step into someone else’s shoes; and dislocate from this time and place. In the experiences museums create are opportunities that can shift perspectives, develop empathy, deepen connections, and engage others in an historical experience. 

Experiences and opportunities that engage and provoke. Sometimes museums design experiences a little too completely, leaving insufficient room for visitors and learners to fill in with their imaginations, questions, creativity, experiments, and previous experiences. In celebrating and featuring others’ creativity or imaginations, we may be encouraging visitors to be observers and consumers of other’s creativity rather producers of their own imaginative ideas. We can never replace the power and excitement of conjuring our own new worlds or fresh possibilities.

Reasons to exercise their own imaginations. Occasionally, if not often, we must all stretch and recharge our own imaginative capacities. We need to pause and bring out something we can’t immediately sense at that moment, think of how things might possibly be, or simply change the context in which we view ideas. Without some practice and fluency with the nature and workings of imagination, we limit ourselves in our thinking about shaping museum experiences, preparing the environment, selecting materials, listening to visitors, stepping back, and allowing things to unfold.

How does your museum view imagination and its role in learning for visitors and for the museum? In what ways does the museum encourage, support, and extend imagination in the experiences it creates and in its practices across the museum?

• Achim, Marianne. (2016). The Role of Imagination inMuseum Visits. Nordisk Museologi 2016•1,s. 89-100 
• Crespi, Bernard J., Emma Leach, Natalie Dinsdale, Michael Mokkonen, and Peter Hurd. 2016. “Imagination in Human Social Cognition, Autism, and Psychotic-Affective Conditions.” Cognition 150:181-99. P. 182.
• Gopnik, Alison. (2009). The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Picador. 2009.
• Spock, Dan. (2009) Imagination: A Child’s Gateway to Engagement in Rainey, D. Lynn and John Russick (Eds.) Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Mid-winter Museum Meander

Annual Luminary Loppet on Lake of the Isles
Winters are cold in Minnesota. We’re used to it and make the most of it. Even in winter folks in the Twin Cities walk, commute by bike, and go to the dog park. In winter we skate and ski on the lakes. People ice fish and celebrate the ice shanty as art. Some people even go skijorling on the city lakes–skiing pulled by dogs. Annual events like the Lumiary Loppet celebrate the beauty of cold, dark, and precious light.

In a recent run of sub-zero nights (the longest since the 1890’s…yes, 1890’s) and blizzard conditions accompanying deep-sub-zero daytime temperatures, I took a walk among beauty, surprise, and remarkable views. I visited the MIA (or mia), Minneapolis Institute of Arts. A mere 1.5 miles from my house, the MIA has what feel like miles of galleries and halls on 3 floors across almost 500,000 square feet of space. Its free general admission is a blessing, especially in this weather.

After shedding layers of fleece and down at the coat check, I climbed to the third floor and arrived in Europe and America 1600 – 1900. I started my stroll through some of the 43 galleries covering 1600 – 1900 including period rooms, walking, slowing, reading labels, watching people, eavesdropping (just a little), and resting now and then. As I went, I speeded up and slowed down, pausing for what caught my eye: a writing desk c. 1870 attributed to William Howard an enslaved and later free man; a 19th century Arrangement with Flowers by Georgius Jacobus Van Os; Delacroix’s Convulsionists of Tangier painted from 1837-1838; a sculpture of Diana with a Bow (1890) by Frederick William MacMonnies; and, for good snowy measure, Paul Signac’s Snow, Boulevard de Clichy, Paris, 1886. 
Snow falling on the park and city
My ramble through the 19th century was in some ways much like a city stroll. Views of paintings and sculptures alternated with views of snow falling on trees and shrubs in the adjacent park capped by the city skyline.

A quiet moment in the period reading room

Judging from the traffic near the period rooms, I wasn’t alone in searching out a mid-winter museum meander to escape from the cold. Traffic was thick and punctuated by comments and conversation around the 10-12 period rooms. Maybe configuration of the rooms opening off a long narrow gallery suggested a neighborhood, a casual ramble, and friendly comments to passersby. A family looking into the Duluth Living Room shared its questions with one another and with strangers who were also leaning over the rail. “Who made that furniture, Dad?” “Didn’t we see that lake before?” “Look at that telephone.” “It’s so dark in there.”

MIA’s Living Rooms, temporary installations in selected period rooms, animated the spaces and informed visitor interactions and conversations. As light transformed a 17th century drawing room from day to night, visitors guessed the time of day, shivered at an eerie feel of the room, and imagined they were at the party playing cards. 
Jet-pack powered sisters explore the universe for art
In the Jane Austen Reading Room, I came across a women–a visitor–lounging in a chair, reading, and looking very much at home. She had taken the theme of the next room, Science and Sociability quite seriously. 

Mid-afternoon, the Europe and America 1600 – 1900 galleries and Period Rooms started filling with families with young children. As the second Sunday of the month, it was Family Day. Its theme was, “To the Moon!” Children were wearing the jet-packs they had constructed, carried the lunar landscapes they’d painted, and worked with their families on a Gallery Hunt for art that promised to be, “out of this world.” Families were huddled around maps; children checked labels up close and argued their case for clues to the artwork being described on the hunt. Other children wandered off finding a painting to look at quietly.

When my meander was finished I stood in line to pick up my winter layers. Surrounded by children also waiting for their gear, I heard one child after another talk about what they’d been doing. Some described the clues they’d found; some mentioned children who had helped others put clues together; some relished reliving the moment they found objects in the painting. Then we all left the warmth of the mid-winter museum meander and headed into the cold and snowy north.