Interview with Ami Ronnberg

Interview with Ami Ronnberg, Curator of ARAS New York

by Torben Gronning

Online access to the ARAS archive has made the unique
collection of symbolic images available to a much wider audience than ever
before. As someone with a curiosity about symbolic images I set out to learn
more about online ARAS. In New York City ARAS is located at E. 39th
Street in the beautiful brownstone building that houses the New York C.G. Jung
Center.  Here, I met with Ami Ronnberg, who has been the curator at ARAS New
York since 1985 and currently heads a staff of five specialists in art, art
history, depth psychology and archetypal symbolism.  Ami is one of the most
experienced users and teachers of the archive.
Torben:  Ami, who uses ARAS?
Ami:  The users come from several groups. There are
candidates training to become Jungian analysts. They may be doing research for
papers, theses, or presentations, or they may be exploring the iconographic
background to images in their clients' dreams or their own dreams. A second
category is artists: painters, sculptors, theater set designers, filmmakers,
book cover designers, and book and magazine illustrators. The Academy Award-winning film maker Faith Hubley was inspired by ARAS in the creation of several
of her famous animated films.  We once even had a tattoo artist who always
researched the symbol the client requested before doing the tattoo! A third
category is students from art schools, design schools, or from university
departments of psychology, philosophy, or literature. We also meet writers and
lecturers, and people interested in symbolism and mythology in general.  And
finally we have, of course, practicing therapists, analysts, art therapists –
and anyone who dreams.
Torben:  What do you tell an ARAS user?

Ami:  We usually begin by asking what brought the person to
ARAS.  This often tells us something about the person – he or she may be an
analytical training candidate, or an artist, a writer, etc. It also tells us if
this person has a specific question or a specific subject of research in mind.
We ask the person to describe the project or question rather specifically, the
dream motif or the part of the dream he or she wants to explore.  For a graphic
designer we ask what the logo should express. We ask a writer to tell us about
the contents or title of the book. All this is done to better understand what
the user is looking for.
Then we introduce the archive: The 17,000 images and how
they are organized in the files, beginning with Paleolithic art and progressing
to the modern period. One way of using the archive is to browse. If someone has
a dream with an Egyptian image, then we refer them to the Egyptian section (this
can be done online by using the Timeline).  Someone interested in alchemy can
select that part of the archive.   However, we always emphasize the
cross-cultural aspect: A particular image can appear in many different cultures
and historical eras. This is where ARAS differs from a traditional art
collection. And this is where the cataloged subject headings, which we then
introduce, are very helpful.  (When you use ARAS Online, the subject headings
appear as a list when you begin to type a search term.)  They are done from a
truly visual perspective: what you can see – objects, things. The subject
headings are iconographic and don't include categories like feelings, Jungian
concepts such as animus, anima, and shadow, or philosophical ideas. However,
when you are searching online you will also find some of the interpreted
material, since all the written information is searchable.
Torben:  Can you use ARAS to have your symbols or dreams
Ami:  ARAS's founder Jesse Fraser's idea was strongly not to
interpret the symbol in any way but to offer information about the mythical and
cultural background and the art history and then let the user make his or her
own interpretation.  Even so, you can find many suggestions for a psychological
understanding – it's as if it is impossible not to think of what the image might
mean in our own lives.  This caused us to change the format and divide the text
into three main parts, so one would know what was more factual and what was more
"interpretative."  We called them: 1. Description, which is a guide to
what you see in the image, 2) Cultural Context, which gives the mythical
or cultural background and 3) Archetypal Commentary, where you find
comparative patterns of the image and how to think about it in a psychological
way.  This new format was revised in the mid 1980s and this is how the two
volumes of the ARAS Encyclopedia and all new entries have been done. 
Entries written before that time don't include a separate Archetypal
We explain the difference between the personal and
collective level of symbols and dreams. ARAS doesn't have a picture of someone
dreaming of their aunt, so you will find material related to such an image by
searching for keywords such as "Old woman," which takes you to "Wisdom figure,
feminine," and other entries such as "Prophetess," "Sophia," "Virgin, dark," or
"Witches and witchcraft."  Here in New York, for example, subway dreams are
quite common.  We typically direct a user to look up keywords such as
"Underworld" and "Vehicles." Our ancestors did not dream about the New York City
subway system, but they did dream about trips to the underworld, and maybe that
is what the dream is really about.  There is a whole net of cross-referencing,
which Joseph Henderson helped create, based on archetypal ideas.
Torben:  If ARAS does not give me a handy interpretation, how
can I find my way to a result? What makes a good user of ARAS?
Ami:  You look up something similar, let the images guide
you – and look for what makes you excited, what moves you – what feels like "aha
– that's it."  ARAS is a rich collection, which guides your imagination in
wonderful ways.  In a practical or "hands on" way this means to begin with a
thread, follow another lead, look up similar ideas, and to move around
intuitively.  There is an interconnectedness of symbols, and we often have to
circumambulate – or walk around – a symbol or a dream in order to get to the
core.  We call it amplification. Also, people use the archive in very different
ways.  Someone who is preparing a lecture will go through the files and let the
images inspire them to new ideas while someone else may be looking for images to
illustrate something they have already written. Synchronicity is a major force
in finding images, it seems – when someone is really connected to their material
– that's when they put in a keyword and the right picture just appears. Wherever
you look, it seems that the images you are searching for come to you.  This is
not linear thinking but intuitive and iterative search. It is image thinking,
with connections like a tree's many branches, leaves, roots. The unlimited
possibility of searching for subjects across all cultures and eras and reading
the image commentaries is in itself a generative experience.  I have never come
across an ARAS user who said that he or she got nothing out of the time spent
with the collection.
Historically, the images were selected in terms of
archetypal motifs and this continues to be the underlying principle of ARAS and
its magic.  As the word 'motif' suggests, there is something that moves us. 
Anyone who has followed a symbol through the many representations in various
cultural and historical settings has experienced this power.  Certainly it is
known to those who have been able to visit the Archive in person.  I am happy
that it is now possible for many more to have the experience in their own homes
or offices through ARAS Online.