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JEWISH EXPLORATORIA OF THE FUTURE

MOSHE DROR 09.01.2013 03:14
JEWISH EXPLORATORIA OF THE FUTURE - Future Bible - Jewish Future - Computer Games


Dror, a former Jewish Museum curator, advocates a shift from Greek to Jewish paradigm of art and turning the museum visitor to an active participant.



MOSHE DROR – JEWISH EXPLORATORIA OF THE FUTURE


What is an Exploratorium?

Hardly anyone these days would seriously maintain that American museums can any longer be regarded as peripheral or fusty institutions of culture.

On the contrary, we have in recent decades witnessed phenomenal throngs and ever new attendance records in what have become our cities' primest of prime attractions.

In 1984, however, the American Association of Museums issued a provocative study, Museums for a New Century, that argued against the temptation of standing pat with a winning hand.Its agenda of future options and priorities for its members persuasively concludes that "as the next century draws closer, we will enter a new, post-industrial era in which our machine-oriented system gives way to an idea-and-information oriented system.We will be presented with a new range of choices about the ethical and qualitative character of our lives. Today we have one foot in the past while the other tests the future..... We cannot wait for the future to happen; we must embrace it and participate actively in its creation" (pp. 22-23).

To be sure, with the rapid approach of our present century's countdown decade, what we discover when we survey the operational methods employed by many American museums, is that many of them still - albeit unwittingly - arrange their objects of beauty or significance at a physical or psychological arm's length from their viewers. And as for our Jewish institutions, while several notable instances could be cited, they unfortunately much too frequently may be found among the off-putting offenders. In Buber's still poignant terminology, I-It, is somehow deemed as peculiarly appropriate to the Jewish museum's mode of relation between its attractions and its clientele. As a result, whenever it spins forth these fixed or alienating lines of separation, the museum, instead of fostering Knowledge and enhanced appreciation, subverts its own highest function.

Consider, admittedly much less typical than formerly, a worst possible scenario: visitors as observers standing over and against an array of Beautiful articles. These are generally set behind glass or wall, or raised pedestal. They may be likened to venerated sancta. Usually, in addition to the descriptive notation, visitors will also espy as an explicit or implicit imperative - "Please, Do Not Touch!" It comes with the alien, alienating territory, for any modern museum-temple which chooses to enshrine its hoard of valued objects. The role of the visitor is understood to be that of homage-bearing votary; his primary means of access is restricted to but a single sense - the eye.

Remarkably, this entire process is presumably designed to engage the public! To move it! Through exhibitions and related educational programs, museums aim and claim "to reach out." Yet what actually occurs too frequently? Objects d'art, archeological finds, and historical artifacts and trivia are meticulously collected, catalogued, restored, and preserved by a caste of competent professionals. At any one time, a minority of these items is chosen for display but not for anyone's "play." Is it not transparent that they are often preserved as much from the public as for it?

There do exist, of course, an impressive number of contemporary, multi-sensory museums which successfully mount exhibits in order to illustrate or clarify specific ideas, concepts, or processes, rather than just prettily to display their objects. Why, with several exceptions, is the Jewish museum typically not found among these?

Museum officials will generally concede that their institutions should aim at being vital conduits between yesterday and today. Too often unaddressed, however, is the equally vital term category of the future. Can this putative bridge be extended, like a (NYC) Tri-borough, to link its past-present continuum to the concerns of the next century?

Obsolescence is surely the inevitable and much-deserved destiny of any system which does not deal with, anticipate and connect with its tomorrow. In short, for their own preservation, museums had best perceive as their proper function the creation both of whole learning systems to which the visitor is encouraged to relate to as I-Thou, and the creation of environments which can influence the visitor's (or, perhaps better, the "temporary inhabitant's")future decision-making processes so as to affect social transformation. The sine-qua-non of such substantive change within museum walls can be effected by nothing less than radically enhanced interaction between museum spectator and museum spectacle. But how is a dormant I–Thou relation to be vitalized within, of all places, a museum? A useful hint may be borrowed from such distant academic pastures as industrial management, political theory, or pedagogy: in order for museum exhibitions to be stimulating and of absorbing personal interest, their very inception and execution must integrally involve their intended audience. Viewers themselves must become part of the gear-works of the conceptual and operational system that comprises the exhibit process. In other words, museum attendees must be granted access to some of the real decision-making power.

