EXHIBITIONS, EMOTIONS, AND THE BOOKS OF THE PANDEMIC
Susana Sanchez-Gonzalez, Institute for Cultural Practices
The last decade has seen a growing interest amongst museum professionals in developing a curatorial practice grounded in affect. In this Insight, Susana Sanchez-Gonzalez reflects on possible currents of affection that might be elicited by books during the pandemic, and how this may inform her research on the theory and practice of book exhibitions.
We live in strange times laden with emotions. Against a general backdrop of loss, grief, doubt and fear, opposing feelings of gratitude, love, kindness and appreciation emerge. The news of a bleak future of face masks, social distance and financial struggle runs counter to the clearer skies we can see outside our windows, the comforts of working from home, or the free time some of us have been granted to discover a new side of family life. Indeed, it is hard to know what we ought to be feeling these days, lest we inadvertently offend those at the other side of our emotional spectrum. So, whilst many of us continue to grapple with the many paradoxes of the pandemic, I also wonder whether there is something in this brewing pot of emotions that may feed my research on book exhibitions.
Exhibitions and Emotions
The aim of my thesis is to build a new model of analysing curatorial praxis grounded in the affective responses elicited by books as objects in exhibitions. Accordingly, I draw on affect theory and object-oriented thought to understand what motivates people to visit book exhibitions and to recognise what kind of experiences may be triggered by an object whose ‘power’ and ‘magic’ is so often associated with the act of reading. At a practical level, my research sets out to identify how exhibition design and object interpretation may better account for the multitude of emotional responses and personal connections that visitors may establish with the books on display.
In museum studies, the emphasis on personal connection honours the visitor-centred paradigm, which has driven curatorial practice during the past decades. In this new paradigm, museum authority appears to have been displaced by a more democratic approach to exhibition interpretation which recognises ‘subjective experience, visitor input and the magic of objects’ (Macdonald 2005: 224). Consequently, in looking for ways to put visitors at the centre of their practice, museums have acknowledged and increasingly become more concerned with the ways in which people make meaning during their visits. Likewise, they want to know more about how visitors encounter and connect with the objects on display, and what kind of outcomes – other than educational – they may take away from their visiting experiences.
Accordingly, during the past decade, there has been a growing interest amongst museum professionals in the role that personal feelings and emotions might play in these processes of meaning-making in exhibitions (see for example Bedigan 2016; Gadsby 2011). These studies have revealed not only that ‘visitors will have and do seek emotional responses in museums’ (Gadsby 2011: 4), but also that whenever emotions are involved, memories will be stronger and more meaningful, and will last longer (Falk 2009). Building on this idea, some museums are adopting new curatorial tools and methods that play with affectivity in order to present their collections in a new light and engage with their publics at a more personal level. Following this line of thought, my thesis posits that a better understanding of the affective power of books and reading in our society may reap similar benefits for the theory and practice of book exhibitions.
A Return to Books and Reading
How does COVID-19 feature in all this? Well, for a start, it appears that the pandemic is changing our reading habits. According to the latest survey commissioned by The Reading Agency, 31% of people in the UK are reading more since the lockdown began. In an effort to support this trend, the government has scrapped VAT on e-books and newspapers, a political measure which, incidentally, has also contributed to the welfare of those prone to abibliophobia, the fear of running out of things to read. Meanwhile, bookshops around the country are finding innovative ways to put books into the hands of their customers, whilst dozens of live readings and virtual book festivals are making the most of new technologies to ensure literature continues to feature in our housebound existence. For those taking part in online literary events, such as author Intisar Khanani, there is a clear goal behind these efforts: ‘to bring us together around the power of stories – to uplift us, to build compassion, and to help us weather the road ahead’ (quoted in Cowdrey 2020). In addition, there are hundreds of online initiatives inviting people to share their readings (check for example #stayhomeandread, #sharedreading, #lockdownreads and #shelfisolation) as well as an abundance of booklists compilations to serve whichever mood you may find yourself in.
