How can museums scaffold playfulness?

During Christmas, I enjoy catching up on trends I may have missed throughout the year as I observe the family gift exchange with my in-laws. This year, one family member received an adult dot-to-dot book—an apparent innovation on the popular adult coloring book. It looked intricate, engaging, and beautifully designed—and very appealing as a way to relax and get creative in a relatively low-stakes way.

Given the popularity of the adult coloring book, a dot-to-dot book for adults isn’t surprising. Creating art is both productive and soothing. Also, coloring and dot-to-dot books provide the scaffolding needed for adults to create something cohesive and aesthetically pleasing simply for its own sake.

Recently, I started working at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a part-time Museum Educator. This experience has been really valuable for me because it has opened my mind to the power of hands-on learning in cultural and historic spaces, something with which I had little prior experience. At Historic Ships, the Educators offer a variety of programs that allow visitors to engage actively with history by performing real tasks such as turning a ship’s sail, raising cargo, or running a gun drill.

As with coloring and dot-to-dot books, these activities might not seem, at first glance, likely to appeal to adults. They require some level of risk, vulnerability, and openness that most of us don’t entertain in our daily state of guardedness and fatigue. But they can nevertheless be pitched and scaffolded in ways that are captivating and engaging.

Adults, like children, love to be playful, but museums and cultural institutions, I believe, sometimes struggle to entice them to experience these instincts fully. I explored this question in an earlier post, asking how museums could invite adults to play in their spaces and with their content, and suggested some initial thoughts based on personal experimentation and relevant posts by other bloggers:

  • Include adult content and design choices
  • Provide platforms for sharing
  • Scaffold to ensure success
  • Ensure the visitor’s contribution is meaningful to the institution
  • Make it fun

Returning to this question, I would now suggest a couple of additional points:

  • Make the process (not just the outcome) meaningful and challenging. After observing programs at Historic Ships, I’ve noticed numerous opportunities for give and take, genuine challenge, and critical thinking with visitors.
  • Treat visitors with unconditional positive regard. This is a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers that advocates an enduring and fundamental acceptance of clients’ contributions. This attitude on the part of the museum is valuable in establishing the trust and safety required to solicit visitors’ participation in an activity. It means responding respectfully and encouragingly even when a visitor asks a question that seems obvious or silly, giving real thought and consideration to all visitor contributions, and accepting all levels of participation as valid and worthy.
  • Finally, thank visitors for playing. Participation is an act of generosity, and frequently, courage.
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Image taken at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.

The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.

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Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.

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Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.

Can you have a visitor experience without actually visiting?

Last Sunday, my husband and I had an almost-visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We took a gorgeous bike ride from Old Town Alexandria along the Mount Vernon Trail to Washington’s picturesque estate.

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Feeling awesome from the bike ride, I then meandered happily through the Mount Vernon gift store and the front of the grounds. I told my husband I was excited to come back another day for a proper visit. It was a great afternoon.

Later, I realized I would be quite content to return again by bike, experience the site, and then ride home again. Basically, my ‘visit’ to Mount Vernon had meant something to me, even though I hadn’t technically visited.

This realization got me wondering how museums fit into the larger fabric of their communities and geographic areas. How might their presence enhance healthy behaviors (such as biking), feelings of connection, and interpersonal relationships? And how can they be a reassuring force in their communities?

Getting people into the museum is a wonderful thing, but so are the forms of subtle engagement that a museum’s simple existence and care for its community can inspire. I recently attended a job interview at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden, and truly loved the experience of walking through the surrounding neighborhood (pictured below) and being in proximity to the Estate’s incredible beauty. Though I didn’t visit the Museum, I definitely experienced it.

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All museums and cultural sites have natural assets. Some of those assets may be fortuitous products of the museum’s surrounding area rather than deliberate virtues of the museum: accessibility via public transport, proximity to natural beauty or tranquility, maybe even—isolation.

Part of this ‘radial’ visitor experience is also deliberate, curated. Museums project ideas and values to their communities; these are felt and experienced by all who come into its radius, even if they don’t take a tour or view an exhibition.

Maybe this subtle form of impact and engagement is a possible first step towards breaking down the museum’s ‘reproduction of disadvantage’ (see Emily Dawson’s work). If community members can feel comfortable and welcome within your museum’s ‘radius,’ maybe they can begin to feel similarly welcome and comfortable within the museum’s walls. Accessible outdoor spaces also provide opportunities to eat, socialize, and connect in a casual, affordable way.

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Should museums give greater consideration to the presentation of their grounds, the proximity of nearby parks and trails, casual access to tables and benches on their grounds (see above image of Library of Congress), or sidewalk access to outdoor panels and exhibits?

In many cases, museums also act as physical historical markers, reminding those in their proximity of big and important ideas. Their mere physical existence sustains our collective memory.

