Designing Playful Museum Exhibitions

In February of this year I went over to Reinwardt Academy to work with exhibition direction students. I was invited by Mario Jellema to share my perspective on the role of play and playfulness in museums. I enjoy talking to students, but I like working hands-on with them even more. So we turned the session into a small workshop. The result was an interesting and enjoyable afternoon, which demonstrates what can happen if we put the activity of play front-and-center in a design project.

I started by talking a bit about our work in the museum area, using Beestenbende as an example, and also the work we are currently doing in project SHACHI for the Museums Association. Our approach is always to look for the activities that are at the heart of an exhibition’s subject, and use that as a starting point.


I then introduced the assignment: To redesign the famous Art of this Century gallery so that it becomes (more) playful. The gallery was created by Peggy Guggenheim in the 1940s and was located on 57th Street in New York City. We chose this exhibition because it was at the time revolutionary for its marriage of the gallery’s interior architecture with the artworks on display. As such it would offer rich material for the assignment.

The Art of the Century gallery

We had a conversation about what play and playfulness are. We discussed how play is Contextual, Carnivalesque, Appropriative, Disruptive, Autotelic, Creative and Personal. We also talked about how playfulness is different from play in that it’s an attitude, not an activity which lacks the autotelic aspect of play itself. For this I made liberal use of Miguel Sicart’s excellent Play Matters, which I’ve covered in detail in a couple of blog posts already.)

As an example we looked at Ann Hamilton’s piece The Event of a Thread. The piece features on the cover of Play Matters, and I thought it would be a good fit for the work the students had ahead of themselves, seeing as how it is spatial, uses props, people and many other things to create a deeply playful work of art.

Ann Hamilton, Park Avenue Armory

The main point I wanted to get across was this: Play is like language; a way of understanding ourselves and the world around us. In this way it can be used as a tool alongside others in the design of an exhibition. Even if the exhibition isn’t to be a plaything (a game or a toy or a playground), visitors can be encouraged to approach it with a playful attitude. If they are, then they might engage more deeply with the exhibition.

The intended outcome of the exercise was a physical scale model that one person can walk through with a figurine, while describing and acting out what it is they do, while another person describes and acts out the responses of the exhibition.

Being a strong adherent of dogfooding, I shared a video of a simple example I came up with myself. Starting from the curved canvas wall that was part of the AotC gallery, I proposed making it adjustable by visitors.

Quickly whipping something up with ready-to-hand materials (in this case LEGO and paper) and acting out the interactions is a basic interaction design technique. I shortly talked about sketches versus prototypes. I wanted to be sure students understood that it would be fine for their models to be more tentative and evocative, than specific and didactic. For this I referred to the classic Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton, one of the few interaction design textbooks I know of that is as useful for playful design as it is for purely instrumental projects.

Sketches versus prototypes

A final bit of design theory I shared was the notion of an iterative process. I encouraged them to move swiftly from ideating to sketching to testing to reflecting and back to ideating again. To that end, this is the structure I gave them for the workshop:

Step 1: Ideate and prototype one thing a person can do, solo.

Step 2: Pair up and play each other’s prototypes. Reflect on them. What was enjoyable about it, and why?

Step 3: Come up with a new idea, based on the original two prototypes but better. Make sure you test it and improve it at least once.

Step 4: Present (demo) the ideas to each other. Let people ask questions and make suggestions for improvement. Makers don’t respond but just listen.

There was plenty of paper to work with. I also brought a bunch of LEGO, including a fresh batch of minifigs still in packaging. The pleasure with which these were opened and admired was a nice way to segue into a more playful mindset. I also brought a secret weapon: a Muji LEGO hole punch, which is a great tool for building LEGO/paper hybrids. I wish I’d brought a couple more back from Japan.

We also provided large printouts of copies from an exhibition catalogue on the gallery for reference and remix purposes.

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

This workshop’s focus was on getting acquainted with new concepts and processes. Even so, some interesting and enjoyable outcomes were produced. They included a picture gallery in which the pieces rotate to follow a particular visitor (which reminded me of Random International’s Audience), and a cylindrical space which rotates as the visitor moves around it (reminiscent of Villa Volta in Dutch amusement park Efteling).

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

Students learned about play and playfulness, sketching player experiences and the iterative design process. But the most important thing they learned was the importance of playing well together. This is a vital skill for successfully testing models such as the ones made in this workshop. It requires imagination and spontaneity, similar to that found in improv theater.

For example, those playing the role of the exhibition had a tendency to tell the person playing the visitor what to do. It appears they would think of the created experience as a linear path to be followed. It takes some time to adjust to the notion of a visitor/player being the person who completes the experience. This also requires a particular attitude from the player, to forget about all they know as a co-creator and to really inhabit the role of a first-time visitor, as they move their figurine through the model and narrate their actions.

I am convinced such skills can be practiced by playing many different things, with many different people, all the while being mindful of how physical stuff and the social rules come together to shape an experience. It’s a valuable skill to have as a designer of exhibitions, or of any other thing used or inhabited by people. Workshops like this help develop those skills, and I always enjoy facilitating them.

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