The Art of Wonder: A Book from the Minneapolis Institute of Art

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy going to museums.  My earliest memory of a museum is the natural history museum in the old Pink Palace in Memphis, where I could see dioramas of cave people and the bones of ancient creatures.  What an amazing world it offered for my childlike mind to ponder.  Big bones and tiny stones were on display, each magnificent in their own way.

When I went to museums on field trips in school, I always lagged behind and longed to get lost in the various rooms.  When I got engulfed by a painting, I no longer wanted to be part of the chattering school pack.  I wanted many moments to look at the particular way light and color made shapes and stories in my mind.  I learned early in my adult life to never go on a guided tour.  If something captured my attention, I wanted to spend a long time looking at details, to get lost in what was before me, let it open my dreaming mind and give me a sense of wonder.

I’d like to go on a museum tour of the world, but that’s probably not going to happen.  I love it when museums publish comprehensive catalogs that allow me to take home an exhibit and revisit it.  Or to order a catalog and see it from afar, to have it to hold in a book.

So I was delighted to find the book The Art of Wonder: Inspiration, Creativity, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, published this year by the University of Minnesota Press.


“The Minneapolis Institute of Art opened its doors on January 7, 1915. 

                “We determined to mark the museum’s 100th anniversary with a book.  But what kind of publication should it be?  The museum’s founding, its visionary patrons and leaders, and its previous 99 years of existence have all been addressed elsewhere.  On the other hand, the certainty of mission and the clarity of vision that has emerged over the years – shaped, tested, and strengthened by the almost incalculable changes of the last century – is something really worth talking about.  Why are we, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, here?  What place do we have – what place will we have – in the life of our community?  What is the role of art in the lives of 21st-century citizens? …



                “And so the purpose of what became known within Mia as “The Birthday Book” came into focus:  like the museum it is meant to reflect, it would speak to the power of art to provoke wonder; to inspire creativity; to comfort; to shock; and to provide the language to say new things.  The book would not be a dry retread of old photos and anecdotes, or lists of collection highlights, but something much more lively: an anthology of the best fiction, essays, graphic storytelling, thought pieces, and photography that speaks, however indirectly, to the power of creativity, curiosity, and wonder.  We would turn the book over, in other words, to the creators – not to talk about our vaunted past but our true lifeblood, which opens a window onto the human experience even as it enriches it.”


Contributors to this project include Kevin Cannon, David Carr, Dessa, Ann Hamilton, Eric Hanson, Pete Hautman and Alec Soth.  Additional authors include the director, curators and staff of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, experts in their fields, on the objects of their affection and wonder.


One of the more interesting photo essays is by Alec Soth, who asked the guards what they think about on the job.  In 2014, he placed them close to their favorite artworks so that they almost merge with the work itself.



During a residency at Mia, Ann Hamilton photographed the museum staff behind a translucent screen holding a beloved object from the collection.



The book opens with a wonderful essay by Kaywin Feldman, The Wonder of Wonder:

“A moment of wonder is a moment of possibility.  The encounter is not just a space of not knowing, but also not comprehending the boundaries of what is not known.  It is the possible limitlessness of the encounter that is both exhilarating and sometimes discomfiting.  In this vastness one becomes aware of a world much bigger than oneself.”


There are many delights to be found in this book – fiction, essays, and lots of great photos of art.



Saint Vernoica with the Sudarium from Alex Bortolot’s essay Museums and Magical Thinking
Eric Hanson’s sketches from the essay Unsupervised
Fantasy Coffin by Sowah Kwei


It’s a thoughtful and wide-ranging expression of what I’ve felt since I saw those first beautiful bones and paintings in museums as a child.  Reading and exploring the book is like entering the waking dream that a good museum offers.  It reads like a series of rooms, turning pages like passing through a doorway then finding a whole new world to ponder.

From the essay by Albrecht Durer by Tom Rassieur
Richard Avedon photograph from 1963

And if I never get to the museum itself, I know I have a bit of its soul on my book shelf, to open and explore again and again.



Thanks for reading my blog.  What’s your favorite museum?

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