A few years ago I was in Washington DC for a conference. Before the conference started I decided to see all the Smithsonian Museums. Yes, all the museums. I failed but did learn something about viewing museums in the process. It is exhausting. Exhilarating but completely mind numbing, feet hurting, eyes burning exhausting. I began to think of museum visiting like a marathon. I just wanted to get through it. Then, an epiphany with two works that actually had some life changing impact. Both were the paintings by Mark Rothko and both had a well placed bench. Maybe it was the bench that changed my thinking! I finally made it to the National Gallery and saw exhibited in a chapel like space high up on the Tower floor, paintings from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. This picture is from Houston but the team of curators and installers of the exhibit in Washington did an amazing job of copying the intent.
I sat down. I stayed for a long time and and stared at the subtleties of what could be mistaken for all black canvases. When I did leave I felt rested and restored. I searched out Rothko’s other works in the Phillip’s Collection. A beautiful room designed specifically for the paintings and once more, with a bench. Again, I had time to let the colours vibrate and surround me.
This blog post, written by Susan Spero for Art Museum Teaching speaks perfectly to this idea.
After reading this article and reflecting on experiences that have become indelible in my past, the two factors of comfort and time often appear. A student in a classroom visit before coming to Museum School asked me if there would be ‘routines’ there. I asked her if routines made her feel comfortable and she replied that they did. I told her yes and then thought about our role in providing a safe and ‘comfortable’ place for learning. Maybe we do need to be challenged and made uncomfortable at times but we need a place of comfort to return to for that learning to sink in, to become indelible.
We need a Rothko bench.