The self-guided personal response tour


Ray Williams’ (2010) article, ‘Honoring the Personal Response: A Strategy for Serving the Public Hunger for Connection’ made a case for art museums to assume profound relevance to individual lives.

I first encountered the article while completing my master’s thesis and immediately noticed that Williams’ proposal was reminiscent of my initial stirrings of professional interest in museums.

Williams’ (2010) ‘Personal Response’ tour invites participants to find museum works that resonate with special questions; the questions are designed to invite reflection and connect to personal experience.

Recently, I was reminded of the personal response tour by Shannon Karol’s post on DMA Canvas, which explored its use in promoting teambuilding and reflection among museum docents. Further research revealed the potential use of personal response tours for training medical students in empathy and self-awareness (see Gaufberg & Williams, 2011). I was intrigued by the versatility of the personal response and wanted to know more.

Why do we only look outside ourselves?

Museums often focus heavily on the cultural and historical context of works, under-utilizing the broad and powerful potential of art to serve the community, Williams (2010) argued.

In her post about Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, Robin Matty articulated a similar idea after exploring the exhibition’s atypically personal approach to art, explaining ‘the standard art exhibit label doesn’t always mean much to the visitor’ (Robin Matty, The Traveling Museologist).

Traditional interpretative labels often imply we must look to external resources to understand and enjoy the displays.

But visitors’ personal histories can add immediacy to the visitor experience and contribute new richness and depth to the original works or objects, creating potentially useful resources for the museum and for other visitors.

My personal response experience 

I put together a short list of prompts to try out during a visit to one of my favorite D.C. museums, The Phillips Collection. Below are some of my highlights:

1. Find a work that makes you laugh: People who know each other at a party by Michael Schaff (Acrylic paint and colored pencil on construction paper, exhibited in Art and Wellness: Creative Aging) … Something about this slightly abstract, slightly disordered, and slightly absurd party scene delighted me, and made me laugh.

2. Find a work that, for you, embodies courage: The Migration Series, Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them. by Jacob Lawrence (between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, exhibited in The Migration Series) … When I discovered the title of this work, I realized that my interpretation was probably a little different than what Jacob Lawrence intended. Nevertheless, I found the work beautiful and empowering. Something about a focus on light …

3. Find a work that embodies love: The Dream by Marc Chagall (1939, Gouache on paper, permanent collection) … For me, this work was both domestically ordinary and dreamily surreal.

What I learned about personal responses in the museum

A personal response tour allows you to follow your own instincts and intrinsic interests when choosing what displays to seek out and focus on.

Formal, structured tours (while wonderful in their own way) can at times feel like a trip to the mall with someone who does not share your particular retail proclivities. Instead of looking closely at something that captivates you, you are compelled to focus on whatever the guide has chosen to focus on (or, to return to my shopping analogy, to feign interest in cooking gadgets for hours on end because that’s what your husband likes to shop for).

This self-directed quality does not preclude the personal response tour from being social; in fact, it opens up many possibilities for discussion and empathy. Seeing another’s perspective through the lens of a work or object may offer a more nuanced picture of that person’s unique experience. The personal response approach may also offer a powerful way of mentally logging and storing new knowledge.

These moments we share with a work can ignite curiosity and a desire to learn more. My sudden and intense love affair with Marc Chagall’s The Dream while visiting The Phillips primed me to later connect with another of his works, Composition, on a recent visit to The Kreeger Museum. The personal response is akin to an ‘emotional souvenir,’ creating continuity in the visitor experience and extending it beyond the time and space of the visit.

Finally, collections are both the lifeblood of the personal response, and the great asset of the museum. Therefore, museums may be uniquely situated to promote empathy, self-care, and sharing in this way.

Exhibition idea …

As I finish this post, I am arriving at what I think could be an interesting exhibition idea incorporating the personal response. The exhibition would encourage visitors to record their personal responses to the particular artworks or objects (perhaps on post-its?) and affix them beside the relevant pieces. Subsequent visitors could respond to either the work alone or the preceding visitor responses.

This would build on the concept of Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, as discussed in Robin Matty’s post, by adding a new layer of interpersonal sharing and active participation. The exhibition would seamlessly coalesce participation, co-curation, and interpretation.

Reflecting on recent events in Ferguson 

Could the ‘personal response’ approach to interpreting museum objects provide some direction for museums striving to serve their communities in times of grief or trauma?

Your experiences

If anyone feels subsequently inspired to try a self-guided personal response tour I would love to hear from you. Also, if you discover any amazing prompts, please let me know.

(You could try this at ANY exhibition. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AN ART EXHIBIT.)


