Volume 16 (1) 

Reflections on Numinous Experiences With Museum Objects
Interview conducted and edited by James Kisiel, with Leigh Kish and Theresa Sotto

In this installment of the VSA Reflection on Evaluation and Research feature, we explore numinous experiences—those occasions when we experience a visceral or emotional response to an earlier event or time. The discussion presented here builds on the recent Visitor Studies article (vol 16:1) by Kiersten Latham, Numinous Experiences With Museum Objects, where she describes and documents characteristics of these object-based experiences.

For this reflection, I talked with Leigh Kish, Communications and Media Relations Manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and Theresa Sotto, Education Specialist (Teacher Audiences) at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They provide their perspectives on the research presented, including ideas for how this might influence practice.

Check out the article here.

Jim: Thanks for agreeing to share your ideas about the Latham article Numinous Experiences With Museum Objects. In many ways, this research attempts to more formally describe an outcome that is, frankly, a bit hard to describe. I first wondered if you might just give us your initial response to the reading.

Theresa: As a museum educator who develops programs and resources for K-12th grade teachers, I am constantly thinking about how to make meaningful connections between works of art and … the everyday lives of Los Angeles, CA youth. This extremely diverse population has grown up in the capital of the moving images industry with objects that ding and digitally transform, and with gadgets that immediately cater to their curiosities and talk back. Yet the importance and relevance of objects in museums often unfold over time, upon reflection, close looking, research, and inquiry.

The paper reminded me that an old object made in a distant land may not need a vehicle (such as an educator) to give today's youth a way in. Inherent to the physicality of a work of art is the imprint of history on its tangible and visible surface. As Latham writes, "Because of its physicality, or three-dimensional nature, the object has become a 'witness to history,' seeing events and people of the past and bringing them into the present." In other words, the connections need not always be made. Some museum objects do indeed "talk back."

The transformative, numinous experience that Latham describes is one that I have been fortunate to experience … while on vacation in [Europe]…. It was Michelangelo's statue of the Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. [But] it may not have been the sculpture alone that so greatly impacted me. Other factors that likely played a role were the soaring gothic ceilings of a church that dates back to the 13th century, the elaborate and enormous stained glass windows, and the choral music reverberating through the cavernous spaces. But the experience—that the edges of my vision "blurred, darkened, or fuzzed out" as the object was highlighted—that was all Michelangelo. And the imaginative empathy I felt while picturing the artist chiseling out tenderness, affection, and serenity from a block of marble—that was all Michelangelo, too.

Jim: I think it’s hard not to think of your own numinous experience as you follow the author’s descriptions and examples. The description of Phil’s encounter in the article led me back to my first trip to Gettysburg as a child. Being in that place, seeing the fences and fields and trees that were part of a battle from not too long ago—I forgot about my family and the other visitors to the park, and kept expecting to see troops rising over the hill, heading toward the next skirmish. I’ve been back a few times since then, and always seem to slip into that ‘past time’ fairly easily.

Leigh: When I started to read the article the first object that came to mind from my own experience was Lincoln’s top hat, on view in DC at the National History Museum. When my friend and I went to the National History museum, we knew that Lincoln’s hat, and more specifically the hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was shot, was there, and…when we found it, I had an experience that could very well be described by Latham through her descriptions of themes of object link and being transported. 

I think that the power that the object held was that it witnessed one of the most important events in American History. Through it, I felt connected—maybe even tethered—to that particular and specific moment in history. From a witness, the story feels more truthful, weighty, tangible. And that is exactly what I felt and was thinking about when I saw the hat—the story of Lincoln’s assassination felt, in the presence of this object, truthful, weighty, and tangible. It was as if I was thinking about the event for the first time, considering what people must have felt in the theater, and what the nation felt in the aftermath. I even began to think about the act itself as one man’s brutal attack on another. In other words, Lincoln’s assassination was no longer a story or legend to me; I could relate to it. The object had a transitive property that made me feel, at least at the time at the object and later during my reflection on the visit, as though I was a witness, too.

Theresa: I like this notion of an object bearing witness, and in that way, it can serve as a surrogate for a person. In order for us to connect to a past that we didn't personally experience, viewing an object from the past can be an effective way to bridge the divide. What better way to make a historical event feel like an actual lived experience than to witness an object that bore witness to the event. An act of witness twice removed. The object gives a kind of testimony. Otherwise a tale about the past is just a tale.

Leigh: In general, I think that this article tees up some further research nicely; we know that people have these types of experiences, so how can we help more people have them? Are our museums preventing these experiences through design or display? A current example might be the fact that we have the holotype, or very first, T. rex on view in our dinosaur hall. Does this designation make a difference in the way someone feels about it? If yes, how can we make sure that bit of information is known?

As a natural history person, I really want to know more about experiences with natural history objects. I [would be interested] in further research, as the author points out at the end, around the types of objects that can elicit such a strong response. I think natural history museums are a bit at a disadvantage in that most of the specimens are not created by humans, which removes some of the personal connection. There is also the idea of deep time, and how difficult it can be for people to conceptualize.

Jim: That’s an interesting question. All three of our examples of numinous experiences were related to more art/history experiences, so this is an important point. Theresa, what do you think about Leigh’s ideas? Does it seem like there might be numinous experiences related to natural objects?

