Article by Beata Kade 

I felt spoilt to spend my working days attending the 2019 MuseumNext Sydney Conference with the theme of 'Playful Museums' held at the fabulous Australian National Maritime Museum. A lineup of great local and international speakers discussed the serious matter of play, elevating the ambience of the highbrow professional gathering such conferences can sometimes be.

Kevin Sumpton, ANMM Director, opened the conference by exploring how play and play centred experiences are vital to developing a strong emotional bond between visitors and the topics our institutions are curating. Each institution has its core audiences and reasons people visit, for ANMM, which recently re-branded to MUSEAUM, family fun seekers are 11%, learning & fun seekers 27%, box tickers 22%, culture vultures 9%, knowledge seekers 9%, windswept wanderers 7% and those simply not interested 14%. Kevin asserted experiences and exhibitions should be focussing on those audiences that are most important, as it is they who will be repeat visitors and ambassadors.

I agree with Kevin and often grapple with convincing our clients who understandably want to appeal to all visitors, that this is an important consideration not just for museums, but all kinds of natural, cultural, heritage and tourism sites.

He outlined four pillars MUSEAUM use as a lens to create a successful play-centred environment for adults and children:

  1. Immersive - place people inside the story, so they have a sensory experience that awakens their hearts & minds
  2. Surprising - strive to constantly awaken visitor’s curiosity and engage with their imagination 
  3. Authentic - value the real & help people connect to genuine stories
  4. Personal - put people in control of their experiences so they can make them their own. 

Kevin proposed “the joy of playing with and amongst our museums is what differentiates our museum. ‘Joyful discovery’ is the end game.

Michael John Gorman, Director, Biotopia quoted cultural historian Johan Huizinga who in his classic study of play and culture Homo Ludens, writes about play as “a feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms”. 

Play is essential for kids, but it is just as important for adults, as it is a vital part of lifelong learning. Play can be frivolous or serious. Play doesn’t need to have rules, scores or rewards to be appealing and fun. It can be better when the incentive is intrinsically motivated, as scoring can detract from engagement by introducing pressure to perform and achieve an outcome. So why does play matter?

  • it is essential social learning
  • stimulates creativity
  • allows for the subversion of authority

One example of this working well is Thomas Saraceno's 'Spiders' at the Museum for Insects, offering a perspective shift - where the visitors are invited to view it through the eyes of an insect and where the spider’s web creates the artworks. Shifting perspective in such a way helps us to develop empathy and broaden our own life perspectives. 

Museum of Jurassic Technology subverts museum authority by creating tiny exhibits with lengthy, detailed descriptions designed to make people doubt their validity. 

Subversion can also be used in activism, as a playful protest - such as Tate intervention by an artist staging a living artwork, where she lies immobile covered in oil, like wildlife after an oil spill, in a museum funded by an oil company. 

Play is also about creating a safe place for experimentation. As an example ‘Blood Wars’ exhibition in a Science Gallery in Dublin, where visitors have their blood taken, then under a microscope, they can see their respective white blood cells fighting each other, or ‘Grow your Own’ where biological scrapings from collaborator’s noses have been used to grow cheese.

Gorman proposes best ideas for playful experiences in cultural institutions have these key elements

  • Trans-disciplinary - include very diverse participants (science+art+design+technology)
  • Open calls - invite ideas and projects from the community
  • Personal mediation - have meaning for the individual, create a conversational experience
  • Values - keep to the organisation’s values (in this case Connect, Participate, Surprise)
  • Dynamic - allow for change to continue with feedback. 

Reconfigure the relationship between the humans and their environment by asking powerful questions, by asking is "what if".  Take behaviours that naturally connect your subject and the visitor and use them to stimulate curiosity, perspective and agency. 

Don’t view pure play as wasted time. This includes your staff, not just your visitors. When developing ideas for new programs or experiences, use play to set the scene and include as many others with different perspectives as possible, because play can take us outside of business-as-usual, to develop something new and potentially fabulous. 

