Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Questions

Museum Questions: Resonance and Wonder


In his short article “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen Greenblatt explores two of the most central concepts that inform a museum-goer’s experience: resonance and wonder. While the article was written in 1990, the topic of resonance and wonder in museums is one that is still very relevant to museums today. Like the definition of the word, Greenblatt’s ideas on resonance are multi-faceted. Resonance, he asserts, is “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand.” In this sense, he is touching on the idea that objects in a museum should be examined within the larger context of all the influences that helped shape that object such that any viewer coming from any standpoint may be able to connect with that piece. He further notes that resonance within a museum setting also refers to the notion of an echo or reverberation, as with sound, and connects this to the idea of an object having its own voice separate from any other agenda. The object then has the ability to take on its own character and, as he says, intimate “a larger community of voices and skills, an imagined ethnographic thickness.” In essence, an object or museum resonates with visitors when they are able to connect with it, get a sense of the context in which it was formed, formulate questions, conversations, and/or ideas about it within that context, and come away with a deeper understanding of it because of the interaction they have had.

Greenblatt’s definition of wonder, on the other hand, while deeply connected with resonance, lacks the sense of understanding that resonance instills and favors the ‘wow-factor.’ Wonder is instead a tool which may or may not lead to resonance, invoked by the object’s ability to “stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”  Wonder can be invoked not only by the object itself, but the way in which it is displayed within the museum, such as with boutique lighting or placement within a coveted area in the museum. In any case, Greenblatt argues that the most successful exhibitions begin with an “appeal to wonder, a wonder that then leads to the desire for resonance, for it is generally easier in our culture to pass from wonder to resonance than from resonance to wonder.” Wonder and resonance can thus work in concert to produce the most impactful museum experience, one in which the visitor is both awed by and more deeply informed by an object simply by experiencing it under the right circumstances.

How do you see resonance and wonder play out in your museum? Does one necessarily lead to the other, and can a visitor fluctuate between the two? How can a museum invoke both resonance and wonder at the same time, or is it possible to do so? Is wonder still valuable without resonance, and vice-versa? Which do you think is more important for a visitor to walk away from the museum with, resonance, or wonder? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Museum Questions: Can art museums be for everyone?

While there is no easy answer to this question, it brings up a topic that indeed should be addressed.  Art museums can sometimes be intimidating to the general public, and consequently there seems to be a two-sided debate about who art museums should be for. Some argue art museums should primarily serve those who are highly educated in art history who know how to look at and appreciate art, while others argue that everyone should be feel comfortable and welcomed in an art museum, including those with no art historical knowledge or appreciation skills. Yet if the word ‘everyone’ encompasses the art-historically educated as well as the general public, does the question even need to be asked? The issue seems to stem from the assumptions that a) a public with no art historical knowledge will adversely affect how the knowledgeable art appreciator experiences the museum, and b) an art historical knowledge base is necessary to experience an art museum ‘correctly.’ Allowing those with less art-historical knowledge to enjoy an art museum does not inherently mean that those with more art historical background cannot still experience art museums in the same way that they always have, nor does it mean that the general public will not get anything out of an art museum visit even if they have no formal art historical training. In fact, the art museum and the art inside it can serve as a place of refuge and insightful thought. Recognizing that there is no correct way to interact with art and that equal value should be placed on an interaction with art that is not based in traditional art historical fact is the first step to dispelling the idea that the art museum cannot be for everyone.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, even likened art museum elitism to sports elitists in his article “Elitist and Proud of It.”  His argument (“why are sports elitists OK, but art elitists aren’t?”), however,  is problematic for many reasons. Perhaps the greatest issue is that it is a clear case of false equivalence, where the two cannot possibly be compared because there are no similar defining qualities about the two. The fact of the matter is that while sports games are primarily a source of entertainment and comradery for fans and even their uninterested friends, museums are institutions committed to education and conservation of materials for posterity (this is not to say that people cannot be entertained by museums; rather that the core purpose of museums is not strictly entertainment). Museums have mission statements and are held by a standard of ethics while sports teams are for-profit franchises that market human achievement as entertainment. There is also a feeling of not being welcome in museums felt by those perceived to be less-educated, while this is not nearly as prevalent at sports games if at all. To compare the two when their fundamental purposes are utterly different therefore does nothing to further the argument that art elitists should be the only ones that art museums are for.

So, should museums be for everyone? Yes, absolutely. This is not to say that everyone will want to engage in museums, that they will appreciate museums in the same way that ‘art elitists’ do, or that they will even come. Yet while some museums will require a multitude of institutional changes for this to happen, everyone should at the very least have the opportunity to engage with art and the feeling of being welcome in an art museum.

What is it about art museums that inhibit inclusion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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