6 WAYS TO CREATE AWE-INSPIRING EXPERIENCES WITH ART AND OBJECTS

INTRODUCTION

Awe is an emotion that can be triggered by being around something larger than yourself, that’s not immediately understandable.
It’s that feeling you get when you look up and see millions of stars in the night sky; witness a beautiful landscape or set eyes on an artwork for the first time.
Museums and galleries, historic settings and buildings can all provoke awe. And you can foster more of it in your programmes by thinking carefully about the artworks, objects you include, the questions you ask and the information you share.
So today, I’m talking about what awe is, why it’s important and sharing 6 ways you can create awe-inspiring experiences with art and objects.
At the end I’ll be sharing 3 things to look for to check you’ve succeeded in inspiring awe in your audience.

WHAT IS AWE?

So let’s start by talking a bit about what AWE is.
The original definition for awe involved fear and dread toward divine beings, but luckily today, it’s meaning has evolved to include a wide variety of experiences and most of them are positive ones.
Keltner, a leading researcher, into the psychology of awe defines it as:
‘…the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that you don’t understand with your current knowledge,’
So, awe is an emotion that can be triggered by being around something larger than yourself and something that’s not immediately understandable.
It’s about being around things that are more powerful than the subject.
This could be nature, art, architecture, music or being in a collective experience – ie at a concert, political march or ceremony.
Awe is that feeling you get when you look up and see millions of stars in the night sky, or perhaps that feeling you get when you’re present at the birth of a child, or witness a beautiful vista or observe a storm in action.
Awe challenges our understanding of the world. You may describe the experience with words such as wonder, amazement, surprise or even transcendence.
Or you may have no words. Awe can also be something that you can’t put into words, you know you felt moved and or connected with others but you can’t find the words to describe it.
Sometimes you get goosebumps or you might feel a lump rise in your throat. Some people recall having tears rolling down their face and sometimes not even realising it. Your heart might start beating slightly faster.
You might literally have a ‘jaw-dropping’ moment. Over the past week, I’ve been asking people to describe the awe-struck moments on social media. Maartje in the Netherlands described on Instagram how she was at an art museum with a colleague looking at a Picasso painting, they both turned around and saw a Monet over the other side of the room and their jaws-dropped. Up until that moment, they weren’t too keen on the impressionists either. Important factors for them in this awe-struck experience were that they were there in real life and the painting was life-sized instead of in a book.
And an important point to note here is that not all awe-experiences are the same – what may provoke awe in one person, may not in another. Although with Maartje and her friend, they both felt awe.
And there are a range of awe-experiences – from a gentle feeling of awe at the lower end of the scale to a more powerful feeling at the other.

WHEN HAVE YOU FELT AWE?

Think about a time when you have felt awe in the past. Where were you? What happened? What happened? How did you feel? Make notes.
This will help you to think of how you might create awe-inspiring experiences for your audiences.
Here are some of my examples that I scribbled down:
  • Stepping outside of a minibus at nighttime in Cuba and looking up at the sky and seeing thousands and thousands of stars
  • Standing in front of monumental artworks such as The Night Watch which can be grand in scale or super-small, rare gems full of artistic mastery, like Vermeer’s The Milk Maid.
  • Staring up at the sheer size, artistry and craftsmanship of cathedrals such as Notre Dame or the Duomo in Florence
  • Feeling the power of nature – walking in a massive rainstorm, watching a stormy sea (and feeling small beside the size of the waves), seeing a rainbow etc etc.
So awe is not just something that you stumble across, you can actively seek it and you can find it everywhere. Not just in people or places but in music, art or architecture too.
And you can create experiences that aim to give participants an awe-inspiring experience too.
With the pace of everyday life, it can sometimes be hard to look up and look for awe. Awe seems to be in short-supply and that’s understandable with the stresses and strains of the pandemic – it’s understandable that we may have been short on awe for a while now.
So perhaps we can fill the gap and create awe-inspiring experiences?
Before I share some ideas for how you can create more awe-moments in your programme, I’d first like to share some benefits.

WHY CREATE AWE-INSPIRING EXPERIENCES?

  • Experiencing awe can give us a sense of hope and provide a feeling of fulfilment. It can improve our well-being.
  • Awe-inspiring experiences give you a mood boost It can help us to focus on the outward, rather than the inner – it helps us to stop thinking negatively
  • Awe helps us to feel more connected to other people and the world around us – awe has an amazing ability to bring people together and connect over something. 