The curators of Investigating Where We Live (currently on display at the National Building Museum) shared their personal reflections about community and place and invited visitors to do the same.


Gaufberg, E. & Williams, R. (2011). Reflection in a museum setting: The Personal Responses Tour. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 3(4), 546-549. doi: 10.4300/JGME-D-11-00036.1

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

What can museums learn from parks?

Recently, I discovered a Northern Virginia gem: Green Spring Gardens. Two visits later, I began wondering whether this dynamically educational and therapeutic space could offer a fresh perspective on traditional museum approaches.

Green Spring Gardens is many things: a garden and park, a museum, and an intellectual hub for horticulture and conservation. The site is home to the Horticulture Center and Historic House; both buildings have gallery spaces and lively exhibition programs, and the Horticulture Center features a research library and glasshouse.

Reflecting on this unique nature-driven and largely outdoor museum, I decided to explore some of the special qualities of the ‘park,’ examine the ways that Green Spring embraces and augments the park paradigm, and look for applications within the more traditional museum setting. I managed to distill my observations into six key thoughts:

Parks are seen as essential.

NBC’s Parks and Recreation depicts a fierce rivalry and mutual disdain between the local parks department and the library department. The joke, I think, is partly based on the axiomatic idea that parks and libraries are essential services both highly deserving of resources and deeply necessary to communities. Why are museums typically left out of this esteemed group? What could museums do to better demonstrate how essential they truly are?

In her essay, ‘Museum as Soup Kitchen,’ Elaine Gurian (2010) wondered whether local museums could expand their traditional offerings with other services, becoming active community spaces. She also asked readers to consider the idea of local museums providing ‘“free indoor public parks”’ for days when outdoor activities are not possible (Gurian, 2010, p. 79).

Parks are inextricably embedded in the social fabric of communities, and in many cases, come to define neighborhoods. Can museums find similar security in their communities by figuring out ways to understand, provide, and market essential community services? Museums have special resources to offer, and as Gurian (2010) suggested, could use these assets to provide relevant community programs that are perceived by more people as essential.

Parks are social spaces.

Parks are arguably quite effective as ‘third places’ (a term developed by Ray Oldenburg). They are social gathering sites where people can visit easily and regularly to connect with others. Are museums also third places? In a 2010 post, Nina Simon questioned whether museums are really suitable as third places since they are markedly less casual and more intellectually focused than true third places.

I think gardens such as Green Spring suggest a possible middle ground—a visitor experience that is both social and intellectual. Green Spring has the accessibility characteristics of a third place with the intellectual richness of a museum (and the social purposefulness of a community center).

Parks are dynamic spaces.

During my second visit to Green Spring, I realized one of the most engaging qualities of the Gardens: the fact that it looks and feels different every time you visit. My first visit was on a Sunday afternoon when families were out taking photographs and people were walking their dogs. It was a relatively warm day and the whole park was bathed in sunlight. My second visit was on a weekday afternoon and, by chance, a much colder, gloomier day. Instead of families and dogs, I saw a school group enjoying the grounds and the educational programs. Due to the gloomy weather, the grounds looked much darker and more solemn, but equally beautiful.

I realized—parks are dynamic spaces, changing daily and taking on the characteristics of that day’s particular weather, seasonal influences, and visitor motivations. By comparison, I would argue that museums are frequently more static in their appearance and character. Though their visitor base may change depending on the time of year and day of the week, the exhibitions, programs, and displays generally remain unchanged for extended periods of time. I would probably not be able to visit the same museum twice in one week and have two distinctly different experiences.

Perhaps one of the reasons that parks appear so dynamic is that they embrace their many potential uses. They are explicitly multipurpose spaces where visitors can choose to engage in a myriad of acceptable ways. At a park like Green Spring, visitors engage with the displays in personal, active ways. They might sit on a bench and read a book, walk a dog, or have a family picnic. A school trip or family outing might use the space as an ‘outdoor classroom,’ as the website suggests.

Recently, I visited the U.S. Botanic Garden, and after thoroughly exploring the exhibits, I sat down on one of the many benches and read a book, enjoying the tranquil, multisensory surroundings. By providing the appropriate environmental supports (abundant seating in a variety of locations), this museum facilitated a diverse, but valid use of its space—much like a park.

A good example of a museum that encourages multiple routes of engagement is Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.


Photo by David Konigsberg.

Parks strive for social equity.

Social Equity is one of the three pillars of the National Recreation and Parks Association (along with Conservation and Health and Wellness). This video of NRPA’s President and CEO, Barbara Tulipane, CAE helps explain the uniqueness and importance of this quality for parks.

