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 museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:

Mission

To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.

Vision

A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

Special gifts of the house museum

Recently, blogger, Hannah Lawrence, observed that ‘no matter who you are or what your background, when you are permitted to open grand towering doors you feel a sense of self-indulgent import’ (Exploring with Hannah).

The power of this experience, for me, cannot be overstated. Period architectural grandeur and that incredible experience of opening and passing through a spectacular door is one of my favorite things about visiting a house museum.

Hannah’s comment got me thinking about the unique ways that house museums confer wellbeing on us (as visitors) by eliciting a sense of personal ‘import’—by making us feel special. Maybe they play on our childhood fondness for acting out royal, fairy-tale storylines, or pique our natural curiosity about what it might be like to live among lavish wealth and beauty. Maybe they tap into our simple tendency to romanticize a time or place different from our own.

I think, however, that house museums are more than just palettes for our imaginations and romantic fantasies. A recent visit to Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the source of this experience of ‘specialness.’

The reason why we love opening ‘grand towering doors’ may have something to do with the fact that we are physically penetrating a piece of history. For house museums, the house itself is arguably the gem of the collection, and unlike the other objects in the house (and in the traditional museum), we are permitted to interact with it physically: to push open the door, to walk up and down the stairs, and to hold the banisters. We experience a tactile relationship with history; it’s quite a privilege, and we know it.

The Hillwood Mansion pantry and kitchen was a favorite for both my husband and me. It inspired so much imagination and delight as well as a sense of novelty—the obvious asset of the house museum. And after reading that Marjorie Post’s guests used prized pieces from the collection as actual plateware, I momentarily wished that Hillwood, in its efforts to act as gracious host, had considered continuing Post’s tradition of a functional collection.

However, the lovely moments of ordinariness at Hillwood’s Mansion made the most lasting impression on me. The ‘Snooze Room’ made me feel inexplicably comforted; it felt warm and familial. The placement of the rope barrier meant that I had to crane my neck to see an entire wall of photographs, adding to my sense that I was being treated to the most fleeting (and therefore, special) of peaks into another life.

In the staff dining room, my husband correctly observed that the table looked just like the one from our first apartment together. We enjoyed this simple connection to a vastly different life.

Even the banality of a roped off staircase engendered a childlike curiosity and sense of mystery. What was at the top of those stairs?

This is one of the truly special features of the house museum. It can’t avoid the moments of normality, ordinariness, and everyday life that its historic occupants undoubtedly lived through. These brushes with the ordinary help establish connections and a sense of shared humanity that reach comfortingly across time, culture, economic wealth, and life experience. House museums are places of both exciting difference and reassuring sameness. This striking contrast is less apparent in traditional museums where everything presented typically seeks to entertain, make a point, or expose visitors to something novel.

In the same way that the house museum makes us feel grand and special, we also play an important role in conferring specialness on the house. After all, we are the ones that deem it significant enough to visit, giving it purpose and a reason to continue existing long after its original occupants are gone. In this way, house museums and their visitors share a delightful reciprocity, which, it turns out, is just one of the house museum’s unique gifts.

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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.

Museum empowerment and stand-up comedy: connections from museum blogging

A few months ago, I read an innovative post by Dana Mitroff Silvers on her blog, Design Thinking for Museums. I was inspired by Dana’s creativity in connecting the seemingly dissimilar disciplines of museums and improv comedy.

The piece got me wondering about other museum-comedy parallels. I immediately thought of my college friend, Ryan Stanisz: hardworking writer; abrasively funny observer of human behavior; skilled stand-up, improv, and sketch comedian. I asked Ryan to reflect on the possible tenets of comedy; I would then consider their connections to what I have learned and explored while blogging and reading other blogs over the past couple of months.

Museums and comedy are surprisingly congruent. They share similar fundamental goals of engaging and connecting with people and ideas, empathizing with diverse and shared experiences, and reflecting on what is culturally meaningful. They both aim to provide enjoyment and happiness. Perhaps they also share a common experience of struggle.

Ryan chose to focus on stand-up comedy. And since his comments spoke to ideas of empowerment, adaptation, tenacity, and self-leadership, I decided they were relevant to the blog’s mission. Typically, I write about how museums might empower visitors, but in this post, I consider how they might inspire and uplift themselves as institutions…

Ryan’s tenets and related comments are italicized.