Theresa: I do believe that natural objects can elicit numinous experiences, whether in museums or otherwise. One object that comes to mind is General Sherman in the Sequoia National Forest. As the largest and possibly longest-living single stem tree in the world, General Sherman would be a good candidate for a unique experience that transports visitors to another time, one that would spark deep connections to larger concerns such as human mortality, evolution, and the earth's history. It seems to me that one quality that unites General Sherman, a T. rex skeleton, a Matisse cut-out, or Abraham Lincoln's hat, is their uniqueness--whether that uniqueness is inherent to the thing itself, results from a particular context in which that thing was used, or because a visitor's experience of it is uniquely different from the visitor's everyday lived experience.

I wonder, then, whether mass-produced objects that are not somehow unique could trigger a numinous experience. And can non-tangible things, like music, elicit such experiences, too? All of the examples discussed thus far depend on sight, but what might trigger a numinous experience in a vision-impaired individual?

Jim: As you both reflect more on the idea of numinous experiences, it seems that even more questions arise. The author mentions that the study of numinous experiences described in this article is just the first step in several potential future studies. Leigh's question as to whether natural objects could lead to numinous experiences perhaps leads us to a larger question of whether some objects are more prone to invoking numinous experiences (perhaps, as Theresa suggests, objects that are unique or unusual are better candidates). Are numinous experiences limited to a single object, or could it be a suite or arrangement of objects (e.g., a diorama or set of sculptures)? And do numinous experiences rely on sight, or can they be experienced through other sensations (sound, touch, even smell)? Seems that you've built a nice research agenda here!

But let's bring this back to where we live, or more accurately, work. Latham also suggests that an awareness of numinous experiences might be used to inform exhibit and program development. So what might that look like in your department or museum overall? Perhaps more importantly, would creating programs or exhibitions that foster numinous experiences be valued by your audiences? Both of you have already mentioned some connections to practice, but I want to see if you might say more.

Leigh: This article made me think that we may have misinterpreted the results of some marketing research we’ve done earlier. At the Carnegie Museum of Art (I used to work for both the Art Museum and Natural History Museum) a few years back, we did a focus group with families with children and young cosmopolitans, and in one of the groups, someone admitted to touching the art, others admitted to getting very close to the paintings, and another proclaimed that they loved the art so much that they practically wanted to lick it. At the time, this was interpreted as just a need to have things to touch, and hands-on examples of the art—and I think that is part of it. But after reading this article, I might interpret that differently, or at least would push that further in the focus group discussion. Instead of someone needing a sensual experience, they needed a way to really connect with the art work: seating to relax for contemplation, more of a story about the work or the artist, or even more space between works to widen the potential action in the peripheral vision of the viewer.

In my own experience, museum marketers have had some sense of the numinous experiences through a blend of gut feeling and anecdotal evidence. For example, my former supervisor talked about “the annual pilgrimage to the museum,” where everyone in the family hopped in the car and came to visit the same time each year, even inadvertently using terminology that implies a spiritual connection. In response, we ran an ad campaign about visiting to “spend the holidays with some old friends,” though visually the campaign was tied to images that suggested holidays, not objects that we knew people were connected to, which was probably a missed opportunity.

Although I’m not all that involved in programming, my department is responsible for things like the floor plan, where of course we try to include highlights of what to see. This effort was at least partially due to visitors requesting some direction of what to see. Sometimes this request comes in the form of “if I only have an hour, what do I see?” and sometimes the request comes as “what are you known for?” and, of course, every permutation of those is possible. Since visitors appear to be looking for guidance of how to structure their visit, it seems that call-outs of certain objects on floor plans or highlights tours that can be picked up at the ticketing desk…might be great ways to call attention to meaningful objects and perhaps support people on their way to having numinous experiences.

Yet I think there may be a danger in attempting to design or plan numinous experiences for our visitors. An over-reliance on giving people the highlights might funnel visitors away from some objects that would have profound meaning to them. I expect that would most affect those who are not repeat visitors to our institutions.

Theresa: Since numinous experiences hinge on individual connections and personal reflections, I am unsure as to the role that museum staff could or should effectively play. Based on the quotes included in the article, none of the individuals who had numinous experiences appeared to reference a program, label, or museum staff member that influenced the experience. It was the object itself that caused the spark. As a museum educator who creates programs and resources for K-12 teachers and students, I spend many hours strategizing about how best to connect objects and people. If I am to be effective, I should also be aware of when to get out of the way so that individuals can make their own meaningful connections.

Rather than think about how museums could plan exhibits and programs to foster numinous experiences, perhaps we should consider programs and projects that utilize such stories after they happen. I think there is great potential here for museum advocacy across a variety of audiences, whether they are school administrators, potential funders, or families looking for a weekend activity. What better way to emphasize the value that museums have in society than to tell the stories of individuals profoundly impacted by the objects in our galleries? Inherent in a work of art, historical artifact, or natural object is the potential for impacting someone's life in indelible ways. In fact, someone could be having a numinous experience in a museum right now. Let's find those people and share their stories.

Leigh Kish is Communications and Media Relations Manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Theresa Sotto is Theresa Sotto, Education Specialist for Teacher Audiences at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Jim Kisiel is Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach.