I began to think about my experience with delight and realized it had a lot to do with the unexpected, something happening that I hadn't anticipated that created a special moment. Many of those moments happen when I travel, perhaps because I am often literally in foreign territory and more open to viewing my experience through fresh eyes. Many years ago when traveling I used to make a list each evening of surprises, those magical unexpected moments that delight.
As I contemplated the question of what engenders delight I realized I need only look to my recent travels. We had started our visit in the LA area visiting family. We then rented a car and drove up the coast to San Francisco.
Delight #1. About fifteen miles outside of Cambria we saw some unusual rock formations gleaming white in the sun. We pulled over into a roadside lot and I walked over to a fence to get my photo when I happened to glance down. Covering an extended area of the beach were hundreds of elephant seals. Lying almost motionless, the seals had mastered the fine art of relaxation. Occasionally a flipper would flick sand onto their corpulent bodies or they would wriggle over to warm their other side. They snuggled close to each other, one resting his head on another. We were fascinated by this unexpected discovery. So what caused delight? Certainly the unexpected nature of our discovery. If we had known about them and been looking for them, it would still have fascinated us, but wouldn't have packed as much of a punch. There were sign boards and information that educated us about the seals, also an important component. We liked learning about something that we didn't know. There was a sensory aspect to this experience as well. The sound of the waves rolling in, the barks of the seals. Their presence was interesting visually as we learned to identify males and females by their snouts, applying the information that we had learned. It engaged both our senses and our minds.
Delight #2 One such surprise would have been delight enough, but our trip was to be graced with many. We began one of our San Francisco days at the farmer's market by the water. It was a sunny warm day with a statue of Ghandi overlooking the market booths. Gulls perched on the railing by the water, hoping for a bite of our breakfast. After breakfast we walked along the Embarcadero towards Coit Tower. Many years ago we had seen the WPA murals and hearing they had recently been restored we decided to check them out. When we reached Lombard we looked up at the tower perched high upon a hill. "How in the world do we get up there?" I asked my husband. We soon found the beginning of the seemingly never-ending steps which took us past homes and gardens as we rose high above the water.
At last we arrived at the tower. The murals on the first floor were free to the public, but the 2nd floor required a guide who was not available. We examined the first floor murals and read about the artists on the signboards, then decided to wait on the sunny lawn for the guide to return.
Eventually we were introduced to our guide, a young French woman. We entered the private entry and ascended a curved stairway surrounded on both sides by paintings of street scenes from the 1930s. Artwork in a different style from the first floor surrounded us, somber faces on all. We were told the artists decided no smiles were permitted.
Our guide invited the director to speak with us and we had an opportunity to ask questions on what we had read below. He shared many anecdotal stories with us. Apparently our interest in the paintings was unusual as most visitors came for the view.
We confided to our guide that we were artists and learned that she was a musician. She asked if we'd like to hear her sing to which we eagerly assented. Her voice echoed within the tower as her rendition of La Vie en Rose took flight. You can hear her at virginiemarine.
Again this situation presented us with an unexpected surprise, a private concert in a unique setting and an interaction with interesting people. The meeting with the director offered new information as he told us of interviews that were recorded with many of the WPA artists. There were dramas between the artists and rumors that had been recorded as truths. I think there was also something to the journey, climbing steps through gardens, turning around to see views of the ocean below framed by unusual trees and flowers. Then a wait for the guide. All of these events framed a unique experience that we had to work a bit to find. As most things in San Francisco, it was a sensory experience spanning both landscape and artwork.
The qualities that created delight were something new and unexpected, information and the opportunity to apply it, an experience that used our senses and our minds and a journey that framed the experience. While these experiences were organic, I suspect the same qualities within a museum experience would create the delight museums so desire.