Interview with member Pamela Russell, Coordinator of College Programs, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College
by Beth Wadham
Beth: I was really intrigued when I heard about the meditation sessions you're offering at the Mead Art Museum. Joel Upton mentioned them when he came into the office to give his "Visualizing Contemplation" Webinar last December. Where did the idea to do this come from? Was it the museum director, or faculty members?
Pamela: I think...it was me. The way I trace the arc, it begins with my peripheral interest in mindfulness practice. Over the past10 years I've read some key books, attended sittings, and I took a 3-part course at the Monadnock Mindfulness Center near my home base in Keene, NH. So it was in my very positive awareness.
Then, when I came for my interview here in May, there was an Amherst College magazine at the bed & breakfast where I stayed. In it was an article by Economics Professor Dan Barbezat about his "Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness" course, in which he uses some contemplative practices. It may also have referred to the "Eros and Insight" first year seminar taught by Joel Upton and Arthur Zajonc. Well, when I read about what was going on at Amherst, I just popped. I'd never really thought about contemplative practice in a collegiate setting or being part of a course, and I thought, I love this. I didn't know if I was going to come to Amherst at that moment, but fortunately, about three weeks later I found out I would be. I didn't know who these people were yet, but the idea began percolating at that time.
The other thread is that there's a movement in museum education, which is my professional field, to slow down and look. There are many studies about what people actually do in museums, suggesting what they could do, and what are appropriate ways to engage visitors. An article in the New York Times last summer, by Michael Kimmelman, "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus," gives a sense of the current reality. Then, there's Project Zero at Harvard, and their recent report on what happens in museum study centers. It asks how people quietly engage with works, what questions they ask, and what kind of guidance they need.
In the study center, conditions are different than in the hallways and galleries of the museum. It's all about focused looking and deep engagement. In the report, visitors describe the power of objects to captivate their attention, surprise them, and invite wonder. There are rewards to this kind of prolonged looking, when people take the time to see new things and form new ideas.
In the mix as well (for generating the idea for the meditation sessions), in fact the real tipping point was the almost humorous news about Mount Holyoke Art Museum's spa night. They open the doors in the evening and in the lobby are manicures, temporary henna treatments. There's massage and ongoing yoga in galleries. I thought, well that could be popular at Amherst. And then it just clicked. Mindfulness is even a bit less to do than yoga-and more meaningful. Yoga uses the galleries as a pleasant environment, but doesn't really engage with the works of art.
Knowing there were people at Amherst, I thought there was potential. I reached out to Dan Barbezat and he suggested I speak to Arthur and also Mark Hart, who has a standing Buddhist meditation session on campus each week. During a meeting of the three of us, there was enthusiasm and we decided to send out a trial balloon with this series.
So that's the origin: my personal empathy with mindfulness, knowing a goal in museums is to stop, slow down and look, and the built-in expertise and interest in meditation at the college.
So far, there's been a positive response from students and others. It's a new idea. There have been meditation sessions in museums, but not focusing on the work of art. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum they used the courtyard for a Buddhist sitting session.
Beth: It is a new idea, but it seems like there is a wonderful concord with a mission of art museums, as I experience them. When I began going, as a child, I loved the hush and awe that invited feelings of being in the presence of something different, and awakening, and responding to it. They are contemplative spaces.
Pamela: What I like to think about is the time it takes to create a work of art, versus the couple of seconds it's usually looked at.
Beth: People aren't used to attending so carefully to visual information. In a way you do see it all at once.
Pamela: But there's a language. On a very simple level, we teach docents a way to talk about color, line, shape. To take the time to look at art only in terms of color, say, not the subject or content of the work. Discuss whether it's a warm palette or cool palette and ask what that does to the way we feel. Or break out a single feature, asking whether it's rectilinear or diagonal, and what that contributes to meaning. I like to compare it to paying attention to the meter of a poem.
And then, my favorite part is the discussions that follow. People invariably see things they've never seen, and that is so great. That's what I hope these events will allow. My husband was asking, "What is actually going to happen at these sessions?" I'm not really sure, but I'm sure we'll get some surprises.
Beth: Do you have any experience with inviting this kind of prolonged looking?
Pamela: When I was at the Maryland institute of Art, I taught "Art Matters" to freshmen. Everyone who teaches it does something different. I saw models of what others had done, but I was feeling my way, and I put up Picasso's "Woman before a Mirror," and said, we're going to look at this quietly for 10 minutes. And it seemed like an eternity. Even for me. And I'm thinking, why am I doing this? I've made a grave mistake. But I kept with it and they stuck with it. It was challenging. For me, as a teacher it was hard not to talk for that long. But it set the tone, and we all became more comfortable with it.
Beth: It's kind of like with a practice, when you begin, you become aware of all the chatter and the difficulty of bringing yourself back again and again to your point of awareness.
Pamela: I remember when I first started with 20 minute meditations on my own, and then planned to go to the center where they offered 90 minutes. I was apprehensive, even scared, but of course found it's very possible and fine.
In my work with professors here, they usually come trying to get illustrative material, or examples, of what they're teaching. If they're reading Baudelaire they want to show a portrait. I would include that, but move beyond by suggesting that they put out several images and have the students compare them. For a Rilke class, we bring out prints to discuss, even pretend they're poems, to see what kind of message comes out.
It's so much more memorable for the students. Rather than just being shown something, they make something of what they see. And ultimately it's more fun for the teacher, too.
Joel Upton's "Visualizing Contemplation" Webinar is archived at http://vimeo.com/9007209.
The article on Dan Barbezat's "Consumption and Happiness" course is at https://www.amherst.edu/aboutamherst/news/classroom/node/95882
An article on "Eros and Insight" is available at http://www3.amherst.edu/magazine/issues/04spring/eros_insight/index.html
The final report for "Learning in and from Museum Study Centers," the research collaboration between Project Zero and Harvard University, is at http://pzweb.harvard.edu/Research/HUAMPZStudyCenterLearning.pdf