Sydney- Visitor experience extremes.

Sydney- Visitor experience extremes.

Among visitor attractions in central Sydney I found the extremes in terms of visitor numbers.

 At one end of the spectrum was the Aquarium in Darling Harbour on a Sunday. Visitors numbered in the 1000’s. Mostly families, of every creed and colour. Herded through, like sheep in a drafting race. It was impossible to go back against the throng.

Not a single person seemed to be reading a sign, pressing a button, or watching a video. They were all fully engrossed in the sensory pleasure of watching, photographing, filming, and selfy-ing with live creatures in beautiful other worldly environments.

Everyone was delighted by the graceful gentle gormless-faced dugongs. They seemed almost human, and it wasn’t hard to imagine an 18th century sailor, long at sea, getting a bit excited about them too. Another highlight was the “Jellyfish Garden”. Jellyfish floated dreamily in colour-lit cylindrical tanks which repeated endlessly in mirrored walls. A middle-aged Aussie bloke remarked guilelessly: “They look like floating penises”. When I laughed it occurred to him to be embarrassed: “Just saying,” he said.*

At the other end of the spectrum, was the New South Wales State Library, on a Wednesday morning. I arrived a little early at an imposing classical edifice set at the edge of sweeping parkland. Huge wooden doors were swung open by a uniformed security guard at the sedate hour of 10am. I walked alone through a vast marbled interior, past rows of silent bent heads in the library, to an equally silent gallery of monochrome photos and text. I was astounded to find Captain Bligh’s logbook sitting squarely in a case. The was nothing visual or auditory to celebrate the greatest navigational feat of the seas, nor the scandalous and violent mutiny that precipitated it. An elderly docent was the only other occupant of the gallery. Together we wondered how Bligh had kept the writing so impeccably neat and un-smudged in a small boat at sea.

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So, what should a visitor experience be? A sensory delight for the uneducated masses, or a cerebral contemplation for the already informed?  I think it should be both and everything in between, but it’s not hard to guess which of these attractions relies on visitor numbers for funding.

* I debated whether this story would be too risqué to relate to a museum audience, and then decided that my fear of doing so perhaps represents the problem we have with not communicating in an interesting way to our audience.

The latest thinking on play in museums

The latest thinking on Play in Museums

I recently attended the MuseumNext conference in Sydney on “Playful Museums”. The stand out speakers were Scott Stulen, artist and CEO of the Philbrook Museum of Art, Oklahoma, staff from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Sydney and staff from the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

 Scott Stulen outlined numerous delightful playful interventions and events that he introduced in and around the Philbrook. Perhaps the funniest and most astonishing was a public showing of U-tube cat videos. Stulen said they expected an audience of about 5, but got 10,000, leading to substantial congestion on the freeway. All for the sake of videos that people could see at home. So, the point of play is not only the subject, but the social experiencing of the subject.

The staff of the MCA described a program called “Artful” involving the appreciation and creation of art for dementia sufferers and their caregivers. Artists were employed to gently challenge the participants’ understanding of art, and to help them collectively create or participate in art. Both caregivers and dementia sufferers found joy and belonging through creative expression. Both the MCA and the Philbrook found that offering play on a regular basis builds community.

The staff and director of the Australian National Maritime Museum spoke of the cultural change required within their institution in order to implement play. Management allow staff the creative space and time to develop play, and the resources to research visitor needs and responses. Other museums corroborated the need for prototyping and for collaborating with and researching the audience. They recommend starting with small experiments, viewing the gallery as an incubator and play as a process, not a thing. Museum staff can be fearful of not being taken seriously, but Stulen says; “What is the worst that could happen? If we do something cool, we get everyone’s attention. If we fail no-one is watching.”

Some common themes emerged about what makes a successful play experience:

·        It’s fun, not preachy, heavy or negative. It brings joy and delight, even if the subject is serious.

·        It provides a safe place for experimentation and creativity. Playing “as if”, or adopting an avatar temporarily denies the limits of the ordinary world, thereby contributing a sense of well-being. It shifts our perspective, by allowing us to experience the world through a different set of eyes: e.g. Imagining the world through the eyes of The Mafia, Maui or a spider.

