The Value of "I Don't Know": Cultivating Curiosity

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I was disappointed with my recent visit to the Museum of Natural History. I hadn't been there in quite a while, but walking into the Asian animals room immediately brought back memories of how the museum gives me some serious creeps. I started looking at the museum map, which indicated rooms for "Asian Peoples" and "African Peoples," which also made me feel odd. It had the clear purpose of taxonomizing "them" as a racialized other. Beyond that, when we entered the exhibits, the plaques read as if each of these "peoples" were in a vacuum - this is what happens in Hindu marriages and this is what jihad means for ever and always. The curators were very sure of their ideas, but the words seemed just about as accurate and nuanced as the taxidermy animals seemed alive.

In fact, the only exhibit that I was particularly impressed with was the floor dedicated to dinosaurs - on that floor there were signs that said some absolutely magical things. "Little is known." "Probably." "Potentially." And, my favorite, "it is yet to be discovered..."

It might not be abundantly clear why this is so fabulous. Shouldn't I prefer definitive plaques over wishy washy ones? But these words got me excited. It was a small admission by the curators of the museum (in whatever convoluted language they desired) that they didn't know.

And that phrase, "I don't know" is the first crack in the ornamental vase from which curiosity can flow.

In both my academic and artistic life, I value curiosity. There are just too many interesting things out there to just stick with what you know! And there's a special joy in discovering some new piece of information (hence why the dinosaur exhibit was so fascinating - there's actually very little that we know about them!)

However, much like we believe in destination mentality, we also believe in people becoming absolute authorities on different subjects. We either do not have the tools or the motivation to critique them, and thus we take their word for it. They stifle our curiosity, however unintentional their actions may be. The Museum of Natural History worked on my nerves in that way - who gave the curators permission to generalize and take out of context living and breathing peoples and animals? When I first went into the museum as a high school student, I didn't yet have the knowledge to articulate my critique and the feeling just caused me to not return to the museum, but now I'm able to tell you exactly why it frustrates me.

Curiosity goes hand in hand with several other qualities. In the case of the dinosaur exhibit, it intertwines with humility: we just don't know, and that is ok. In fact, it gives us a sense of wonderment. In the case of my uncomfortable feelings around the exhibits, curiosity manifested as a drive to learn why that feeling was there. Finally, curiosity can come packaged with some amazing inspiration. Finding more information about a situation or idea can tap some amazing creative energy (which I channeled into the above walrus drawing).

Every experience allows us to take away some natural lessons, whether we recognize them as such or not. Going back to the Museum of Natural History reaffirmed for me the value of curiosity in my life and the ways in which people stifle it in favor of looking authoritative. Just for today, I want you to let go of your assumptions about certain topics and allow yourself to be curious again. Explore something old that you haven't read about in a while or something entirely new to you - I assure you, no cats will be killed in the process.