Museum strategists should be striving to design "exhibits" that are in fact dialogic experiences entailing (minimally) the multi-sensory interactivity of sight, sound, and touch. Past exhibition experience has strongly indicated that an employment of multi-sensory stimuli which enlist the active participation of visitors, stimulates the immediate impact of the experience incrementally. By making objects of display more accessible and more easily enjoyed, participatory stratagems of presentation tend almost inevitably to heighten both the long-term acquisition and retention of information and act to stimulate a new range of possible applications.

Fostering meaningful visitor participation and interaction, though it does require both a mastery of technique and a sense of showmanship, is not, however, merely a matter of opening a bag of technological tricks. Interaction for its own sake may temporarily rouse visitors from insipient museum torpor, but, if it leaves them unchanged and unmoved, it is in reality just a form of benign showmanship. After all, just because the visitors touch their index fingers to the red button and await the flicker of the yellow bulb, does not necessarily prove they are more meaningfully "touched." Though less alienated than the static viewer, unless other certain conditions prevail, button-depressors will essentially remain observers of events external to themselves.

The decisive shift to the modality of participation occurs only when visitors' power to choose among a battery of alternative buttons has the potential genuinely to affect the course of the experience. Such exhibits call for the heightened creativity of both designers and participants. And both, of course, are integral to the process. In brief, the measure of visitor involvement and, provisionally, of a museum show's success is not what is shown or used but rather how and why it is shown and to what end it is used.

A proviso bears noting before we proceed further: naturally, careful consideration must always be given to the protection and preservation of precious objects, artifacts, and of visitors themselves. We are advocating neither stunts nor stuntmen. There is, however, a vast difference between the operative principle that nothing should be manipulated or even touched by the threatening fingers of non-professionals and an espousal and adherence to a philosophy which prefers exhibits with built-in visitor opportunities for what can and should be cranked, revved, twisted, or fondled. Even when dealing with valuable pieces of art or items of special delicacy or fragility, replicas, variably-sized models, or analogue learning environments may be provided to be used in tandem with those works that cannot and should not be jeopardized.

That said, public outreach and visitor interaction should be seen as co-functional. To touch, to open, to pull, peer through, climb on, and crawl between, encourages not merely ephemeral or banal "involvement" but, through the participation of one's entire body, the heightened possibilities of actual discovery. Our major focus will now narrow to a closer investigation of the actual processes undergone by museum visitors within a sensorily-charged, interactive environment.


Towards a Jewish Exploratorium

Now inherent in museological methodology is the range of predictable response: from the casual sightseer's "Wow!" or "How pretty!" to the interacting participant's "What if...?" and "How come?"

Sightseeing among pretty objects, scenes, and artifacts may proceed in two ways. One can take an air-conditioned coach equipped with a knowledgeable guide who directs and monopolizes his charges' attention.

It is the guide who really determines what to look at, for how long, and what significance it conveys. Or one can be set at loose to explore at will, to permit enthusiasm to interact at random with chance and inclination, and then, first by asking questions and thereafter by exploring the twists, halts, and leaps of alternative explanations,to make one's own discoveries. While the first method offers the obvious five-star array of conveniences, few would seriously maintain that it holds the greater or more effective potential for involvement, learning, or growth.

At present, regardless of the subject of an exhibit or permanent display, museums too frequently still offer up their treasures primarily through a visual, static mode of presentation. The salient difference between this approach and a heuristic, explorative mode is that the latter aims virtually to invite visitors to manipulate its objects, to carry out projects and activities, to collect and relate information, and to reach and verify conclusions for themselves. Though the show itself will generally change with the season, the innovative museum's basic underlying theme is its signature: discovery through excitement and exploration.

The ensuing formulations comprehend both praxis and theory. Variants of them have been employed successfully on many occasions, primarily by museums of science and technology, where even neophytes have successfully, beguilingly been introduced to complex, highly abstract concepts. Analogous systems can and should be conceived and installed to deal with Jewish themes as well. One working key for curators would be never to mount a display, however "important," of Jewish objects as such.