Parks are characterized by open spaces and blurred boundaries, and in the case of free public parks, are open to all. Recently, in a post about autism friendly museum programmingTincture of Museum described ‘access’ in a way that I think aptly describes what parks do well:

 ‘ … it is not always physical things a museum does, the signage, ramps or toilets. It is often about a way of thinking, it is about creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and accepted. It is a mindset, an ethos.’ (Claire Madge, Tincture of Museum)

At Green Spring, the open outdoor spaces created a mindset for me where I felt quite comfortable walking right into the Historic House, having no idea what it was at the time and responding only to the following basic invitation: ‘Open’ (see below).

IMG_0081 copy

Once inside, I was left to my own devices to explore. No one greeted me initially except for two equally confused fellow visitors who initially mistook me for a guide. The three of us ultimately had a great time exploring the gift shop and exhibitions without any of the usual supervision.

Ordinarily, I might be inclined to criticize a visitor experience that began with no greeting or acknowledgment or even confirmation that I was allowed to be present. However, on this occasion, it worked beautifully, making the experience fun and exciting and facilitating conversation with other visitors. The ‘park paradigm’ is wonderful in this sense—laidback, inclusive, unintimidating. I walked in wearing sneakers, yoga pants, and an oversized hoodie—an outfit that I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing into a very traditional museum. Ultimately, I did chat with a staff person at the end of this visit and on my return, and these experiences reinforced my initial impressions of the House as a casual, welcoming space.

Parks promote physical and mental wellbeing.

By encouraging exercise and time spent outdoors, parks actively improve visitors’ health and wellbeing.

They are also empathetic visitor spaces that anticipate and respond to visitor needs, particularly basic physical and social needs. They typically provide plentiful seating (even in unexpected places such as the glasshouse at the Green Spring Horticulture Center).

Parks help protect our natural world.

Through teaching about conservation, parks such as Green Spring help promote pro-environmental attitudes and respect for the natural world.

A ‘park-influenced museum’ (or a ‘museum-influenced park’)…

As I mentioned, Green Spring Gardens is more than a park. I feel it is a good example of how the special qualities of the park could enrich and deepen a museum experience, possibly enhancing its social equity, increasing its social and therapeutic impact, and elevating its ‘essential-service’ cachet. Though the ideas explored here might not be relevant for all institutions, they hopefully contribute to a dialogue about multidisciplinary approaches.



Gurian, E. (2010). Museum as soup kitchen. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(1), 71-85. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2009.00009.x

At home in the museum

Recently, I have been thinking about domesticity and ritual in the museum and their therapeutic value in this context.

When I think about the therapeutic potentials of the museum, I typically think about the beautiful artwork, the evocative objects and histories, and the magnificent spaces. But what about the potential for museums to act as ‘homes’—as sources of ritual, familiarity, and comfort?

I felt the first stirrings of poignant curiosity on this subject during my recent visit to the National Building Museum. Having little organic interest in architecture or urban planning, I expected to like (but not love) the museum. I also expected, perhaps narrow-mindedly, to learn a lot, but to feel very little.

I think the visit was particularly moving because of where I am in my life right now—newly married, but also recently transplanted and therefore lacking stability or a community that I feel a part of. Though I am gradually building a life for myself here in D.C., the topic of ‘home’ is nonetheless a powerful, emotive one for me right now.

The Building Museum was a potent reminder to me of the universal relevance of home and community. The discussion of dollhouses in the exhibition, House & Home, swept me back to my childhood, reminding me why I feel such enduring affection for these idyllic representations of home life. The experience induced a conflicted sense of comfort and longing, with a hint of nostalgia.

Another exhibition at the Building Museum titled Investigating Where We Live highlighted how museums can shine a spotlight on ordinary lives, rendering their beauty. This sharp, insightful exhibition was curated by local teens during an annual summer program. The students’ thoughtful exploration of D.C. neighborhoods made me feel simultaneously homesick for laidback, livable Brisbane (my most recent home) and excited to forge a place in the vibrant D.C. area.

I am intrigued by the way that similar experiences often (appear to) collide in time. On the day following my visit the Building Museum, I had the opportunity to see Urban Bungalow, the new exhibit at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. This quietly lovely show curated by fiber artist, Jennifer Lindsay, invites the participating artists to ‘envision the gallery as a home (and as a work of art),’ according to the exhibition page. The exhibition features an assortment of home-inspired pieces including furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and textiles. The collection is simultaneously eclectic and harmonious, further reinforcing, at least for me, the warmth of a home.

