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?