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.