Jen Craddock, Ralph Upton & Brad Haami, TePapa’s Experience Developers used this playful approach in developing a climate change exhibition which used the archetypal character Maui as a guide to nature’s first-person perspective, aiming to attract locals to see something of themselves. Maui was an animated hero character who guided the visitor experience design thinking through 3 characteristics:   

  1. Enquirer thus fulfilled the need for EXPLORATION
  2. Cheeky trickster - EXPLOITATION
  3. Shapeshifter - which represented INNOVATION & CONSERVATION

The designers would try to embody the above characteristics and ask “what would Maui do?”. Animated silhouette videos were used in storytelling. Some interactive exhibits saw the visitors project their shadows and perform ‘shapeshifting’ for others to see, thus participate. Even small components of the exhibition such as water pollution meter were aligned; rather than the usual 5-star icon, a ‘Mauri-o-meter’ would be used to track and measure not just water cleanliness, but also other factors to do with the quality of the water.

Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader, State Library of New South Wales presented #NewSelfWales - a project which exhibited portraits from the State Library collection in print a playful and participatory way. Wondering what does the face of NSW look like in 2018, as compared to the many years of portraits held in the collection, the team invited the public to Be the Face of New South Wales by contributing selfies. People could upload or take a photo through interactive photo boards set up in George Street, Sydney. It had a moderation cue long enough to remove anything inappropriate, but still short enough to let people see themselves. The exhibition ran very successfully, showcased the rich collection of portraits from the archives, had 7000 uses of a digital photo board, as well as collected 5426 photos of which 1000 were user-generated selfies. Two things surprised the team:

  1. people loved photographing themselves in groups and many were multi-generational
  2. people would take selfies in front of the displays, with themselves in it and share on social media.

Paul Bowers, ACMI Children's Museum Experiences cooled my excitement about the topic with his presentation on “the tedious rigour of playful experiences” soberly proposing that “unless someone is playing, you haven't made something playful.” But I was once again enthused when he quoted ‘The elements of play’ by Scott Eberle, as they offer many options for adding playful components into interpretive, interactive storytelling experiences.

  1. Symbolic Play - eg. a stick for a light sabre
  2. Rough & Tumble
  3. Socio-dramatic Play - enactment of real experiences, i.e. going to the shops
  4. Social Play - that has a rules set between 2 or more people, games
  5. Creative play - making things
  6. Communication play  - using words or gestures, charades
  7. Dramatic Play - enactment of stories, scenes
  8. Locomotor play - movement for its own sake, i.e. chase or climbing
  9. Deep Play - risky play to develop survival skills, i.e. lighting a fire with or without matches
  10. Exploratory Play - see what happens, play tagging objects
  11. Fantasy Play - creating a make-believe world not limited by reality
  12. Imaginative Play - pretend play, pat a unicorn
  13. Mastery Play - constructing environments, making a dam
  14. Object play - exploration of an object, examination of a cub
  15. Role Play - exploring ways of being, sweeping
  16. Recapitulative Play - exploration of ancestry, history, rituals. 

Anita Stevens, Experiences Program Manager and Ruth Lewis, Visitor Experience Consultant from National Trust UK further fuelled my enthusiasm when they asked us to "consider what is Unique, Distinctive & Cherished about your site? That forms the Spirit of the Place."  I found this a particularly useful way of looking at natural, cultural and built heritage sites when creating bespoke and playful interpretive experiences.

They proposed five pathways to elicit connection to your site which can be stimulated by senses, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. These, in turn, can be evoked through the following playful activities:

EMOTION - smell some food cooking, find a room with a strong smell, taste some real food, see wheat grains milled into flour, dress up as a person from the past, play musical instruments, look inside a bread oven, listen to a clock chiming, peer through a secret window, look through a window with a beautiful view, watch the flames in an open fire.

COMPASSION - for a person in a portrait, the strangest object in a collection, how an object was made, the object of the month, an object that has travelled a long way, how people living here went to the toilet, how the house was and is cleaned.

COUNT SOMETHING - how many candles will it take to light the candlesticks, how many creatures can you spot in the house, how many steps on the staircase, how many tiles.

