I once had the privilege of interviewing Frank Oppenheimer, the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I asked him why he had created the museum, and he answered: “Both my brother Robert and I were struck with how, in our increasingly specialized world, children were not asking the kinds of questions we asked about natural phenomena (e.g. what makes an echo; what causes waves, rainbows, and magnetism?). I decided to create a place where curiosity could thrive and such questions could be answered by seeing and doing.”
In effect, Oppenheimer wanted to “awaken curiosity” (to use the interpretation theorist Freeman Tilden’s words). In fact, he wanted to reawaken curiosity and help empower visitors, young and old, to appreciate that we all have amazing capabilities to enjoy and contemplate the world in which we live.
“Reawakening curiosity” is quite simply what the creative aging movement is about. At a certain time in our lives, we can either retire and retreat or realize that our demographically lengthening years are an opportunity to advance into other exciting avenues, ones we have only dreamed of exploring. Museums provide the byways for these reawakenings of interest and engagement; they are safe places in which adult learners can grow and thrive.
A friend recently asked, “Well, don’t older populations already visit museums?” Of course, she was correct. However, the creative aging movement reminds us that it is not only about the numbers but the quality of the experience itself. Even if you have no trouble attracting older populations to your museum, there is still opportunity to engage them and impact their lives more powerfully.
To that end, here is a recommended reading list on the topic of creative aging. Each of the publications provides prompts for museum professionals that can guide us toward more vibrant and effective institutions and programs. I suspect that those who begin reading on the topic will soon be struck with how much of it pertains to the work we already do in America’s museums. Each of our thirty thousand museums in this country is perfectly placed to advance the creative aging initiative. We are natural partners to the thought that is occurring in this field.
Start with the writings of Gene Cohen, who was the Director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. He sets out very clearly the emotional and physical health benefits of “creative” aging:
- The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. Harper Collins, 2000.
- The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. Perseus Books, 2005.
Then, I suggest:
- Carlson, Mary Baird. Creative Aging: A Meaning-Making Perspective. Norton and Company, 1991.
- Chittister, Joan. The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. United Tribes Media, 2008.
- Close, Karen and Cowan, Carolyn. Creative Aging. Wood Lake Publishing, 2015.
- Lasky, Marjorie Penn. You’re Doing What? Older Women’s Tales of Achievement and Adventure. Regent Press, 2018.
For perspectives within the museum field:
- Dodd, Jones, Plumb, McGhie and Blazejewski. Unexpected Encounters: How Museums Nurture Living and Ageing Well. Research Center for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester. 2018.
- Bourne, Marie (ed.). Museums, Galleries and Lifelong Learning: Are Museums Doing Enough to Attract Older Audiences? National Gallery of Ireland Proceedings. November, 2007.
For a wider context, I found these two publications very helpful:
- Sternberg, Esther, M.D. Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Leslie, Ian. Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. Perseus Books, 2014.
Finally, a whole afternoon of pleasure awaits as you enjoy this link, complete with wonderful videos, about Aroha Philanthropies. It is Aroha that is helping our field see the fuller potentials of linking into the creative aging movement.
Each of these publications will provide you with a kind of ‘shock of recognition’ when it comes to the work we do in museums. And, if you are like me, they will only lead to other readings that—in the end—will enhance the work we do to awaken curiosity and infuse ever greater intrinsic worth into the visitor experience.
Enjoy the readings, and please chime in yourself if you have thoughts and/or suggestions.Skip over related stories to continue reading article