I have a lot of time for awe. It’s one of those grand, old-fashioned emotions that seems to span millennia. Ennui and apathy strike me as far more contemporary emotions, but awe goes right back to the beginning. The ‘big three’ awe-inspirers are nature, religion and art. In their presence, we are humbled and the experience is overwhelming and uplifting. Over time, the power of awe has been devalued and an ‘awesome’ experience today could be just about anything. Comedian Eddie Izzard does a wonderful routine about the difference between the original use of the adjective and what it has become, when even hotdogs are described as awesome. So for the purposes of this post, let’s put the hotdogs to one side and focus on the fire-and-brimstone, breath-taking, transformative version of awe.
Like cathedrals before them, museums are designed to inspire awe. Traditionally, they’re big (which by comparison makes us small ), imposing and solid, built to last well beyond a human lifespan. The feeling of awe that I experience in large cathedrals and museums is more about the volume of space than the actual bricks and mortar. Liverpool Cathedral, for example, is quite plain compared with the standard gothic/baroque models, and yet it still inspires awe because it is just so unbelievably gigantic. I always marvel at how much space is contained within its walls. The Victorians were particularly good at awe-inspiring museum architecture – the Natural History Museum and the V&A, neighbours in South Kensington, are both immense structures that impress even before you’ve had the chance to discover all the treasures inside.
When I think about the sort of museum experiences that I want for audiences, I often talk or write about engagement, excitement, enjoyment, entitlement (so many e’s), curiosity, inspiration and – perhaps – wonder, but I can’t remember the last time I promoted awe. I don’t know why not, because I’ve seen countless people experience awe when confronted by an amazing painting, sculpture or gallery. The eyes widen, the jaw falls, and the whole face lights up. If they say anything, it’s usually a quiet ‘…woah…’ I love those moments, they are total catnip for museum educators. So why don’t we talk about awe more? Perhaps the religious connotations are too strong? Is it too worthy? Or does it feel presumptuous to proclaim ourselves awe-providers? (Although it doesn’t seem to stop us laying claim to being inspiration-providers.)
The University of California, Berkeley, has been conducting research into awe, looking at its evolutionary function and how it’s expressed in different cultures. Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor at Berkeley and has done extensive work in this field. His talk, ‘Why Awe is Such an Important Emotion’ and article, ‘Why Do We Feel Awe?’, are both fascinating. Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world”. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we experience awe, our creative thinking opens up too. Berkeley studies have shown that “simply watching short videos of expansive images of the Earth leads people to come up with more original examples when asked to name items from a certain category (e.g., ‘furniture’), to find greater interest in abstract paintings, and to persist longer on difficult puzzles when compared with appropriate control conditions”.
What I hadn’t previously appreciated about awe is that it is a socially bonding experience. When we are in a state of awe, our self-interest is superseded by an interest in others, we become more altruistic, and the division between ‘us and them’ is lessened. Surely we could be making more of this attribute in museums. I have experienced this effect at music festivals and performances, but I haven’t felt particularly part of a collective experience with everyone else in the same museum. Perhaps that is because standard museum engagement is either alone, in pairs, or small groups. I looked after a yoga session in the V&A’s Raphael Gallery a couple of weeks ago and that was a pretty special experience. Perhaps it is through large-scale events at museums, where many people are all engaged in the same experience, that the effect takes hold?
The other thing I took from Keltner’s introduction was that awe can be a regular part of life. It’s not just about sunsets on mountaintops, it can also be about noticing the fall of light while walking through a park, or admiring a friend who has just accomplished a major challenge. According to their studies, on average we experience awe 2.5 times a week. (I wonder what half an awe looks like – a highly-anticipated sandwich that turns out to be a little bit disappointing perhaps?) In Keltner’s presentation, he draws attention to the differences between US and Chinese awe-inspiring moments. Ten percent of the US subjects’ experiences of awe were ABOUT THEMSELVES! This rate is 20% higher than their Chinese equivalents. It turns out that many moments of awe come from our admiration of others – their courage, generosity, wisdom and strength. This makes sense when I think about the collective awe that had the UK in its grip during the 2012 Olympics.
To finish, I want to share this short TED talk by Rob Legato, titled, The Art of Creating Awe. Legato shares some of the behind-the-scenes stories of creating the special effects for Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo. He is also very funny.