MoMA shows museums can be relevant beyond art appreciation

Last month we hosted a two-day convening of key leaders from medical schools and art museums, "The Art of Examination," in partnership with The Edith O'Donnell Institute, to explore the value of partnerships between art museums and medical schools.

Using art as a means for future physicians to deepen their observation, critical thinking and empathic communication skills in order to enhance patient care and clinical diagnosis may seem like an unlikely pairing.

But the idea that art and art museums have a "use" that is generative and relevant beyond art appreciation is fundamental to the founding of many modern museums.

In fact, the Museum of Modern Art's primary founding mission was "to help people enjoy, understand, and use the art of our time," viewing art as integral, useful and in service to society, rather than for the few in the know.

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The recent conference opened with an exchange among the over 120 attendees about why they had come to MoMA to network with others — what did they want to learn together?

What surprised me most were the words that came, not from the museum educators, but from the medical professionals. They used words like "serendipity," "comfort with ambiguity," "loneliness," "attending to people versus attending to digital screens," "storytelling," "community," and "happiness" as an important metric of success. The stuff of human experience, "soft" words were the order of the day.

Now, one key difference between medical school residents and art museum educators is that museums don't deal in life and death situations. As several medical professionals noted, art museums can be a "safe space to reflect on difficult topics."

Too often in the rush of the day-to-day there is no time to reflect upon, process, and share with a community. Skillfully facilitated conversations around art can provide different perspectives, ones that can enrich your thinking and give you space to reflect in nuanced ways.

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Contemplating a 2nd-century sarcophagus of a child can lead to powerful discussions, not only about its origins and history but also of the human experience of death of a child, the rituals around it, societal conventions, individual and communal mourning, and memory — all relevant topics for medical professionals of any level — and anyone who has experienced loss.

One doctor raised the difficult task of entering the room to tell someone they or a loved one are dying, and noted that it is those difficult actions that are the most critically important to do. How hard it is to enter into the room, an ambiguous situation, with life-altering news, and how much the medical professional might need to reflect upon that interaction with subtlety as well.

Art museums can be catalysts for profound thoughts and exchanges about difficult subjects.

Bouchra Khalili's work "The Mapping Journey Project," a video installation on view at the Museum of Modern Art right now, invites people to see and hear from eight individuals who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally.

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These people share, in their own voices, their stories as they traveled through the Mediterranean basin to escape from perilous political and economic circumstances. Each traces the complex paths they have journeyed, the people they've encountered along the way, and the unknowable at every turn.

Experiencing works of art like this not only make a global human crisis more "human," but also fosters empathy, reminding us that we are all immigrants and that borders and "citizenship" continue to change. Brexit, anyone?

What art can help us do is become more comfortable with ambiguity, which frankly is something we encounter everywhere, every day, although we'd like to think we have it all under control.

"The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it," according to Dani Shapiro in her 2013 book "Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life."

We too can be sharpened, more reflective and perhaps even called to action through encounters with the ambiguities of life through art.

Can an art museum be a "useful" place for people, a safe space for difficult conversations about issues that challenge us or even divide us? During the summer months at MoMA we offer free guided discussions — "agoras" — inspired by the ancient Greek outdoor gathering place where students learned from philosophers who posed moral, social, cultural and political questions.

This summer, these open forums about art in our world today consider topics about how we envision the future of art. What better location to grapple with big issues face to face than in my favorite space in New York, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, open to the sky, and filled with art, nature and people?

Last week, one of the participants noted that "there aren't enough spaces like the Agora, where people can come together in small groups to listen and be heard." My colleague Thomas J. Lax's post, How do black lives matter in MoMA's collection, reminded me that challenging conversations catalyzed by art can prompt rich and thought-provoking exchanges that provide deeper reflection, expanding a museum's relevance and reach well beyond its walls.

Wendy Woon, the Edward John Noble Foundation Deputy Director for Education at The Museum of Modern Art, has more than 30 years of experience in museum education. Ms. Woon oversees all areas of MoMA's Department of Education, where she focuses on transforming museum education for the 21st century through experimental, collaborative, and research-based pedagogy. Ms. Woon is currently an adjunct professor at New York University's Master of Arts in Visual Arts Administration program, where she teaches Art Education in Museums as a laboratory class. She also has experience as an animator, filmmaker, curator, and museum and curriculum consultant. She is a member of the Thirteen/WLIW Community Advisory Board and the Visiting Committee of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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