Recently, museum and library thinker, David Carr, gave a lecture at Smithsonian Libraries. Carr spoke about the role of museums and libraries in inspiring individual lives, understanding aspirations, and shaping the ‘story of the self.’ So I wonder—how can museums use their subtle influences to creatively contribute to individual lives?

Do you have a local museum or cultural site that somehow touches your life—that gives you pleasure, reassurance, and a sense of cultural wealth—even if you might never step inside? If so, then you are part of that museum’s impact. And that museum is responsible for contributing a greater richness to your individual life.

The empowering exhibition

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s current exhibit, Days of Endless Time, promises to explore themes of nature, solitude, and escape through moving image works that attenuate and suspend time or evoke timelessness (see website) so when I visited with my mum last Wednesday, I expected any resulting blog post to focus on the exhibition’s meditative qualities. Unexpectedly, I was drawn down another path.

But let me begin by recounting my initial impressions and subsequent thought process…

Upon entering the exhibit, I was struck by the dark gray walls, which contributed a complex energy into the space, reducing one’s visibility in the gallery and invoking a sense of greater privacy and seclusion. I immediately noted that the exhibition suspended not only time, but also expectation. As in Divergence, I noticed a recurring narrative of duality and contrast (with fluidity between opposing or contrasting ideas); movement/stillness, sound/silence, object/shadow, small/large, nature/man, creation/destruction all inhered and enmeshed throughout my visit.

The works evoked a kind of ‘unreality’ that was, at least for me, strangely acceptable and beautiful, even peaceful. The exhibit reminded me of the potential for museums to connect to a spiritual dimension or an augmented version of reality—and to be deeply seductive. My experience was somewhat reminiscent of my experience at Glenstone (see post) in that I felt restored (even energized) afterwards rather than fatigued. My mum, Kathy, astutely commented upon leaving that she felt slower, but not tired.

The experience was certainly therapeutic, but the complete reason why eluded me until the next morning when I read this essay by Axel Huttinger, posted by Paul Orselli on his blog, ExhibiTricks. Axel’s argument that exhibitions should motivate a desire to learn by providing ‘a sense of security and a certain amount of self-confidence’ got me pondering the concept of an empowering exhibition: an exhibition that offers security and supports self-efficacy.

I use the word ‘self-efficacy’ (a concept developed by psychologist, Albert Bandura) rather than self-esteem because, as my sister-in-law recently reminded me, self-efficacy describes your belief that you can do something, a similar notion to Axel’s assertion that exhibitions should convey to visitors ‘that they have understood, or can understand something’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Unhurried and undidactic, Days of Endless Time offers visitors a strong and pervasive sense of control and security by introducing concepts gently and with restraint and by limiting factual content. This experience supports viewers’ authority and encourages their confident engagement; one person’s experience or interpretation is as valid as the next’s. Also, many of the works seem to offer flexible entry and exit points for viewing and understanding them.

My mum later told me that she had first looked at each moving image to ascertain her own organic interpretation and only later considered the label if she was left wanting more information. In many cases, she was satisfied with her self-produced knowledge and sought no further explanation. The exhibition’s capacity to accommodate this confident, self-guided approach struck me as an empowering opportunity for self-made discovery.

Days of Endless Time invites a kind of investigative approach in which patience, curiosity, and a contemplative mind yield great reward. It seems to strive towards Axel’s idea of the exhibition as a ‘public laboratory, in which the visitors themselves become researchers and scientists’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Museums are places where ideas inhabit space—and you, as the visitor, are invited to co-exist in that space. Exhibitions that present mountains of information with little option to select ‘out’ may be alienating and tiring—even intimidating. Contrastingly, exhibitions that make you feel smart, receptive, capable, calm, and in control may be enormously empowering.

What do you think?

Mum and I enjoyed our own experience of the vastness of nature getting across the snowy Mall.

Mum and I enjoyed an apt prelude to the exhibition as we braved the snowy weather to get to the Museum.

Huttinger, A. (2015, January 6). What is innovative exhibition design? [Blog post]. ExhibiTricks. (See Axel’s company website)

The magical museum

Inspired by the spirit of the holidays, I decided to look to my mother, one of my foremost professional role models, to address my questions and provide an educator’s insight into the role of imagination. My mum, Kathryn Lowe, is a skilled, versatile educator and a long-time advocate for personal, expressive learning and therapeutic experiences. Since childhood, I have admired her fearless efforts to bring individuality and imaginative storytelling into her students’ experiences. I discuss her responses throughout.


Last Tuesday, I was browsing through the National Gallery of Art when I found myself suddenly and completely entranced by several paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (visit Gallery 55 if you’re interested). The rich detail and lively activity in the works (see example below) held my attention in quiet fascination for a long time. I realized the works had drawn me into their world, happily displacing me into another time and place—an experience reminiscent of chalk drawings and Mary Poppins.