The museum, after all, differs conceptually and functionally from a reliquary. Rather, proper strategy should incorporate surrounding and supportive historio-conceptual framework of concepts and values, thus shifting the perceptive focus from discrete items and data to an integrative, multi-sensory, participatory investigation.

There lurks, I believe, a salient irony in these observations. After all, whatever one's feelings about the role of science and technology in our age, their impingement on the lives of virtually of us All is universally granted. Even the most sanguine among contemporary observers, however, would not make such a claim for Judaism in the lives of a substantial number of American Jews. To observe Jewish ceremonial objects shielded by Plexiglas from dust and fingerprint carries one overridingly powerful message. "Do Not Touch" imparts and reinforces a sense of the irrelevancy and obsolescence of what is observed. Culturally, mounted "Judaica" borrows the perspective of the taxidermist. True, based either on a vague aesthetic and/or nostalgia, a pretty Hanukah menorah may rouse and elicit a pretty sentiment, but it can scarcely be said to transcend the glass barrier to the real life of the visitor. And yet, far from being an alien or tangential stratagem, a participatory museological approach that could invigorate and revitalize seems to me of particular pertinence above all to the organization of Jewish exhibits.

Why? Whereas art for its own sake may under certain conditions carry some residual justification when applied to paintings or sculpture that depict Jewish subject matter, it is clearly not applicable to ceremonial articles whose very creation was for ritual employment. The trauma enveloping the making and melting of the Golden Calf may be read as a formative text on Jewish psycho-aesthetics. Just after Moses heard of the danger of the misuse of image on Sinai, he returned to discover its threatening immanence. The Calf triggers both the breaking of the Tablets and the building of the multi-sensory, nation-participatory Tabernacle as a locus, as a focus of reconciliation. In sum, the sensory imperative had to be both met and defanged; the idol had to be replaced by a legitimized multi-sensory system.

The hiddur concept of performing a mitzvah with beautiful objects has always been secondary to their actual employment; its operative underpinning lies in the mitzvah itself - what one actually should Do - and the participatory involvement of the object with sacred event. Ceremonial objects are tashmishey kedushah. It is through their use, not their being, that they impart an awareness of the presence of the sacred.

However, the typical "Jewish" museum's display, say of a dozen ornate Havdalah spice containers behind a glass barrier, conveys a wholly misleading notion of their relation to their prime function. No matter how much it may serve as a sterling example of abstract or aesthetic displaymanship, Jewishly, it is dysfunctional.

We really can and must do better. Jewish exploratoria can be designed that would encourage the visitor to discover, sense, and experience the conceptual world of sacred time which gave rise to those Havdalah spice-boxes in the first place. Why need we continue to fall back upon a display process which is alien to the Jewish view of the complementarity of meaning and function, which in reality subverts the very highest aims of the Jewish museum?

We would like to propose alternatives that are more in congruence both with enduring Jewish values and with our own post-industrial, electronically sophisticated age. A Jewish museum appropriate both to our electronic age and our Jewish tradition must be grounded in processes and principles which enable the visitor to engage not valued relics but to become an active participant, through exploration and discovery, in a valued and value-laden event.

Perhaps a brief excursus into how Jewish museums have too frequently acquiesced into becoming virtual embalming stations, would be of some service. When European Jews first began to establish ways publically to display their ceremonial objects, they almost inevitably took as heir model the system already employed in the European art museum. After all, the liberated Jews of the Haskalah - the Enlightenment - were dazzled by the glories of the European art world. That was the period when the first museums of Judaica were founded and funded. We live to this day with the resultant irony: "Judaica" too often displayed in a manner derived from the Hellenistic museum-temple.

Let us bear in mind that the information flow in a Western educational environment is quite different from that in a traditional Jewish bet midrash. In the proto-typical, European-American school, information is generally channeled down a one-way street: teacher to student. As a structural model, this is directly analogous to the typical museum's uni-directional sensory flow from object to consumer-visitor. Contrariwise, a bet midrash floats amidst a sea of continuous dialogue, play and replay between students and teachers as well as among the students themselves. Jewishly, in fact, play is integrally connected to serious learning. Psalm 119, for example, extols the notion of "playing" with Torah. This concretization of this inter-playful working method of education is, of course, the hevruta model of participatory interaction.