6 WAYS TO CREATE AWE-INSPIRING EXPERIENCES WITH ART AND OBJECTS

So, how about we as museum educators, guides, learning practitioners and teachers, decide to create experiences that foster a sense of awe?
How about you try to sprinkle some awe on your next guided tour or educational programme, workshop or outreach programme to create moving moments on a shared experience? How might you do that? 
So let’s now look at some of the different ways you can create awe-inspiring moments for your participants in your programmes, tours or workshops:
#1 SCALE
Choose locations, objects or artworks that are literally large in scale.
In 2003 psychologists Keltner and Haidt presented a paper called a “conceptual approach to awe.” Here they suggested that one of the phenomena that can characterise awe experiences is “perceived vastness
 “Perceived vastness” can come from observing something literally physically large — a large building, a large object or artwork. So, think of a giant dinosaur skeleton, a Spitfire bomber from World War II or the Blue Whale model that I saw at the Natural History Museum in London when I was little.
The same would go for the huge Night Watch painting at the Rijksmuseum or Monet’s water lily series. All of these promote awe because of their sheer scale (in relation to yourself).
Going back to my research on social media last week, Dr Stephanie Smith shared with me that she always felt a feeling of awe with the painting Menin Gate at Midnight by Will Longstaff.
It used to have it’s own dark room with music that really set the scene. The awe she felt was down to a number of factors: She mentioned first the scale of the painting, and the story behind the piece. She notes ‘The way Longstaff painted the many ghosts of soldiers rising amongst the poppies is just something else.

You could also think about vastness in a more metaphorical way – as in a sense of time (an object that was created over a 1000 years ago for example) or complexity (an intricate object that has hundreds of moving parts for example) or the sheer scope of an idea – such as evolution or revolution.

How could you fit this idea of ‘perceived vastness’ into your programmes and create more awe experiences for your audience?
#2 ‘SOCIAL SIZE’ 

So a second way you could include more awe-struck moments into your programmes would be to include objects/artworks with ‘social size’. 

