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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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