What I noticed (and what the exhibition page also alludes to) is the power of the gallery space to transform and elevate domestic routines into comforting and healing rituals. The displays evoked memories of both my past and present lives. I was reminded of my childhood and my parents’ fondness for Japanese-style décor, including (during my early years) a Japanese table where we would kneel to eat dinner each night. The exhibition made me realize that everyday life is artful and that art inheres in everyday life.

Themes of domesticity and ritual lend themselves well to public programs that promote wellbeing, connectedness, and personal expression. For example, Urban Bungalow features a Sashiko Embroidery workshop and a Hand Spinning workshop—both offering creative, DIY experiences. Whether we are cooking, gardening, knitting … we naturally find immense satisfaction and empowerment in creating something that has both beauty and utility.

When I think about museums as ‘homes’ I am struck by how valuable they could be to people who are currently disadvantaged, vulnerable, or socially isolated. Collections that explore ordinary and domestic life seem to be perfect for programs that affirm individual experience such as ‘Personal Response’ tours (see Williams, 2010), reminiscing sessions, and community-curated exhibitions. They may also offer useful resources for extending the comfort of the museum through outreach—for example to hospitals, day centers, and other community service organizations. For these kinds of endeavors to be successful, museums will have to think empathetically (see the work of Gretchen Jennings) about the needs and life experiences of their participants so they can use museum resources in ways that genuinely engage and represent their communities, make them feel at home, and properly utilize their talents.

To readers:

I would love to hear more about the routines and rituals that bring you comfort. Have you experienced similar moments of comfort in the museum when you connected with something familiar—maybe something lost—or something wished for?

Tomorrow, I plan to put aside my anxieties (or at least try to) in celebration of the domestic. For me, this will hopefully involve (in a yet-to-be-determined order) going for a run, making dinner for me and my husband, and sitting down with a book and a cup of tea.

For a beautifully-written personal perspective on domestic ritual and its connections to health, healing, and family, see this piece by writer, Donna Trussell [@donnatrussell] via The Washington Post.


The social rest space at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery reinforces comfort and creativity.








Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93

Permission to play

About a month ago, I was wandering through the Katzen Arts Center at American University when I came across something that immediately captured my attention. It was this simple message from artist, Jenny Wu, inviting visitors to play with her installation: 2014-10-08 09.11.09

Later that week, I emailed Jenny, curious to learn more. Jenny described her installation, Sandbox, (also a type of free-form video game, she explained) as a ‘playground’ for adults where they can explore textures, transform materials, and even water the artist’s plant.

Jenny explained, ‘The idea of play with the art is a combination of “me playing in the studio” and my fascination with human behaviors. I love the touch of the materials and textures, I perform transformation surgery on materials and give them new lives, and I want my audience to share that experience with me.’

Jenny also hopes to engage people in an active way, and allow them to observe and question their behavior. She shared this video of her earlier work, Come On Out and Play, which also invited an active, tactile visitor relationship. She said of this work, ‘People were really not afraid of touching art in a museum once they gained the permission!’

In the museum context, playing with or even altering the art on display is transgressive, highly participatory, and therefore, I think, quite fun. Of course, museum ‘playgrounds’ need not always be built around the art itself, but can also work well alongside the displays, offering visitors of all ages the chance to be spontaneous and creative as they connect with the collections. What I particularly like about Jenny’s concept though is how strongly the interactivity connects with the work itself.

Intrigued by my own burgeoning questions, I made a commitment to play hard in the museum every chance I got and to see what I could learn from an educator’s viewpoint. After all, play has inherent therapeutic impact, which could only be strengthened by the safety and authenticity of the museum context.

Play, according to an article by Peter Gray via Psychology Today, is defined largely by the player’s motivation and attitude; importantly, it is voluntary and motivated from within (Peter Gray, Psychology Today). Participating in an activity out of choice and because it is pleasurable is, obviously, good for you.

As Jenny Wu suggested, play is also active and purposeful, necessitating a commitment greater than just static observation. Joe Robinson via The Huffington Post explained that play nurtures our need for self-determination, connecting us with our natural drive for growth (Joe Robinson, The Huffington Post). An example is the way that my rockclimbing hobby provides me with constant challenges to confront and overcome.

Play is also therapeutic, allowing free expression and providing respite from anxiety. This article by Elena Santos via The Huffington Post identifies coloring as a valuable form of relaxation for adults.

My quest to play in the museum

I relish the opportunity to play. For over a year, I was lucky enough to play for a living while working as a nanny. I also have quite the silly side, which is always surprising to people who only know me as a rather quiet, serious individual.

