I’m an art detective. No, not the kind who hunts down stolen museum pieces. And not the kind who has her own TV show. I interrogate the art and cultural artifacts around me as a mental challenge and spiritual exercise. You can do it too. Everything has a story to tell and that story can open your mind. Here’s my guide.
Step one. Tune into your own restlessness. Sense your own readiness to explore. Your job, your family, your disabilities, your empty wallet may prevent a physical adventure. That doesn’t mean you can’t travel.
Step two. Get your curiosity on. We are all surrounded with spirited old treasures. Somewhere in your life is a stranger waiting for your acquaintance. Maybe it’s an old postcard or an airmail envelope found in your mother-in-law’s jewelry box. Or a textile your grandmother had draped over the piano. If you go to a museum or are lucky enough to have a mate who collects cultural material, your mind and spirit might travel farther, into Japan’s Buddhist tradition or Africa’s traditional Luba culture.
Step three. The idea is to power up your computer and start researching. What exactly are you looking at? Where did it come from? Who made it? For what purpose? Gather your facts. What can you say for sure? Can you draw some inferences? Do you have some good guesses that you can test with more research?
Step four. This is important! Don’t jump to conclusions about how weird or ignorant or primitive the people were who made or used your research object. Beware of “othering” — our natural tendency to cling to our own righteous identities and to belittle or dehumanize the culture of others. If this impulse grabs you, more research is a good remedy. The best adventures require openness, humility, and respect for the strangers we meet.
Step five. Reflect on how the detective work changed you. Once I’m able to tell the story of the thing that piqued my curiosity, my world is a notch more interesting, my heart a notch more open. A stranger has become a friend.