·        It creates an immersive, tactile, sensory, physical journey that is interspersed throughout the museum rather than segregated from it.

·        It encourages a sense of personal agency, empowerment, or accomplishment through the visitor overcoming a challenge, controlling their own experience, or creating something.

·        It doesn’t necessarily require fixed rules, rewards, or outcomes and often works best if open ended. Create a platform with loose parts; tools and prompts, artists and the public, or even astroturf and junk. It’s important that all players feel like winners at the end.

·        However, play needs some scaffolding. Meaningful questions promote meaningful results. “You need a frame, not a blank page.”

·        It is surprising, subverts expectations, breaks boundaries, shifts perspectives, evokes curiosity and awe.

·        It is inviting and welcoming, especially to groups that wouldn’t traditionally feel at home in a museum.

Well designed play can make our museums relevant and effective, where other forms of communication fail:

Play has huge potential for inviting new groups to a museum. Stulen said; “We live in a divided world. Play can bring diverse groups together.” At the Philbrook’s “Lowrider” event, a visiting biker said, “I didn’t even know I was allowed to come in here.” At their Indiannapolis Car event the wealthy neighbours to the museum were surprised to find that the car owners were nice people.

Play invokes behavioural change. It creates connection, whanangatanga, and empathy. It doesn’t just teach us knowledge, but it affects how we feel. Keir Winesmith of the University of New South Wales stated that the power in making immersive play in museums is social: People get together, collaborate and teach each other. He recommends continually re-evaluating your play experience, with the measure of success being; “Has it actually changed people’s lives?” Charlotte Derry, a UK play consultant, quoted the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.” Play gives us the agency to change people’s lives.


Intouch Update: From Flexhibit to ActZibit

Now that Intouch is letting you know about the next "exhibit-activity" it's been time to put some serious thought into renaming this thing that is half exhibition, half activity: an exhibition that you can physically play with as a group. We started with the name "Flexhibit", but have discovered that this is in use in the USA. I don't really want to be sued, so this time I've checked, and come up with the name "ActZibit"- the exhibit you can actively play with. It may take me a wee bit of time and advice however to figure out how to change this across this website- but look out for that soon.

Also, Intouch has started a facebook page. It's going to be a bit of a learning curve- but I'm planning to make it entertaining as well as informative.

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Nga Mihi


Pacific Explorers: Cook, Tasman, Kupe: a collection of exhibit-activities

Pacific Explorers is an array of interactive exhibits designed to complement and enliven museum exhibitions for the 250th centenary of Captain Cook’s journey of discovery to New Zealand/Aotearoa and the Pacific. Intouch Design is still developing the details, but provisional costs are now defined and if you are interested in any of these exhibits for 2019 we'd love to hear from you.

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Cook and Tupaia, and the marriage of Maori and Pakeha

I remember Sir Paul Reeves saying that the relationship between Maori and Pakeha was like a marriage, and it required continual work to keep it loving. After a year spent developing a series of exhibit- activities on Cook, Tasman and Kupe, I now think that the matchmakers of this marriage were Cook and Tupaia.

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Three Captain Cook Concepts

Here are our ideas for the next Flexhibit. Please let us know which you like best.

1. The Master Navigator:

Learn about Cook's journey's, navigation, and the transit of venus by assembling a kit-set globe, placing incidents from Cook's voyages on it, and calculating the distance of 1 astronomical unit at the scale of your globe.

2. Paradise Lost:

Learn about the history of science, particularly the shift in thinking from exploitation to conservation of natural resources by classifying flora according to three different systems: Enlightenment Science, Maori Tikanga and Ecological Niches. Teams or individuals swap images of flora and race each other to fill all the niches in their cabinet of curiosities.


3. A Hog for a Hatchet :

A bartering game that helps players understand the difficulties of first contact between European sailors and Polynesian Islanders. Each side starts with a different set of rules, and must learn the other side's rules by trading. Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour aim to sail away fully provisioned, while the Polynesian Islanders try to retain sufficient provisions and mana to survive. The aim is to learn to negotiate each other's rules for a win/win result, rather than the lose/lose of violence and a war of resources.

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