So I set out on my play quest with the first stop at Pat Neuman’s studio during the annual Great Falls Studios Art Tour. My mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and I each chose a few studios to put on our personal tour schedule. I specifically requested Pat’s studio because her delightful blurb promised an active, artistic experience and seemed to extend to visitors of all ages.

2014-10-17 12.04.10

Halloween card-making

Complementing her strikingly-colorful pastel works, Pat’s main activity was a crayon and collage Halloween card-making table. After explaining her work, Pat gave an explicit invitation to her guests (all adults) to make a card. She eased the possible stress of getting started (mostly an issue for adults rather than children) by demonstrating a possible approach and suggesting techniques for success. Both myself and another visitor became happily absorbed in this relaxing, creative pursuit.


Playing with extra-ordinary objects at the BMA



A few weeks later, another playful opportunity presented itself during a visit to The Baltimore Museum of Art: sculpture-making at The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects.

My husband told me later that he didn’t find this activity particularly interesting, but I think some subjectivity is par for the course with museum interactives. Personally, I enjoyed sorting through the eclectic objects encased in transparent boxes and wondering about their past lives. For me, exploring the uniqueness of each object was very playful.

Then, last wIMG_0049eek, at the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery I put my architectural skills to work, creating the blue building pictured.  I chose to leave it assembled, hoping that someone might later feel inspired to collaborate.

As I played my way through these cultural spaces, I asked myself how museum design features offer permission to play. Children generally need no invitation to play. They see something engaging; they dive in. Adults are a little harder to draw in and this is where I hoped to gain some further insight.

In a 2012 post, Nina Simon also wondered how museums might elicit adult participation in museum interactives, noting that ‘People of all ages are sensitive to the messages that design sends’ (Nina Simon, Museum 2.0).

Some thoughts on providing ‘permission to play’ (for adults)

  • Ensuring the space is appropriately scaled to accommodate adult participation is helpful. For example, in the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build gallery, space to build is abundant, and furniture is large and comfortable. The chairs at the block building table are large enough to accommodate multiple adults at a time.
  • Including adult content ensures the space is respectful and welcoming of adults. Play Work Build opens with several displays examining historical toys and the museum’s collecting activities in this area. The Big Table: Extra-Ordinary Objects also targets adult interest by featuring everyday objects such as an old playing card or crumpled shopping receipt. (See also Nina’s discussion on adult-friendly design.)
  • As Nina’s post suggested, including more muted colors in the activity may help adults feel more comfortable and less alienated. All the spaces I encountered reflected this idea and had a balance of bright and muted colors.
  • Providing platforms for sharing (Jenny Wu’s invitation to send her videos) and social media engagement such as twitter hashtags (#bmabigtable & #blocktastic) may increase an activity’s appeal for adults. The opportunities to tweet about my creations were appealing to me.
  • Offering tips on how to get started may help adults feel safe and prevent initial frustration. (Thank you to artist, Pat Neuman, for this insight.)
  • Ensuring the activity augments the displays and the museum’s mission demonstrates to both children and adults that their participation is powerful and relevant. Good design in this respect enhances both the educative value of the activity and its authenticity and power, thereby impacting wellbeing. See also Marianna Adam’s discussion (via Art Museum Teaching) about leveraging the museum’s uniqueness in family programs (paras. 7 & 8).
  • Making the activity so irresistibly fun that adults can’t help but participate is also an access option and the reason why my husband, my brothers, and I couldn’t resist playing on this incredible public rope playground in Manly, Queensland a few months ago:


    Photo courtesy of my dad.

A brief caution?

While I was playing at Play Work Build, I noticed that one member of a group of three was fidgeting boredly while her two companions busily constructed a small city. She said something like, ‘I’m not good at this kind of thing,’ by way of explanation for why she wasn’t participating.

This comment got me thinking about the darker side of play. A quick observation of any group of children at play would likely reveal that fear of failure, insecurity, frustration, exclusion, and rejection can all quickly intrude upon a playful scene, sometimes fracturing engagement and introducing stress.

I wonder whether museums should consider some of these possible ‘play complications’ and design interactive spaces and activities that are supportive of varied needs and prepared to mitigate any breakdowns in connection.

Providing alternative ways to engage visitors (i.e. exhibitions to explore, videos to watch) seems like one option. Leaving activities open-ended and celebrating all responses (rather than stressing a ‘correct’ way of doing) is another. I’m also interested to hear other ideas on this …

Tell me your thoughts

Tell me how you play and what inspires you!

What are your great play memories and how could they inspire museum interactives?

What are your memorable museum play experiences?

How does play contribute to your personal wellbeing, and how can cultural programs make you feel sufficiently safe and excited to jump in and play?