I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for five years. But the truth is, I’ve only really been DOING IT for two years. The other three years just involved me occasionally going to an open mic or a show, and the other half the time, just talking about it. I was in love with the idea of being a comedian before I was one – and while I’m not a star by any stretch of the imagination, I love it now, I do it often, and I’m passionate about the work. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m being dishonest when I tell someone I do stand-up. This is the first time I’ve been asked to lay out some general tenets I apply to stand-up comedy, but it’s by no means complete, and I’m sure it varies for everyone. Anyhow, this is the type of stuff that keeps me motivated and keeps me honest.  

1. Be realistic with one’s self. Along the way, there are some pretty simple questions you have to keep asking yourself.

Are you being funny? If the jokes aren’t hitting – maybe you need a new approach, maybe you need to abandon the joke all together. Some comics might give you advice, but hold off on adopting someone else’s notes. You need to develop your own internal locus of what is and isn’t funny. Just like my ideas presented in this blog, don’t necessarily take them as Bible truth, always be questioning.

Is there something getting in the way of you working on material, and getting out in front of people? Everyone’s got to work and everyone’s got to eat – but if you’re not getting up at shows, you’re not getting better – and you’re definitely not meeting other people in the comedy world …

Museum connections

Ask yourself the tough questions; reflect. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe the process of reflection. Stephanie Downey discussed ‘reflection’ in an Intentional Museum post, explaining that it can be easy to overlook this important process in the continual cycle of action. Museum professionals, however, must be willing to ask tough questions, examine the meaning of data, and provide a critical ‘insider perspective’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum). Your instincts matter—when it comes to making people laugh, or sharing our collective culture.

Reflect, but also act. Stand-up comedians learn by doing and don’t wait until they’re ‘perfect.’ How might this apply to museums? Paul Orselli’s post about museum responsiveness and recent #museumsrespondtoferguson conversations on Twitter have highlighted, for me, the importance of balancing fear with timely action (see my post, ‘On Fear, and Imperfection’).

2. Be your authentic self, and don’t be afraid to evolve.

Even if you’re awkward or depraved – be genuine and be yourself. This is such a stupidly simple concept, and it was the hardest thing for me to learn. Learn who you are and do just that, otherwise, you’ll be playing a character forever and you won’t be able to grow or discover with an audience. It’s fascinating to listen to Louis CK or Patton Oswalt over the years – because their careers and their families have changed so dramatically. They’re still themselves, but they don’t necessarily speak to things in the same way. Comics who play a shtick, a lot of times, lose out on that opportunity to develop a relationship with the crowd and they put themselves into a corner (their shows feel more muted, more choreographed, and less fun). There are a number of exceptions – Stephen Colbert for instance was aggressive in his attempt to stay current and relevant– Colbert commented on issues of the day, and as the Republican Party evolved over nine years, so did Colbert.

Museum connection

Understand what you have to offer and stand by it. Through my visit to Glenstone and my resulting post, I learned the value of a museum with a strong vision and a compellingly firm self-concept.

Be yourself. As a frequent museum visitor, I also learned, as Ryan suggests, that when the creator is genuine, the audience’s experience is enormously enhanced. My most powerful visitor experiences undoubtedly took place in institutions that were connected to their authentic selves, aware of their unique assets, and open to developing real relationships with their visitors (such as the Torpedo Factory Art Center, pictured below).

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3. Work hard, especially when no one’s watching.

No one cares that you do stand-up – your family might find it fun, but you have to want to do it. And when you decide you want it, you have to work on it constantly. Success is slow – people all around you will get on shows as your schedule starts to slow down, but keep working! Life is tiring, and it’s tempting to want to go home right after work, but your jokes have no way of developing otherwise. Also, don’t forget to record and listen to yourself. Sometimes the laugh you thought you got for your bit was more about the intonation than the wording, or a response to someone’s weird laugh – be mindful and honest about what was actually funny. And as you work, be mindful of the future. Are you building other skills to leverage the abilities you already have? You can write a good joke – but it’d be awesome if you also knew how to tell a story.

Museum connections

Keep moving forward; the future is already here. Ryan’s comments about consistent progress and mindfulness about the future reminded me of Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, ‘Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back.’ Colleen argued that museums who use ‘future’ language to describe present needs and trends are likely to get left behind or adopt the false belief that they are innovative. Remembering that the future is already here and striving to build new resources to leverage current ones seem relevant to both stand-up and museums.

