– By Mike Konzen, principal and chair
Here’s an interesting question: The Mona Lisa has been destroyed in a fire, but there is a perfect copy that even experts cannot tell from the original. Which would you choose to see: the copy or the ashes of the original painting?
This question was actually researched by Jesse Prinz and Angelika Seidel at the City University of New York, and the results are interesting. The answer: 80% of respondents chose the ashes of the Mona Lisa, rather than the excellent copy, as reported in Prinz’s article “How Wonder Works,” published in Aeon Magazine.
Wow. This provides a very interesting perspective about people’s preference for authentic experiences. And I am reminded of similar findings in our national survey about authenticity called “Real Potential,” published in Destinology a few years back.
In our study, we also found that about 80% of respondents viewed brands with authentic attributes favorably. We also went on to identify key “Attributes of Authenticity” in destinations, such as Unique, Real, Human, Non-Commercial, and Social. But I think we missed an important attribute.
We left out Wonder.
I have felt wonder in many places: watching a shooting star over the Pyramids of Giza; seeing the look on my kids’ faces when they first saw Disney’s Castle; studying Van Gogh’s Starry Night; observing a Space Shuttle launch; seeing a whale shark swim powerfully by; holding Stan Musial’s bat in my hands. When I really think about it, all of my most memorable destination experiences contained elements of wonder.
So what is wonder? Adam Smith, in his 1795 writing on the “History of Astronomy” is recognized as having captured it well:
“The memory cannot, from all its store, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance… It is this fluctuation and vain recollection, together with the emotion or movement of the spirits that they excite, which constitute the sentiment properly called Wonder, and which occasion that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart…”
In his article, Prinz identifies three essential components of wonder: Sensory, in that wondrous things engage our senses; Cognitive, in that we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them; and Spiritual, in the sense of Adam Smith’s “swelling of the heart.”
Clearly, wonder is a fundamental, powerful, and universal aspect of experiencing authenticity. With wonder, our appreciation for the authentic is elevated to something more than admiration, more than curiosity. It is, as Descartes said, “the first of all passions.” This, I believe, is why the Mona Lisa’s ashes are preferable to the excellent copy.
So now I ask: why don’t more destinations think about wonder in crafting new experiences? Perhaps, like authenticity, wondrous experiences can be elusive and highly personal. The “triggers” for wonder can differ from person to person based on many factors.
And perhaps more importantly: Is it possible that we can craft experiences that inspire wonder? I certainly believe so.
Many techniques can be used to inspire wonder. Here are three examples:
Powerful Scale: In the Middle Ages, Gothic cathedrals were crafted to inspire awe and wonder, to be the tangible presence of God on earth. Every element of their composition contributed to a divine experience, creating an impression of scale beyond normal human comprehension of the age. Even today, their use of space, architecture, and light, can combine to have a distinctly visceral impact on the visitor.
Orchestration: The Approach Road of Biltmore Estate is a symphony of anticipation and arrival. Frederick Law Olmsted took a barren landscape and created an ascending journey through a sub-tropical wonder-land. Generations of visitors have given themselves over to the experience, which culminates in a wonder-inspiring vista of Biltmore House.
Raw Imperfection: Just like the ashes of the Mona Lisa, architectural ruins can be more powerful than an elegantly executed copy. Weathered artifacts speak to us of the incredible stories that these objects can tell us. When Space Shuttle Atlantis opened, Atlantis was exhibited with all of the burns and scarring collected over 33 missions into space. And to brag a moment, our Space Shuttle Atlantis project at Kennedy Space Center just won a Muse Award from the American Alliance of Museums.
What are some of your experiences of wondrous destinations? What about these experiences contributed to this sense of wonder?