The arts and humanities show us how to live as human beings. Our encounters with art help us to be better healthcare professionals, and give us insights that will help our learners and patients lead meaningful and purposeful lives.
I first met Flora Smyth Zahra, a dental educator from King’s College London, at a Humanities symposium and subsequently kept in touch via Twitter @HumanitiesinHPE. Flora and I are two of twelve health professional educators invited this year to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Macy Institute’s Art Museum-based Health Professions Education fellowship. As part of this program, we spent two days in January in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, learning jointly from medical and art museum educator course directors how to incorporate art museum-based experiences into health professionals’ curricula.
Flora and I felt inspired and uplifted, both professionally and personally, spending so much time in the galleries, and Flora told me she was “tempted to take myself off for a three hour art stint and actually incorporate that in to my life as a monthly looking meditation.” I loved the idea of building museum visits into my work schedule and took her up on the challenge. Together Flora and I pledged to spend at least a half-day every month looking at art. This is the story of what we did in January.
In October, a Hopkins medical student, Melissa Lavoie, who knew of my interest in the visual arts, recommended that I visit a newly expanded museum near Washington DC called the Glenstone. She had just been there and said it was like no art museum she had seen before. Its goal is to create a contemplative environment through the integration of art, architecture, and landscape. I was intrigued and reserved a visit for January (free tickets are released three months in advance). My visit did not disappoint. Glenstone is a design marvel. Select pieces from a vast collection of post-WWII art are displayed both indoors and out in a way to create a meaningful experience for each viewer. After working in the hospital for the three-day MLK holiday weekend and immediately traveling to a two-day research meeting in Texas, my four hours spent at Glenstone (at least half the time outdoors on a very rainy day) was restorative.
The highlight of my visit was sitting in the middle of the outdoor installation FOREST (for a thousand years), 2012. Canadian-born artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller use sound as a medium to “bypass your intellect…[to] go inside of you in a way that nothing else can.” Located on a secluded path is a circle of tree stumps, surrounded by 22 speakers. Sitting there in the driving rain, I was immersed in a sound experience that imagines what a forest might have heard over the course of a millennium. Choirs of human voices singing together, birdsong, and jarring sounds of hammers, trains, horses, gunfire, biplanes, and so much more. This sound bath awakened my own memories and dreams, and reminded me of John Gardner’s observation that “Art is not a plaything…art is our way of keeping track of what we know and have known, secretly, from the beginning.”
Dr. Smyth Zahra:
I am an advocate for embedding humanities into clinical curricula with joint, clinician plus arts and humanities expert-led teaching, and that has formed the basic concept of the Clinical Humanities programmes I have established. I also know from my research that, as well as appreciating clinical learning from different epistemological perspectives, translating new ‘ways of knowing’ back to patient care and their own budding professional identity formation, my students have reported a sense of joy in just spending time in the art gallery and museum space. So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised at my own reaction to our recent Art Museum Fellowship session in Boston. As the student this time, the experience of spending two whole days in these beautiful art gallery museums learning, looking closely, listening, sharing and reflecting, was profound.
The spaces we work and learn in contain and define us. For my students, that means mostly busy clinics, lecture theatres, and lengthy commutes. Returning to London, I determined to carry on finding time to explore these other reflective learning spaces, many of which are very close to the hospital where I teach.
It seemed an appropriate starting point therefore, to seek out Two Temple Place, the neo-Gothic mansion built for the Astor family in 1895 where the exhibition, “The Power of Seeing,” has just opened to celebrate the bicentenary, legacy, and vision of John Ruskin. He created a museum in Sheffield, for ordinary people – the metal workers, cutlery-makers, and their families, to see beautiful artefacts and he espoused close observation particularly of nature. In this public space, I spent several hours in private contemplation closely looking at one of Ruskin’s own works, including “Study of Moss, Fern and Wood Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank, 1875-79.” The more I looked, the more I saw, and I found so much in the beauty of nature.
Returning back to the clinics I was reminded of TS Eliot’s “Little Gidding,”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The restorative reflective time allowed me to take stock and consider how to best support and facilitate my own students’ clinical learning and their ‘becoming,’ or professional identity formation. I am determined that they too have more allocated time in these reflective learning spaces.
So, this is the story of our January museum challenge. I plan to return to the Glenstone in May when the flowers are in bloom. In the meantime, I will be traveling to a conference in Hawaii in February (I know, the academic life is tough) and have already reserved my visit to the Honolulu Museum of Art. Flora will be searching out more of those reflective learning spaces around London. The arts and humanities show us how to live as human beings, and we know that our encounters with art will help us be better healthcare professionals and give us insights that will help our learners and patients lead meaningful and purposeful lives.