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!