Mandala Lab at Rubin Museum of Art
Photo: Rafael Gamo. (Courtesy the Rubin Museum of Art)

Should Museums Prioritize Emotional Wellness Activities? The Rubin Museum of Art Thinks So.

Interactive experiences at the Rubin Museum of Art’s new Mandala Lab draw on Buddhist principles to help visitors explore complex emotions. RELATED ARTICLES:
By Cynthia Rosenfeld
October 1, 2021
4 minute read

Tantric Buddhist practitioners use mandalas—circular, often ornate, symbolic representations of the universe that can appear in paintings, on objects, or as a visualization in the mind’s eye—as a focal point during meditation. The figure served as the inspiration for the Mandala Lab, an interactive multi-sensorial space that opens October 1 at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, an institution dedicated to celebrating Himalayan art, ideas, and culture.

Designed by husband-and-wife architects Nathan Rich and Miriam Peterson, co-founders of the Brooklyn-based firm Peterson Rich Office, the 2,700-foot area consists of four connected areas situated around a staircase that represents the center of the mandala, which signifies the beginning of contemplation and devotion to the divine. (Cognitive scientists, Buddhist teachers, and contemplative humanities researchers consulted on the project, which will also function as the home of the museum’s school and family programs.) Each zone offers an activity informed by Buddhist principles that focus on self-awareness and the awareness of others. Moving through them, visitors can explore feelings of pride, attachment, envy, anger, and ignorance—known in Buddhism as kleshas, key afflictive emotional responses that form the root causes of suffering—and in doing so, learn how to better cope with them when encountered in their everyday lives. (Such an approach seems to be on the rise: Healing Arts New York, a city-wide series of artist commissions, research programs, films, and panel discussions, launched last month and will run through November 14. It will culminate in a symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will convene artists, health-care workers, researchers, and policy makers to discuss the connections between art and health.)

The lab’s activities are as broad as they are deep. One area presents a series of scents, created by master perfumer Christophe Laudemiel, intended to provoke memory. There’s also an alcove encircled by acoustic felt, where a sculpture by artist Palden Weinreb pulsates with light and invites viewers to adjust their breathing accordingly. An octet of gongs, suspended over water in the eastern part of the space, emit soothing, reverberating sounds. Contributions from a range of creative practitioners—including performance artist Laurie Anderson, artist Sanford Biggers (the guest on Ep. 66 of our At a Distance podcast), drummer Billy Cobham, musician Peter Gabriel, and composer Huang Ruo—feature throughout.

In the midst of a pandemic, finding ways to address complex emotions seems particularly relevant, and that’s largely the point. Rich and Peterson began working on the lab just as lockdowns in New York began last year, and as the need for psychological support became increasingly apparent. The circumstances posed a distinctly Buddhist challenge: “We had to give up control throughout the design and building process in order to learn from other people,” Rich says. “It was an exceptionally creative, cross-disciplinary effort.” Signs of community shine through their interventions, such as the delicate metal-mesh partitions dividing each area. The material was “selected so people can see each other,” Peterson says, “and be reminded that life is a collective experience.”

By offering a distinct departure from the museum’s gallery floors, the lab demonstrates how institutions can serve people in ways beyond the traditional art-viewing experience. “Visitors will be invited to smell, see, touch, and listen as they sense, interpret, and process their own thoughts and emotions,” executive director Jorrit Britschgi said in a statement. “Given the emotional burden and tremendous social distress having come into sharper focus since 2020, the Mandala Lab hopes to serve as one of the city’s first cultural healing spaces, and be a source of insight and well-being.”