I have a gift for you.
It is this beautiful teacup and saucer. Don’t you just love it?
I see you are a little cold, so let me pour you a cup of tea or coffee.
You will be amazed at how perfect this cup feels against your lip. The handle makes it a delight to hold. And the German porcelain keeps your beverage so warm.
I know – aesthetically it is so lovely. Exactly your taste, isn’t it!
Did you know that this is Adolf Hitler’s favorite teacup too? This is the actual cup he drank from every morning.
So . . . did you take a sip?
For most readers, if not all of you, I bet the answer is no. Some of you might have even dropped it.
But why? It is just a porcelain cup and saucer. It is, in and of itself, a neutral object. It isn’t like drinking out of the cup would infect you with any of Hitler’s traits. And yet I still bet you didn’t take a sip.
That teacup and saucer, it is like they have historical cooties, isn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about historical cooties or, more accurately, the idea of magical contagion recently. It is the idea that an object can become infected with, well, cooties of some sort, and then pass those cooties to others, much like in my example of Hitler’s teacup. It includes the essential qualities of authenticity, in that an object has to be the authentic object for it to apply, but it adds in an intangible and much more visceral, emotional response that is rooted in the object’s contagious qualities. Magical contagion isn’t necessarily logical, but it is extremely powerful.
Psychologists who study this concept often do so in terms of revulsion, much like in my example of Hitler’s teacup, but I suspect magical contagion applies to objects in positive ways as well. If I wear a dress that was worn by Princess Diana, will glamorous cooties rub off on me? What if I were writing at Jefferson’s desk? Would my words flow that much better? Perhaps.
Of course, magical contagion is all in our heads. Those objects are just objects. It is their associations, and how we feel about those associations, that make them contagious, and give them historical cooties (or, if applicable, art cooties).
In our recent work examining the most meaningful experiences adults have had in museums, we were struck by how original objects formed the foundation for the largest segment of the experiences we collected. They were particularly crucial for the most immersive experiences, and for those times when visitors felt the strongest emotional connections with the museum and its content. The idea of authenticity, we felt, explained much of this, but perhaps this idea of magical contagion, which goes even deeper than authenticity, has more to contribute to the connections that are created.
It may also help us better understand why the majority of meaningful experiences we collected are from art and history museums, with comparatively few from science museums/centers. In fact, psychologists who study the idea of magical contagion have also identified this very issue, noting that science tends to be an “alienating” experience because it separates people from their very humanness, and thus our emotions. (I realize scientists will cry heresy at this . . . I think science is magical to scientists, and to many children, but that that magic gets lost and is not conveyed often enough or easily to the general public of adults.)
All of this leads to just more and more questions for us as we continue to pursue how visitors create meaning in museums for themselves, and how museums have the capacity to emotionally engage and change our visitors. We are pushing ourselves to examine what goes on in people’s brains and hearts during museum experiences, from history to art to science (and everything in between). If it takes delving deep into psychology or philosophy, well, we are up for that as well.
And while we’ll be sharing our in-depth findings with our clients, we’ll share some interesting bits and pieces with you along the way as well.
As a final note, I take no credit for the term “magical contagion,” but instead credit psychologists Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin. As for historical cooties . . . I am afraid that concept is all mine.
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