Yet, as Thorleif Boman observes, "The Greek most acutely experiences the world and existence while he stands and reflects, but the Israelite reaches his zenith in ceaseless movement. Rest, harmony, composure, and self-control - this is the Greek way; movement, life, deep emotion, and power - this is the Hebrew way" (Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Norton, New York, 1970., p. 205). In short, Hellenism and Judaism embody complementary but quite different world-views. This argues powerfully for a reconsideration of what to this day is the mainstream Jewish museological approach from unwitting employment of the Attic model to one that is participatory and dialogic-interactive.

Boman's conclusions also suggest a strong affinity between the deep structure of Jewish thought and parallel modes congenial to our post-industrial world order which professional curators would be wise to exploit to our best, Jewish advantage. Even were Boman's dichotomies only partially valid, however, still would their ramifications seem urgent and compelling. An Exploratorium - a Jewish playground for serious learning -would in reality be a facsimile bet midrash in a somewhat different key.

The medium of print makes an analogous point. From start to finish, printed information flows in a single direction. Traditionally, however, the Jewish river of ink moves tidally. Based on the model of the Mikraot Gedolot (the Rabbinic Bible) and the printed Talmud, information is transmitted multi-dimensionally. The learner begins with a central text but then proceeds from one side of the page to the other, from above the central text to below, from commentator to commentator, and on to other pages, commentators, and texts. It aborts common sense to attempt to read the Talmud "from beginning to end" as if it were the Western book which superficially it may resemble. Rather, the eye and consciousness of the learners must move in an eccentric, seemingly adventitious manner as they struggle to create their own synthesis of the open-ended material.

Is it not apparent that of its very nature, a uni-directional presentation tends to lead the reader-learner to prescribed conclusions? The Jewish, multi-layered procedure, however, has a far higher potential to alter the learner's actual behavior: it calls forth questioning, argument, and an exploration of alternative possibilities. The contrast between the types of study could hardly be more radical or instructive. Presumably, the student of books eventually completes a sufficient number of them so as to become an accredited "educated person." What occurs at book's or course's end is a kind of closure. The student of The Book, however, no matter how much he learns, forever remains a "student." (The term for a "wise man" is, of course, Talmid akham, a wise learner.) In the Jewish system, closure itself is foreclosed.

Any comparison between one's recollection or simple observation of the methodology that characterizes the typical university lecture and the inter-active dialogic, hevruta style of learning that has been pursued for generations in the Jewish Bet Midrash makes the point with dramatic clarity. That many of the world's Jewish museums continue to this day to follow the pedagogic lead of the former, is an irony that betrays a fundamental miscomprehension of the signals transmitted by our very own tradition. Surely the more flexible, more playful Jewish learning model should whenever possible, be requisitioned as the more suitable, more effective and even more readily available mold on which the Jewish museum should shape its future.


A Jewish Exploratorium - Exhibit Design

The arts, the sciences, and the religious-spiritual systems all peer at the world through their own manner of prior perception. Artists, scientists, and spiritual leaders seem to occupy not only different frames of reference but seem to espouse mutually exclusive world views. Because each of them naturally is preoccupied with seeking self-verifying connective patterns, each tends to emphasize quite different aspects of the same world which we all somehow contrive to inhabit. It makes for a confusing, often clashing collage. Still, though only relatively few of us are professionals of science, the arts, or the spirit, we each on some occasions have performed proto-scientific experiments, dabbled at creating works of art, and experienced - perhaps to some extent even explored - our spiritual sensibilities. Through interaction with discovery environments, the fundamental aim of a Jewish Exploratorium would be to entreat and involve its visitors to become more sensitive and to activate to all of these dimensions of our common humanity.

Is there any peculiarly "Jewish" element in such a design? Perhaps the best approach to an answer would note that one of the hallmarks of Jewish living is that it seeks to engage the whole person: "All my being shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee?" (Psalms, 35:10). The Midrash on this verse elaborates: "I will praise thee with all the parts of my body" (Midrash Tehillim 35:2). This text, in fact, might serve as an epigraph for this entire proposal. I offer it, at least provisionally, as its very grounding.

