Sunday, February 1, 2009

Silence as an Interpretive Strategy

Are there times when just silence is the best interpretive strategy? Last year when I facilitated an AAM Conference Idea Lounge session called, "Why are Historic House Tours so Boring?" one participant reminded us that sometimes silence is the best thing--just providing visitors with a chance to appreciate the space and the art. I was reminded of that comment yesterday when I went, just as a tourist, to St. Sophia's Cathedral here in Kyiv.

St. Sophia is on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the first such site listed in Ukraine. It was built in the 11th century, though its exterior dates from a later period. It has a complex and complicated history, and it operates now as a museum, not as a working place of worship.

But yesterday was a cold January day, with only a weak bit of sun--enough to get me outdoors to see some of Kyiv's sights. It proved a great time to see St. Sophia. The sanctuary of the Cathedral itself is incredibly beautiful, with both mosaics and paintings in these deep, rich, incredible colors. The labeling was minimal, but thankfully in English, Russian and German, and there were very few people there. It was an opportunity to just be in this space, with centuries of history, and surrounded by such beauty--well, for once, I didn't really need any interpretation, I just immersed myself in it.

And outside it felt the same--enclosed from the outside world on the grounds, you could just wander, with the small number of other visitors, and look closely at details--the lock on a green door, the gold on a dome, a copper downspout. It felt like everything extraneous was pared away, leaving you to appreciate the place itself.


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Linda --

I'm so enjoying your posts. This one brought to mind a similar experience I had when I visited a former monastery in Italy a few years ago. As my traveling companion and I wandered in and out of sparely furnished rooms and hallways, we suddenly heard singing. Reverberating throughout the stone and stucco was an unseen chorus of voices that had spontaneously broken into a Gregorian-style chant. It enveloped me and made the physical space come alive.

Anonymous said...

:) Indeed. This is, in fact, my preferred strategy, as the most meaningful experiences, for me, tend to arise from silence an an experience of just meeting with the space, or the painting, or the exposition. Or, then, if not from silence, then from dialogue. A single person who you talk to brings so much more meaning than a tour group. Silence, written words, possibly a few questions answered when asked.

This is difficult, though: my grandfather, an artist himself, took a number of years to teach me this approach, and it was not an easy task. I would like to see a museum, however, that may teach this kind of silent appreciation. Teach doing your homework before or after a visit, depending on the site. Individual work with the visitors, a meaningful dialogue that allow you to find something to care for.

Would you mind if I comment you from time to time? - Kateryna Zorya