Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Fierce, Vulnerable Power of Imagination

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon strode onto the stage to give his keynote speech on Wednesday--jeans, black jacket, slight case of bed head, scruffy beard. Museums, he said, are to him a kind of imaginative space. He then spent the rest of his time on an eloquent essay/harangue about childhood: how the woods behind his house, though tame and urban, still held “unfathomable shadows” at night and how he freely ranged the “topography of childhood” on his bicycle.

He bemoaned that his was “the last generation of children that adults left alone,” offering several metaphors for, and illustrations of, the mental regimentation and orthodoxy that today’s kids face. Chuck E. Cheeses and the like are “jolly internment centers,” planned by adults; children ride bikes “armed as if for battle.”

Forms of children’s entertainment—and parents—should not be “unctuous butlers of the imagination,” he contended. Kids need “a gap, a small, enchanted precinct of adult disapproval, the deep, furtive pleasure of annoying one’s father.” All sports are now organized, kids treat-or-treat in school gyms and letting one’s children play in the streets invites abductions. We need, he argued, a line between a child’s world and an adult’s.

Chabon never mentioned museums again after his opening lines. I assumed his point was that museums can help give kids ammunition—information, ideas, experiences—for their imaginations. As two colleagues swifter than I am pointed out, though, he may also have been issuing museums a warning: Remember to give kids room for their imaginations to roam free.--Leah Arroyo


Anonymous said...

I think his point was that we need places, unintentional, special, weird ... that spark imagination and value the secret worlds we all live in. Art, science, historical connection are all part of this, but he wants *us* to make those connections and connect the dots in ways that are special to us.
Marjorie Schwarzer

Anonymous said...

I too kept anticipating that he would tie his talk back into museums somehow, but in the end, I'm glad he didn't. By not doing so, he maintained the integrity of his point I thought. I also took away the lesson of always striving to think outside the box, mashing up ideas and processes in unlikely ways, and learning to be comfortable with results that might be subversive.

Anonymous said...

He was spot-on in his remarks regarding childhood today versus 30, 40, or 50 years ago. TV does the most interference but even Hollywood, the so-called World HQ of Imagination, is actually the Capital of Crap. The challenge from Michael is for Museums to provide a virtual gap between adulthood and the formulation of ideas & curiosity that only children can enjoy unencumbered by 'nannyism'.