What might prove, I think, of most use at this juncture, would  be a summary of goals and incumbent tasks that should be undertaken either to encourage or to evaluate a holistic set of museum experiences based upon a Jewish world view. As a guide, it intended to be more suggestive than either prescriptive or exhaustive and should be read in that spirit.

1. The exhibit should aim to stimulate the intellect, the emotions, and/or the spiritual proclivities of the visitor.

2. It should furnish such facts and data, i.e., content and information about the objects, needed to enhance a deeper understanding about the way of life of the living Judaism from which it sprang.

3. It should organize its information to stimulate judgments about how and where Jewish values impinge upon the vital contemporary social, moral, and spiritual issues of the visitor's life.

4. It should sharpen Jewish literacy and, provided auxiliary learning materials are incorporated into the exhibition, stimulate the visitor to learn more about Judaism.

5. It should be at least as oriented towards persons as toward objects. Art, for example, should not merely be viewed, but engaged in.

6. It should create an environment of exploration and discovery of Jewish world views. For example, signs that describe and explain exhibits could capitalize on two traditionally Jewish ways of learning: ta Shema! - Come and Listen! - and ta azey! - Come and See!

7. Exploratoria should aim to make Judaism exciting and relevant to the visitor through experiences that, calling for participatory involvement, require concept-building and decision-making. A Jewish basis for this may be discerned in the Hebrew term for information - yed. A midrash glosses this word as a composite of Yad and yin (hand and eye). Inherent in this is a specifically Jewish approach to learning: letting one's eye perceive   through what one's hand performs.

8. The experience should aim to become a vehicle for significant transformation of the visitor's post-museum round of activities.

9. Finally, exhibits should not, of course, neglect opportunities to appeal to the visitor's aesthetic sensibilities. Yet perhaps the prospective designer of a Jewish exploratorium, while finding much of this "good advice" sound, remains as yet uncertain conceptually at sea. Let me suggest that any good design would employ at least some features of each of four modal lenses of perception through which visitor can interact with the exhibit: cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and physical.

What is needful to recall about the cognitive lens is that it should eschew closure, about the emotional is that pleasure enhances any experience, and of the spiritual - that no less than Kol Nidre service, or the Grand Canyon - it should aim to impart a sense of joy, awe, and mystery.

As for the physical aspect of the exhibit, it is most primary, for the interaction of the visitor's body and entire sensorium with the given display, provides access for the three "higher" modes to be affected and activated. Therefore, every effort to invite the visitor into pushing, pulling, opening, closing, looking at and through, moving around, listening to, talking to, touching, prodding, probing, pounding, climbing, grasping, or dancing should be welcomed and exploited to the full. Additionally, while each exhibit should comprise a discrete unit in itself, each should also be conceptually and physically one node of a network of the comprehensive exhibition.

Just two additional suggestions for auxiliary complements to the main exhibit which should serve to make it both more meaningful and memorable.

First, since the network ideally would extend beyond the confines of the museum and on into the visitor's daily life, visitors should be given something, preferably something which they have had a hand and stake in fashioning, something no matter how simple, both practical and lovely, to take home as a token both of their encounter with the Exploratorium and of the ongoing quality of the experience.

Second, since there is every indication that nearly all forms of human activity may be subsumed as a form of play, and that for a great many people, especially young people, there inheres a dynamic complementarity between hi-tech and high touch, the Exploratorium should devise as part of its permanent working system, a library of games, software, and "props" for the first-hand experience of Jewish activities. Its aim would be to encourage visitors' involvement and wonder through imaginative play, experimentation, activities focusing in particular on Jewish signs, symbols, visual language, the Hebrew alphabet, and the actual performance of Jewish art. This place could be dubbed the "Discovery Room."

The foregoing are intended primarily as strategic probes. Their principle purpose is not to indicate a definitive museological strategy for Jewish exhibits but rather to raise some of the appropriate, sometimes overlooked questions. As R. Buckminster Fuller once noted, "Every time you make an experiment, you learn more; quite literally, you cannot learn less" (Approaching the Benign Environment). Only during the actual inceptive process of creating a specific exhibition, may each premise be tested and may each suggestion be evaluated and modified in terms of its actual effectiveness. We eagerly look forward to these further opportunities.



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