Art to the Heart

Keith Spencer at North of Boston Magazine. Photo by Social Palates Photography

[Note: Matt Kirchman of ObjectIDEA was trained and served as an Art-o-mancy guide for this event]    
A visit to the museum is not everyone’s idea of an exciting evening, but the Peabody Essex Museum was Off the Wall on Thursday as they launched their 2015 PEM/PM party series. The opportunity offered guests the chance to morph the museum’s collection into a personal oracle through the Art-o-mancy project, and engage with art in other unique and entertaining ways.

“The Art-o-mancy experience offers a new, exciting, and eye-opening way to appreciate and connect with the artwork of a museum,” said Doneeca Thurston, Adult Programs Coordinator of the Peabody Essex Museum. “We are one of the first museums in this area to work with the collective, and our patrons walked away with thoughtful answers and deeper connections to the collection.”

The social engagement exercise first began in Minneapolis, Minnesota when Laurie Phillips started looking for a way to avoid the boredom of the mechanical approach she had so long employed when visiting museums. Look at a painting. Read the wall description. Look at a painting. Read the wall description. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. “I felt like an art robot,” Laurie explained to me. “I felt like I was at the grocery store not an art museum.” Her husband, Jon Spayde, happened to be studying French Surrealists at the time, and was inspired to develop a new paradigm to garner a deeper sense of fulfillment. The approach asked visitors to personally invest oneself in the museum’s collection by projecting your own hopes, desires, concerns, and fears onto an artwork. At the same time, it would be a game at its heart that would provide entertainment and a more inviting experience at the museum.

“It made me look at the art in a totally different way,” Laurie reflected. “I really carefully looked at it because when it was about me and my life I thought there’s a lot at stake here. This thing better deliver. And it did.”

At this week’s PEM/PM event, Laurie, Jon, and other members of the Art-o-mancy collective greeted guests just outside the Atrium where they began quests with an “intuitive” albeit random selection of a gallery. This selection and another made in the gallery served as metaphorical Tarot cards, co-opting the museum’s collection to provide insight into a question about life formed at the outset of your quest.

My journey commenced after meeting Oracle Guide Todd Maitland who explained the process and instantly earned credibility by ensuring confidentiality. I “blindly” began our trek through the museum, guided gently by the elbow while she helped me to prepare for the task ahead. Todd got me focused, absorbing the various sensory experiences or lack thereof. As someone willing to take on new adventures, I had decided along the way this exploration could and hopefully would be insightful.

Upon opening my eyes, I found myself in the Japanese Art Gallery, looking upon an item to which I had no relative awareness of its origin or purpose. While I consider myself a creative, I certainly know I am not a fine artist. With Todd’s assistance, I made both casual observations as well as commentary regarding artistic elements that eventually delved into deeper discussion of the dilemma I presented.

The artwork was revealed as a Satsuma style pottery toro (lantern), standing a foot tall and composed of a hexagonal base, three pieces, and a Tokugawa mon at its crest. The front façade is adorned with hand-painted figures and flowers generally representative of the Japanese culture of the late 1800’s.

The piece has been on display at the Peabody Essex Museum since 2003 during which time I have visited on many occasions. This is probably an item I had previously offered only a simple glance, however, the Art-o-mancy approach took this beautiful object and drew out something some much more tangible than a simple viewing experience.

“Sometimes it is direct information that is startling while other times the results are a hint at what can be done,” Laurie noted.

With national museum attendance down over the last decade or so, newer generations are looking for memorable and entertaining experiences like the Art-o-mancy approach that could boost arts attendance. Teens and twenty-somethings want to feel comfortable, even if it is a space at one time perceived to be an uncomfortable one.

The PEM/PM series offers opportunities like this exploration which adds elements of comfort and entertainment while encouraging visitors to stay longer, come back often, and share their experiences because they have developed into something much more valuable....

As I walked away at the end of the evening, I began collecting my thoughts about the experience. It dawned on me a refreshing light had once again been shed on the Peabody Essex Museum and its collection. They continually provide exceptional experiences and quirky opportunities that are changing the way patrons look at museums forever.