Thinking the Box

| November 1, 2011

Like nesting boxes, we find strangeness inside of strangeness in the Met’s exhibition Thinking Outside the Box.

I have a thing for boxes, being one of the enduring forms of educational imagery, and as such, never quite what they seem. (Indeed, the secret compartment, or the intricate display or grand room on the inside, hidden by a more austere outside, was one of the recurring motifs of the exhibition.) And so what drew me to the Met wasn’t the hope of seeing something “outside of the box” so much as a kind of rubber necking, wanting to see how the Met was going to attempt to dance this impossible dance. There being, ironically, nothing more trite than the phrase “Thinking Outside the Box.”

Of course, it is patently a hook, an attempt to draw a crowd into the box which is the museum. And so it was precisely a hook that I went to see. And maybe some boxes.

But this is where things get strange. Within this box within a box, cloaked in the box of “thinking outside the box” what we find is… simply boxes.

It is as if, once you are inside the box, every hint of the cloak and it’s strange irony, is simply dropped. There is no effort to even explain the boxes beyond the simplest of curatorial descriptions. No “thinking,” no “outside,” hardly an attempt to even situate them. “They are,” the exhibition seems to be saying, “examples of some boxes we have.” Boxes that happen to be in this box. (Indeed the subtitle of the exhibition is quite rigorous in this regard: “European Cabinets, Caskets, and Cases from the Permanent Collection”)

How are we to think this? It would of course have been a terrible mistake to take seriously their own title of “thinking outside of the box.” Is this a moment of genius? Drawing us in through our insistently naive gullibility for the phrase, falling for it over and over, like the “prize” in a Cracker Jack box, are we finally forced to confront boxes? Just boxes. Are we asked to just think the box for once? Or is it that rather than secrets inside of secrets, we find the empty banality of the whole affair? A trite phrase tricking us into seeing a banal, and nearly thoughtless display.

This is the maddening experience that is always the Met: is it that it is leaving you to your own devices to make sense of its collection, trusting you to be your own informed and/or curious guide, or is it that they themselves hardly know what to make of it either? As if echoing Paula Poundstone’s joke about why people are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up: “because they’re looking for ideas…”

Maybe if we arrange these boxes just so, thoughts will be generated. This would be, as Žižek seems to suggest, the proper reading of the movie The Matrix. People are not being shown a world of illusions so that they will continue to submit to being used as batteries. But rather, the images that are being shown them are the very thing that triggers the true power of humans, their reaction to the images. The machine offers a hodge podge world in order to capture what people imagine to do with it.

Indeed, we could imagine the same of our schools. Under the guise of teaching….

All of this begs the question though, what would a truly interesting exhibition of boxes have been? What can we imagine having done with such material? It is as if we are left to curate our own imaginary exhibition. Here are some possible variations. (As if we could generate a new, virtual exhibition, which entails simply entering this existing one differently…)

  • Call our attention to the relation between boxes and the curating of space. The curiosity cabinet at the heart of museum’s spatiality itself.
  • Pose the box as an ambiguous space. If the box “played an important role in everyday life” how does this role go, making it important? All things important are challenging to think, are doing more than one thing at once.
  • Close the museum, and hang a sign to that effect.
  • Draw us into the function of boxes. They open and close. When closed they beg to be opened, when opened they want to be closed. What are we doing when we do this?
  • Let us feel the box of the space itself, the ways in which we are always in and out of boxes.
  • Take on “thinking outside the box,” directly. What would it mean to confront this? Can we think the outsides of boxes? The outside itself? What does it mean to be outside? How do we think when we are there? (Perhaps we think of insides…)
  • Curate an exhibition that takes place entirely within a box, projecting everything within it.
  • Imagine an exhibition not of boxes, but of all of the things that never go in boxes, things that aren’t in boxes, things that have been taken out of boxes. A pile of cereal, for example. An expanding universe…
  • Display boxes that aren’t boxes. A shoe. A room. A vase. An armor. An armoire.
  • Show only things that are not boxes or enclosed in boxes. A brick on a table. A feather, but not in a hat.
  • Take all of the contents of the museum and place them in Central Park.

What if we could imagine this power of museums, this ability to evoke exhibitions outside or within an exhibition, as their truly generative potential? So that all one needs to do is turn it a little? In this sense the strength of a museum would not be in what it teaches us, but in what it allows us to generate for ourselves.

The greatest educational dogma is also its greatest fallacy: the belief that what must be learned can necessarily be taught.

— Sydney J. Harris

Perhaps museums are in a better position to shirk this dogma than schools. And perhaps the best museums would be the ones that realize that the museum goer will learn something beyond what the museum can imagine. The difficult task is to think the box itself.