LEARN A NEW SKILL - how to care for something precious in the house, how to lay a table for dinner/afternoon tea, how to shape butter, how to fold a napkin, how clothes were cleaned, how to do a jigsaw, how to hold a weapon used in a battle, how to play a game from the past.

SPOT SOMETHING - find your favourite object made of wood, find a mystery object, spot signs of a creepy crawly that lived here, find a set of secret drawers, find a story in a picture or a tapestry, find the door to a secret room, find a ceiling with a beautiful decoration, find an object made of bone, spot a hole in a wall, find an object used for cooking.

THINK AND DO- would you prefer to have lived or worked in this place? Plan a house you would like to live in, discover a coat of arms, choose your favourite object and write a story about it, discover a phrase written in another language.

Allow people to be playful and provide the environment conducive to play through

  1. Social spaces to hold and support play
  2. Journeys - playful trails under, over, through or around something
  3. Invitations to play - let people create their own journeys by providing swings, sculptures or other objects they are allowed to interact with, in their own way
  4. Loose parts in the environments from which play can naturally happen, woodland, beaches, pebbles are naturally full of those

If I had to select the best takeaway from their talk, it would be to “Give people ideas for 10 things to do before you leave our site.”  

Liz Gardner, Interpretation Planner, Peabody Essex Museum presented Playtime at the Museum which invited people to play right from the entry via a room full of pink balloons.  Liz proposes play spurs productivity, is a catalyst for creativity, is an escape from conformity, a response to uncertainty. Play reinvents the rules, empowers the players, stimulates innovation, enables exploration, rewards misbehaviour, negotiates conflict and resists productivity. Summarised beautifully as “Play is relaxed creativity.”

Scott Stulen, Director, Philbrook Museum of Art is a practising artist, DJ & curator, now a director of an art museum, but he never lost that sense of fun needed for creativity. His talk entitled ‘Welcome to the Funhouse’ was full of great examples of all the things explored by the previous presenters and thus summarised the conference well. Some of Scott’s shared experience projects which their community embraced and even took to the next level are:

  1. A day when people bring their mechanical lawnmowers and mow the overgrown lawn peppered with lots of bells throughout, which made noise as they were picked and thrown around, thus creating a symphony of bells. 
  2. a car breaking course
  3. internet cat video festival where people turned out to watch cat videos on youtube. As this was something they could do easily at home, organisers thought they'd get a few people, but 10,000 turned up. Next year, more people came and took things further by dressing up as cats.

Scott affirmed we need places that make us feel better and museums should be that, that visitors expect interactive experiences and that people will pay for things they value. He posed one question that I will incorporate into my methodology when designing interpretive visitor experiences “what do people already do on this site that we could enhance?

The last speaker, Magus Cagliostro, Magician & Escape Artist presented ‘The Escape Room experience’ at the Israeli Museum.  His message that Immersive Storytelling can create a deep connection, but it needs a narrative, a theme, a message resonated with me. Magnus emphasised that stories can be happening inside the visitor’s mind, while they explore a shared space with no external impact on the space. They are guided to see the space and the objects within differently as they look for clues. This changes the hierarchy between the site and visitor into a relationship. The visitors are no longer the audience; they become the hero. 

When registering for the experience, visitors got a link to a teaser video, with instructions to collect their printed material on arrival, which is when they “escape from reality into the museum”. Techniques used included 

  • asking what's under the bench (a painting had a bench in it, and a bench was positioned in front of the painting. The object was under the physical bench, while most people searched for clues in the painting)
  • visitors had to look for signs throughout the museum, thus getting to know the objects deeply as their escape was dependent on uncovering the clues they held. 

The Escape Room was also a shared and social experience, families of all ages played together and in the end, all felt like winners due to the satisfaction of successfully escaping. Each player also got a prize which raised their satisfaction levels and provided an object of discussion after the visit.

Although the above primarily deal with visitor experiences, the principles of play apply equally to engaging staff and communities. 

Please watch our showreel and let's play together soon. 

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