The Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, Virginia did something amazing. For the first time ever, a museum collaborated with Burning Man to bring an exhibit of large-scale Burning Man art out of the desert and into the world. They had a clear goal in mind: bring the culture of Burning Man, in addition to the art.
During planning discussions with Burning Man, the Hermitage staff made it clear they didn’t want to just plunk some shiny art pieces on their (lush, gorgeous) grounds and call it good. But how to bring Burning Man culture to a museum setting?
People, of course. Burning Man is made of people. People drive the culture, model the culture, share the culture. Start with the people and you can’t go wrong.
The Hermitage invited public participation from the beginning, starting with an open forum earlier this year to discuss ideas. They engaged volunteers to assist in setting up the art on site, and as museum docents with a Burner participatory flair.
Docents are traditionally a bridge between museum art and visitors, and Burning Man has a history of “Art Discovery” volunteers as a helping hand between art and participants. The Hermitage and Burning Man put their heads together and combined the two ideas into a team of friendly, interactive guides whose job is to reach out and invite museum-goers into learning more about the art through participation and… talking to strangers! Some of the docents had spent time as volunteers assisting the artists during setup for their pieces, and their enthusiasm was infectious during the opening event.
Opening event, you say? Yep, because what’s there to do for a world premiere large-scale art collaboration between a museum and Burning Man except throw it a GIANT PARTY?
The Hermitage invited Theme Camps, musicians, performers, artists, and participants to help create an opening event that felt like Burning Man. What does it mean to “feel like” Burning Man? People smiled at each other. There were random acts of gifting. People were playing, dancing, interacting with the art. There were delicious snacks. People were in costumes, or not, and the people in street clothes were just as welcomed as those in elaborate outfits. After dark, much of the art lit up in beautiful colors, as did many of the participants with various blinky lights (not to mention the potentially-confused fireflies in the warm summer night).
I didn’t hear anyone discussing what they did for a living, but rather if they’d seen all the art yet, if they’d been to Burning Man, or if they’d seen the girl in the balloon dress.
I ran across one gentleman (age 64, he was proud to mention), chuckling in the dark with his arms raised while a woman twined green EL-wire around him like a Christmas tree. “Have you ever been to Burning Man?” I asked him, and he replied, “Nope, but Burning Man came to me!”
Near the end of the opening party, a DJ from the Party Liberation Front got on the mic and asked the crowd dancing on the museum’s lawn to look around them, find any trash on the ground, and put it where it belonged. “MOOP, that’s matter out of place, and we don’t want that here!”
I had a long discussion with a slightly-skeptical friend after the party about what it means to “spread Burning Man culture”. Can it happen at a museum? Can it happen at a party? I believe so. I want to live in a world where people talk to strangers, where when you pass someone you smile and they smile back without wanting anything in particular. I want to live in a world where people think about leaving no trace, about being kind to each other, about sharing food and toys and experiences and learning from and appreciating each other.
I saw all those things at this event, and I applaud the Hermitage for their hard work in creating an environment in which Burning Man culture was in full effect — as I imagine it will be at each of their Burning Man Nights each Thursday through October 12, as each of those evenings have special events, performances, and friendly docents to talk to about the art.
I want to live in a world where four women from Burning Man (with over 60 combined years of Burning Man experience) fly across the country to see the nine amazing women who run the Hermitage Museum knock it out of the park.
And I do.
The Art of Burning Man exhibit at the Hermitage Museum is open now through October 12 and features the work of Five Ton Crane, Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, Gregg Fleishman, Charles Gadeken, Jim Peterson, Kirsten Berg, and Christopher Schardt.
(Top photo courtesy Eleise Theuer Photography and the Hermitage Museum)