Going back to idea of ‘perceived vastness’, it can also occur in an encounter with something or someone that is vast or profound, such as being in the presence of someone/something with immense prestige.
So, think of the must-sees in your museum or cultural organisation. The things everyone must-see before they leave. This could be the Nightwatch again or the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or anything that has a feeling of prestige surrounding it in your museum.
By including these ‘prestigious’ artworks, participants feel like they are in the presence of something with ‘social size’ – ie immense fame, prestige or authority. And from my research last week, the great artworks kept being mentioned time and time again.
#3 CREATE ANTICIPATION
Jon Sleigh shared with me a story of the first time he saw a particular painting of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery in London when he was a teen. 
He’d only ever seen it in very grainy books from the 1970’s and even then it connected with him. 
But when he saw this painting in real life, he said he was staggered by the full force of its emotion and the detail. 
He said It very much felt familiar and yet new, and for him processing that was part of the awe. 
He still remembers the experience now. He said the awe for him was part build-up ( he had saved hard to afford the coach to London ) and part ‘meeting’ the piece in real life
So, this is a good reminder that some people wait for years to go to a particular museum or to go and see a particular artwork or object in a museum. 
They are excited before they even walk through the door. 
  • How can you build on their excitement or how can you create anticipation where there is none? 
  • How can you contribute to the build up before you even get to an artwork. 
  • What can you say in your introduction to start creating that buzz and excitement?
#4 SHOW ABILITY
You can also be awe-struck by the ability of someone.
My friend Michael Bowen told me about the time in the National Archeological Museum in Athens when he was blown away by a statue of a boy riding a horse.
He mentions:
‘The skill of the artist in capturing the movement in a galloping horse and then rendering that in bronze was just remarkable. I felt humbled, inspired, and a sense of connection to the past….’
Interestingly, he went on to share that his awe was not only inspired by the mastery and skill of the artist, but it was also provoked by personal connections – he said he had worked with horses, had ridden and has also tried to draw horses himself (and failed mostly) so he could appreciate the subject even more.
So, think about including an artwork or object that shows mastery and skill. Those that demonstrate exceptional skill or ability. Fro example, Vermeer with his hyper accurate visual effects which made his paintings seem so lifelike.
Think about:
  • What knowledge could you share to inspire more of a sense of awe when your participants are looking at a Vermeer?
  • What questions could you ask them to get them thinking about the skill and mastery involved?
  • What questions would they like to ask you about it?
As another example, think also about great engineers – someone like Thomas Telford – known as the godfather of civil engineering. Famous for bridges, roads, and canals of the 18th century and he invented the suspension bridge. He not only had exceptional ability but he was able to be ahead of his time.
You can’t look at a Telford construction without feeling a sense of awe, but how could you add to that feeling? What information could you share that would heighten that feeling of exceptional skill or ability?
#5 BEAUTY
Think about artworks that are a riot of colour like Rothko (many people are awe-struck by Rothkos) or show wonderful scenes from nature – a sunrise or sunset like the one by Monet that Maartje described to me that literally made her jaw drop,
it could be a beautiful vista or a breathtaking mountain range. It could also be a painting or photograph of a breathtaking view, or the starry sky at night.
You could also extend the concept of beauty to abstract or conceptual artworks, portraits, everyday objects and more. Ask your audience to look for the beauty in the object or artwork they are looking at. It could be beauty in the subject matter or the way the artist has applied the paint or the mastery on display.
You could also think about including works that showcase moral beauty or courage.
This is inspired by Keltner’s 8 Wonders of Modern Life. Keltner says that we can become awe-struck by stories of courageous people (think Martin Luther King or Greta Thunberg) or movements that call for change such as Black Lives Matter.
Awe experiences are not just about things, they are just as likely to be about people too. What themes or objects can you incorporate on your programmes that might highlight moral beauty or courage to provoke awe?
#6 INVITE PARTICIPANTS TO LOOK FOR AWE
So, this was inspired by research in the US studied 52 older adults.
They asked half of them to walk for 15 minutes once a week for eight weeks. Half of the participants simply walked.
They instructed the other half to try to feel awe during their walks. The people in that group aimed to appreciate the wonders around them and to notice their surroundings with curiosity as if they were children.
This research found that the people who took awe walks were more likely to notice and appreciate nature and their surroundings. Those who walked without seeking awe were more likely to think about themselves.
So, how can we apply this?
  • Ask your participants to treat their experience with you as an exercise in awe-spotting or even an awe-walk.
  • Get them to turn off any distractions or notifications so that they can be fully in the moment.
  • Maybe include some deep breathing at certain points to get participants in a receptive frame of mind and a relaxed state.
  • Tell them to be open to inspiration. To take note of what catches their attention. To notice if they feel emotions such as surprise or delight or if they feel physical sensations such as goosebumps.
  • To make sure their senses are heightened – you can encourage this with attention to smell, touch, sounds and more. They might experience more awe if they simply pay more attention to it – just as the group in the research did.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’VE SUCCEEDED IN INSPIRING AWE IN YOUR AUDIENCE? 3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR:
  • Look for facial expressions – apparently smiling isn’t associated with awe but do look for raised eyebrows, widened eyes, a dropped jaw, and visible intakes of breath. 
  • Look for use of words like “mind-blowing” or “earth-shattering.” When people experience awe it challenges their existing thoughts around people and the world around them, it makes them rethink their existing way of thinking about the world. So something could literally be ‘mind-blowing’ for them. 
  • Ask! your participants to reflect on the whole experience – questions like: ​​What was surprising or exciting about this experience today? What are you wondering or puzzling about as a result of this experience?

CONCLUSION

Experiencing awe is such a simple practice — just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to look at a painting for longer periods of time. Museums and galleries, historic settings and buildings can all provoke awe. And you can foster more of it in your programmes by thinking carefully about the artworks, objects you include, the questions you ask and the information you share. Awe experiences happen relatively frequently in groups too – that shared moment of doing something wonderful and meaningful together such as discovering and interpreting clues about an artwork or object or working in small groups to discuss and reflect on a question you’ve asked or complete an activity you’ve set.
I’d love for you to give some of these a go and see if you can create more awe-moments in your programmes. If you do, share with me how you get on.
Don’t forget every Friday I send out a weekly newsletter full of inspiration and ideas – I share one thing to watch, one to read and one to listen to every week and all the upcoming classes and courses too. I’ll put a link below to the TM WEEKLY too.
Sign up for The TM WEEKLY newsletter