This reflection, however, is not about how we may (or may not) find solace in the fictional space. In the time it has taken me to write this piece, many excellent blogs and articles on the subject of reading and wellbeing during COVID-19 have already been published. My concern, instead, is with the book itself as an object witness of the pandemic, and therefore, as a potential repository of emotions and ‘hauntological’ feelings – to borrow Derrida’s term – that may be awakened in future encounters with the book in exhibitions.
Books as Vehicles for ‘Something Else’
As theoretical background for my research, I draw on new materialism theorists like Jane Bennett (2010) to support the idea that the book is going through a process of metamorphosis, repositioning itself against the digital shift. In this process, the book emerges as a vital, active thing that is far from dying and therefore may be regarded as an actant with affective powers that could be better exploited in exhibitions. Likewise, I refer to English Literature scholars like Nicola Rodger (2010) and John T. Hamilton (2018) to evidence that this agentic nature of the book stems from its objectual condition as embodiment of certain ideas and emotions. In this sense, Rodger points out that books might be ‘inanimate’ objects, but not ‘inert’, and as such, they are able to ‘elicit emotional and physical effects such as gasps of surprise, coos of cuteness, rounds of curious thumbing and reverential stroking. It is the books themselves, as things, that evoke those reactions’ (Rodger 2010: 5-6).
Rodger sees the proliferation of ‘bookish’ objects in our society (things that mimic books, such as bookshelf wallpaper, book sculptures, or imitation leather book covers for laptops) as symptomatic of the affective capability of books. Similarly, Wurth et al. (2018) use the concept of ‘book presence’ to name the material/immaterial quality of the book that has driven a range of artistic and literary experimentations with the book in the digital age. For these authors, when the book as a medium became obsolete (immaterial), its presence as a medium for something else materialised (Wurth et al. 2018: 8).
During the pandemic, we have seen glimpses of this ‘something else’ all over social media. The latest fad for ‘bookshelf critique’ – represented on Twitter for example through @BCredibility and their wonderful tagline ‘What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you’ – demonstrates that the book as a status symbol continues to be topical in our visually-oriented society. My research already considers these cultural and socially constructed ideas around books as possible ‘feeders’ for object interpretation. However, I suspect that the lockdown may also be giving a new patina of ‘affectivity’ to our relationship with books.
New materialist theory posits that ‘people and things continuously affect each other’ (Rodger 2010: 3), and therefore I wonder what currents of affection might be galvanised right now and in the future by the books of the pandemic: the ones on the shelves giving us the reassurance of an unchanging normality against the chaos unravelling outside our windows, and the ones we choose as background to build on our credibility in the public eye; the ones we may choose to read and to ‘save’ us, and the ones that we discard in frustration. As materialisations of reading experiences, books may also act as visual memorials of our private lives at the time of reading. Exactly what we will see and how this will make us feel next time we encounter a book in an exhibition continues to be an area of interest in my research.
Bedigan, K. M. (2016) ‘Developing Emotions: Perceptions of Emotional Responses in Museum Visitors’, Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry, 16(5), 87-95. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.204969.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Cowdrey, K. (2020) ‘Authors launch literary “antiviral fest” BookBound 2020‘, The Bookseller. Accessed 12 May 2020.
Falk, J. H. (2009) Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Gadsby, J. (2011) ‘The Effect of Encouraging Emotional Value in Museum Experiences’, Museological Review, 15, 1–13.
Hamilton, J. T. (2018) ‘Pagina Abscondita: Reading in the Book’s Wake’, in Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Kári Driscoll and Jessica Pressman (eds), Book Presence in a Digital Age, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 27-43.
Macdonald, S. (2005) ‘Enchantment and its Dilemmas: The Museum as a Ritual Site’, in Mary Bouquet and Nuno Porto (eds), Science, Magic and Religion: The Ritual Processes of Museum Magic, New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 209–228.
Rodger, N. (2010) ‘From Book To Bookish: Repurposing the Book in the Digital Era‘, communication +1, 7(1), 1-32.
Wurth, K. B., Driscoll, K. and Pressman, J. (2018) Book Presence in a Digital Age, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Susana Sanchez Gonzalez is a librarian and a first-year PhD student in Museology at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. Her research focuses on ‘the reading experience’ and the idea of the book as a ‘numinous’ object as curatorial and engagement tools in book exhibitions.