Be intentional. Ryan’s comment about being honest about why something is successful struck me as deeply relevant to museums. I recalled a recent post by Randi Korn on Intentional Museum, which argued that intentionality is essential for museums hoping to ‘make a difference in the quality of people’s lives’ (Randi’s definition of ‘impact’). So knowing why you are doing something and why it works is not just good for you, but great for your audience.

4. Keep a positive sense of self.

This is probably one of the most over-looked tenets among a lot of comics in my opinion and it’s probably because keeping positive doesn’t necessarily translate into career success…. Take steps to improve your self-image – eat healthy, exercise, keep to a consistent sleep schedule, and when necessary, talk to someone. Working on your baggage isn’t going to make you any less compelling or funny.  

You need to believe that you’re funny in order to do this.

Museum connection

Believe that you can be essential to your community, and make it so. In my second post, I discussed an inspirational visit to the Art Museum of the America’s F Street Gallery where my guide’s warmth and enthusiasm and sincere passion for the museum’s work quickly convinced me of the museum’s value and importance. I suggest museums should not only maintain a positive sense of self, but also ensure that this positive image becomes a core institutional value that is consistently conveyed to visitors through all aspects of the museum operation.

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This sign in the National Building Museum denotes the adjacent classroom, but also reinforces and celebrates (at least, for me) the museum’s core business of education.

5. Appreciate the flops as much as the successes.

Learn from failures – if a bit doesn’t work after a month of workshopping it, abandon it. If a joke works great – hold on to it for dear life.

Museum connection

Be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Be willing to let go of something that isn’t working—even if you love it. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe Randi Korn’s concept of ‘alignment,’ which involves aligning actions with desired outcomes despite our sometimes emotional resistance to letting go of unsuccessful programs (Randi Korn, Intentional Museum).

6. Learn to accept feedback with grace.

Everyone’s a critic – don’t respond back to someone’s critique in a state of rage or panic. You might just burn a bridge or two (ruining future show or partnership opportunities) – and at the end of the day it comes down to your own locus of what’s funny or not. If you told a joke that you liked, and it was well received– you’re not obligated to defend yourself if someone was offended or didn’t laugh. It’s likely, someone will disagree – and that’s just part of life. In a similar vein, take compliments with stride – and don’t let an audience member decide for you when a bit is finished.

Museum connection

Don’t be defensive. My personal belief is that museums should welcome the opportunity to engage with criticism. And likewise, I believe that critiquing a museum’s programs or exhibitions is a valid way to engage. That said, you can’t please everyone; as a visitor, I like it when a museum is confident and unapologetic about their approach.

All connections are potential opportunities. The more I read and blog, the more I realize that a museum’s potential partners and collaborators are everywhere. They may be parents (see Jeanne Vergeront’s post about involving parents), or children (see my post about multi-age programs), or the museum’s most avid visitors (see my post about museum ‘fans’).

7. Never let a heckler ruin your show.

Sometimes a drunk person is just going to ruin a show, and there’s nothing you can do about it – so just finish your set with some grace…

Museum connection

Fortunately, museums do not face hecklers in the traditional sense. However, as museums become increasingly involved in digital endeavors, I wonder whether they will need to develop strategies for dealing with people who engage in inappropriate or disparaging ways. Perhaps those that have experience working in museums and new media might like to weigh in here.


FullSizeRenderRyan is a comedian and writer living in New York City. As a stand up, Ryan has performed at various venues around town, from New York Comedy Club to The Creek and the Cave. He is also a longtime member of the indie improv troupe, Tickle Party. He writes and performs sketch comedy for ‘Latino Dance Troupe,’ and hosts a monthly sketch show called ‘Express Lane’ – a show written and produced in ten days.  Follow him on Twitter @RyeBreadHere


Blog posts quoted

Dilenschneider, C. (2014, August 13). Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back. [Blog post]. Know Your Own Bone.

Downey, S. (2014, November 24). Reflection 22: On Reflection. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2015, January 14). 2015 Intentional Practice Series. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2014, October 30). Reflection 20: Alignment and the Complexities of Intentional Practice. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

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

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.

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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).

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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.

 

Reference

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