What if… we presented ideas like pomelos?

First question, what’s a pomelo?

I was first introduced to the idea of a pomelo in Heath and Heath’s article, Made to Stick. It’s an odd word used to demonstrate why some explanations “stick” and others don’t. Heath and Heath accomplish this by introducing the word in two different ways. First, they offer:

“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart… Based on this explanation, if you mixed pomelo juice half and half with orange juice, would it taste good?”

If you’re like most of us, you have no idea. You have information, but it’s slippery and nebulous. It’s not something you can really use in other contexts. By contrast, if you were told “A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind,” that’s a whole different question.

So what’s a pomelo? It’s a new idea that you can work with. Instead of presenting you with all the descriptors and attributes that make up a new concept, you start with something familiar and then modify it.

Pomelos work because they’re strong and simple. They begin with an idea that is already filled with information and connotations. For a grapefruit, you know its taste, color, origins, uses, a few recipes, and so on. The presentation is simple and hierarchical. Instead of randomly grasping at individual qualities such as “citrus” or “easy to peel,” everyone latches onto the core idea: grapefruit-like. They grasp the big idea from which the others can be deduced, not a small attribute that carries only its individual meaning. Thus, when they bump into a challenge, they have a lot more to work with.

So how does this work outside of apples, oranges, and the citrus family in general?

Well, it’s a different way of presenting information. It starts with a single, simple, big idea. And, as any expert in any field can tell you, these don’t exist. That’s why a pomelo is not a grapefruit, it’s grapefruit-like. Similarly, the property-destroying, bonfire-building, 90% of ineligible voters in revolutionary Boston were riot-like. The people who acquired the funds to built the Old North Church were pirate-like. Most likely, your pomelo is exactly the word that the curators have banned the docents from using. It’s that almost right idea that makes us, as experts, throw up our hands and protest all of the complexities that it ignores.

But that’s the beauty of a pomelo. It’s a concept that the public can modify and refine because it’s oversimplified. Pirates. Rioters. Grapefruits. Exactly the words that we hate are the right place to start.

So what would a pomelo-based exhibition look like?

Imagine explaining European Modernism this way.


In a nutshell, the 1900-1950 was a time of great change in Europe. We went from sending postcards to public telephones. We jumped from the Wright Brothers to the jet airplane. In warfare, it was the death of cavalry, the invention of new and horrific ways of mechanically slaughtering humans, up to and including the atom bomb. In just 50 years, the whole world changed. Photography pushed painting out of the portrait game. Collage was invented. Abstraction was invented. These 50 years were a flurry of new styles and ideas about what art can be, debates that were played out across countries and rocked by the continuously tilting political and technological landscape.

In most exhibitions, these works are brought together as an explosion of “-isms.” We’re presented by a list of characteristics and descriptors. Easy to peel-rinds, pink flesh, and a tart taste. Why are we surprised that people are walking away confused, ten people with ten different ideas of what European modernism is?

Imagine if we started with the idea that European modernism was abstraction-like. And I mean the most basic, generic, common idea of abstraction: no longer illusionary, no longer focused on what things look like. Start with cubism, and Picasso or Braque, breaking an image apart into a concept. Then throw out Purism. Ok, so the image is still broken into the concept but starts looking like an image again, although that image may now be half-woman, half-plumbing system. Then Dada, where we’re back to total abstraction but now with no meaning at all. End up with Expressionism, where we have a human figure that somehow still is in the vocabulary of abstraction.

In this pomelo exhibit, everyone would walk away with the idea that European modernism had something to do with abstraction, but that artists responded to the stimulus in very different ways. That’s actually not a bad introductory grasp!

It’s a much more challenging way to look at art. Instead of building familiarity throughout, the exhibition is a series of challenges. Every time you think that you have grasped with a pomelo is, it’s would be tweaked a bit more. How would walking through an exhibition like this feel like?


4 thoughts on “What if… we presented ideas like pomelos?

  1. I think labeling an exhibit like this could be an interesting challenge – the gallery you describe would almost need connecting lines between labels, like a tree or a plumbing system, with influences moving back and forth. Or an ‘ingredients’ label like on food packaging: “Image 10% Concept 25% Emotion 35% Total Abstraction 75%”

    • I love the ingredients idea — great way to catch visitors who (like many) skip whatever intro panel equivalent sets up the framework. I’m reminded of Alfred Barr’s diagram for Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936 (and all of its subsequent spinoffs).
      Alfred Barr's Chart, courtesy of MoMA
      If we decide charting these influences and back and forths and relationships is useful, how do we present them in a way that’s both accessible to visitors and still does justice to each piece’s individual history, genesis, and creativity?

      • Whoo, yeah, the tree/chart idea does get complicated fast, doesn’t it? Maybe instead of something presented in the gallery, there’s an online component with the opportunity for visitors to link images/artworks/etc that the exhibition objects remind them of, or where they see correlations and influences? So you get a crowd-sourced network of both more and less scholarly connections between collection objects? I imagine it working something like a Prezi or a Wordle, where you can zoom in and out on objects to discover different layers of connections.

  2. Great idea! And maybe the complexity could be the point, in that case? That previous authorities who had determined “what is art?” had lost their sway, so each of these works was one point within a web of chaos, drawing their influences and origins from many sources, not just one? Creating that kind of experience online (or in the galleries) could be really effective!

    I love that there is no one way to teach. There are so many right answers.

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