Restorative Environments

One of the challenges of my viva was that I had presented cultural heritage as only a learning environment. Which was definitely not my intention. the places I have worked with especially, historic houses and palaces with gardens and parks, and countryside estate have long been recognised as places of spiritual recharging. I argued the case (obviously adequately as I passed) that I had not focussed only on learning, but perhaps some references to papers like this one will restore any intended imbalance.

“This one” is Packer, J. & Bond, N.. 2010. Museums as Restorative Environments. Curator 54: 421 – 436.and it starts of with a doozy of a quote that might be all I need: “Mental fatigue, caused by the stresses and strains of everyday life, is a common complaint in today’s society, and the need to escape from the personal and interpersonal demands of life is one of the major reasons that people have for engaging in tourism and leisure experiences”

The paper goes on to explain that al lot of the theory of restorative environments is based on the work of Kaplan and his Attention Restoration Theory. “The capacity to continually focus attention on a particular activity can be reduced or lost through mental exhaustion.” Recovery from just mental exhaustion requires that your “attention is engaged involuntarily or effortlessly,” which (I think) Kaplan calls “fascination.” Fascination allows your directed attention be rested.

Well, I think cultural heritage is fascinating, and this theory echos the theory of Flow, which I write about in my thesis, so it seems we are on to a winner with this paper. But there are three other components of restorative environments: being away (from routine); extent (the environment need to have enough content to keep you occupied a while) and compatibility (of interest – being bored is not fascinating). These sorts of things point to the infinite horizons of a walk in the countryside as being restorative (if the countryside is compatible with your interests) but analysis of responses to museums, art museums, gardens and zoos shows that the countryside is not the only place you can recharge.

So this paper looks to see if there are factors that make one museum a better restorative environment than another. To do so they use a “satisfying experiences framework” which focuses on:

  • “object experiences, which focus on something outside the visitor, such as seeing rare, valuable, or beautiful objects;
  • cognitive experiences, which focus on the interpretive or intellectual aspects of the experience, such as gaining information or understanding;
  • introspective experiences, which focus on private feelings and experiences, such as imagining, reflecting, reminiscing, and connecting; and
  • social experiences, which focus on interactions with friends, family, other visitors, or museum staff.”

They measured this and four different sites in Australia: a museum; an aquarium; a garden; and, an art gallery. Immediately they spotted that visitors to each find different experiences the most satisfying. The object experience of the fish in the aquarium was by far the most satisfying experience in any place, the cognitive experience of the museum was the most satisfying part of that visit (hmmmm). The social experience most satisfying in the gardens and, tough the art gallery was the most balanced between the four experiences, the social experience mattered to only 10.7% of visitors and the introspective experience mattered most to 29%. But it “was found that local visitors placed more importance on social and introspective experiences, and tourists placed more importance on cognitive and object experiences.” Tourists of course “are more likely to be looking for a learning and discovery experience—they want to discover new things and often try to ‘‘see as much as they can.’’ These experiences may be incompatible with a restorative experience.”

The study concludes “Not only were national parks and beaches considered more restorative than urban environments, but among the research sites, those that were focused on natural heritage (especially the botanic garden) were considered more restorative, both in attributes and benefits, than those focused on cultural heritage (the museum and art gallery).” But for frequent visitors (rather than first time visitors) museums can “offer an alternative to natural settings as a restorative experience.”

And more importantly, if “greater attention were given to visitors’ comfort, first-time and infrequent visitors, who are less familiar with the site, may be more able to experience restorative benefits as a result of their visit.” The authors also suggest that museums should “explore ways in which introspective experiences
might be encouraged and supported” and this I feel supports what I concluded at Chawton – while we insist on authenticity in our storytelling, we are privileging cognitive experiences over introspective ones.

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