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Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Game of Hot Cockles c. 1775/1780 (Painting, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.6) Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The next day, Shaelyn Amaio published a thoughtful post about ‘wonder’ in the museum experience, which further piqued my interest in museums and imagination. Shaelyn’s post pointed out the inherent harmony between knowledge and wonder, reminding me that wonder and imagination are powerful resources for learning and connection.

Jennifer Sheppard’s recent post on DMA Canvas described the Dallas Museum of Art’s magical letter-writing activity, which invites children to correspond with the Museum’s family mascot, Arturo, through letters. Jennifer’s post recounted letters of openness, love, insight, and creativity in response to the imaginative exercise, and highlighted for me the striking genuineness that magical experiences can elicit.

An earlier DMA Canvas post about Arturo’s letters, by Amelia Wood, discussed the childhood magic of mail and got me wondering—what makes an object or experience magical? And furthermore, what do adults find magical? Reflecting on personal experience and time working in childcare, I know magic is often found in experiences that span time and distance, involve elements of surprise or anticipation, impress us with beauty and scale, or appeal to a personal need that we’re carrying.

My mum also pointed out that ‘open-ended prompts or cues’ such as ‘What would you do if…?’ can add magic and imagination to an activity. Giving permission to experience the senses (‘music/voices, lighting/color, touch’) and inspiring the inner child, for example, by allowing opportunities for verbal, physical, and creative expression also build imagination and magic into an experience, according to my mum.

The physical space can also support imagination. Physical spaces, my mum suggested, can ‘ignite creative thought through … fantasy/dream-like settings: to predict, to create, to re-arrange, to re-create, to use and build upon your own knowledge base.’ She also pointed out the role of memory in imaginative spaces, explaining that physical stimuli and the environment prompt memory, which we can use as a foundation for learning.

I recently visited a wonderful gallery in Old Town Alexandria, the Athenaeum. The building immediately captured my imagination with its beautiful (yet strangely unassuming) architecture. Going up the steps and then through the large wooden doors was homey and grand (and imagination-sparking).

I found the interior to be spacious and warm, neat but not stuffy; a bike was casually resting in one corner. The room projected a community-center feel and a kind of lovely, timeworn maturity that reminded me of the old music halls where I used to rehearse and perform as a child. The music playing in the background added another layer of warmth to my experience.

I sometimes wonder how museums can be both spaces for occasion and spaces that encourage easy, casual access and social equity. I think the answer might lie partly in creating an imaginative space. Certain spaces do a particularly good job of creating access and warmth in harmony with the grandeur and sense of occasion that often help make a museum visit special and memorable.

Museums are the sum of buildings, collections, people, and ideas. They are also experiences. And if we think of them as spaces for imagination, they become unique worlds of possibility—maybe even sanctuaries.

Museums offer the chance to safely live and play in another reality, in close proximity to objects and artworks, each one with their own intriguing career or life story. Yesterday, I was reading about the Smithsonian First Ladies Collection; curator, Lisa Kathleen Graddy pointed out that clothing (particularly when exhibited on mannequins) can help bring historical figures nearer to viewers (Graddy & Pastan, 2014), suggesting to me that imagination-sparking displays can aid visitors in feeling connection with and empathy towards objects and the stories they represent.

Jay Rounds (2006) proposed that museums provide opportunities for visitors to safely experiment with various identities. Though Rounds (2006) didn’t use the word ‘imagination,’ his writing seems to resonate strongly with the idea that museums are spaces for healthy fantasy and the ‘trying on’ of new ideas. Needs-driven learning may be uniquely powerful. My mum explained that imaginative experiences may be like ‘opening up a story and living it to satisfy a longing or goal.’

In Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014) argued that curators should ‘create free space, not occupy existing space’ (p. 154). I like this distinction very much because it suggests that museums should create possibilities rather than simply present information and objects.

Have you ever experienced a gallery or exhibition that created an imaginative, immersive space, opening up your experience or helping you to live a story that satisfied something important for you? Have you experienced the connection between imagination and memory, or between imagination and authentic experience?

Museum pros, have you tried something in your museum that inspired imaginative responses or magical thinking from your visitors? What is the possible role of imagination in the design of programs, exhibits, and visitor experiences?

-Wishing you happy, magical holidays and a healthy dose of wonder for the New Year-

References

Graddy, L. K. & Pastan, A. (2014). the Smithsonian First Ladies collection. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Obrist, H.U. (2014). Ways of curating. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc.

Rounds, J. (2006). Doing identity work in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(2), 133-150. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00208.x

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.

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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.

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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:

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    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?