Note: this post reflects the personal opinion and analysis of the author and should not be taken as a public statement from the museum.
“Safely in, safely out” is a phrase I was taught by a graduate school classmate who worked at Facing History and Ourselves, an organization which develops curricula and classroom programs that help K-12 students grasp and confront prejudice and bigotry in society. Facing History is designed to ensure that students face really uncomfortable ideas and facts. Therefore, they have to design their programs to also ensure that students are given the tools and resources to handle these truths.
In 2015, while I was working at the Portland Art Museum, we put on view an exhibition which mandated a similar level of care: Richard Mosse’s The Enclave.
Here is a clip on Vimeo.
Now imagine standing in a dark room, the sound deafening, and the video playing on seven screens around you. Viewed through a shoulder mounted camera you walk through sublimely beautiful grass, only to stumble across a dead body. You watch a funeral. A baby being born. A group of dancers. A refugee camp. A home being built. And with a run-time of 40+ minutes, you can’t see it all.
I entered the Enclave perhaps 20 times. No two times were alike, but each time, I reeled a little as I stepped into the bright gallery outside, hearing normal visitors having normal conversations on the floor below the overlook. It felt genuinely strange to walk from that experience into Clement Greenberg’s collection of Ab Ex paintings.
Foreseeing this, our interpretive media team–Mike Murawski, Kristin Bayans, and I–developed a decompression space and cathartic outlet. We wrote a whole book chapter on it for Museum, Etc which they made available as a preview chapter online.
The crux of the decompression space, beyond simply a place to sit and be, were a set of postcard-sized response cards each with an image from the exhibition and a simple prompt: I saw… I heard… I felt…
I wish I could claim that we knew intellectually going in that these would be the right words. We didn’t. We recognized them after the fact, in a docent training before the exhibition opened when our docents emotionally couldn’t jump right into parsing out the politics of victims, villains, disaster porn, visuality, and so forth. They first just needed to process: I saw this. I witnessed that. What just happened? It wasn’t sophisticated intellectualizing, it was visceral, sensory, and emotional.
We, as educators, who have worked on an exhibition for months are no longer the normal museum visitor. The questions we have are not the questions they have.
Such a simple prompt elicited such incredibly diverse and complex responses.
The cards provided enough guidance to bolster processing and reflection, but left room for a variety of responses and types of meaning making. And by breaking the words into bite-sized statements printed in light grey and without the structure of lines or boxes, we hinted to visitors that it was OK to have a range of responses from simple to complex, and to navigate the space on the reverse of the card in whatever way they chose.
The book chapter goes into the nuances of how we chose the images and our analysis of the responses, but what I’ll close with here is that tertiary source point: how the environment we created impacted the consumption of the work. We didn’t display the completed cards in the gallery. They were in a locked, plexiglass box on a pedestal with a slit in the top to drop in your card. If one were facing out, it could be read, but only one.
The space was not about anyone’s interpretation but your own. There was no curatorial answer to be found. There was no wall of visitor responses to tell you the answer. What Richard Mosse created was designed to confronting visitors far from the Democratic Republic of Congo with an overwhelming amount of information about this place they have never been. And so our interpretation did not soften that, provide answers, or make it ok. It just provided that decompression space for visitors to move safely in, and safely out.