Monday, February 29, 2016

The Museum Entry Experience

Terry Haggerty installtion, Norton Museum of Art,West Palm Beach

On a walk while on vacation recently, I came upon the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (FL) and I stepped into its lobby. Brilliant candy red ribbon-like lines raced across the lobby’s walls, climbed the ceiling, stretched, bent, wrapped, and folded in on themselves. An installation by the British artist, Terry Haggerty, this striking optical graphic, immediately inside the museum, activated the entire space and stopped me in my tracks. The Norton Museum of Art experience had met me at the door. 

Since that brief but highly satisfying encounter I have been thinking about the museum entry experience as a gift for the visitor and an opportunity for a museum to announce early and emphatically the nature of the experience it intends to offer its visitors.

Part architecture, part exhibit, the museum entry experience is a full gesture delivering a condensed version of the museum’s DNA. It is more than a preview of activities and objects or a replica of T. Rex skull. Entry experiences might be prior to the lobby or after the lobby and before the exhibit halls. Nevertheless they occur very early in the visitor experience and with great impact. A sweeping staircase is not sufficiently grand or distinct, nor is walking between giant letters that spell out the museum’s name, nor is a gorilla bursting through a building’s exterior. What may be briefly arresting quickly becomes a cliché. Something in the character of the museum entry experience must promise to surprise, but not just once.

Entry experiences driven by lobby functions are altogether different. Stanchions funnel visitors into lines for membership or tickets, towards the store or café. Information about upcoming exhibits flashes  on screens and lists of longstanding donors cover the walls. While serving decidedly important functions, these entry sequences could be anywhere. And they are.

An entry experience is a place, a moment–one that sometimes engulfs the visitor, challenges perceptions, and often connects to enduring human themes. The museum entry experience is not only memorable; it also builds anticipation and fosters a receptiveness in the visitor for the museum’s offerings.

World War I Museum, Kansas City (Photo credit: The New York Times)
At the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (MO), visitors cross a glass bridge between the admissions desk and the exhibits. Below is a field of 9,000 bright orange poppies. The visitor doesn’t need to know that each poppy represents 10,000 deaths in World War I to be struck by the profusion color and sheer number or to be reminded of John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders fields, the poppies blow… A powerful moment has captured the visitor before entering the exhibits.
Kidspace Children's Museum, Pasadena

Entering Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, visitors walk through the tall, white arched entryway of a classic parks building. The bright sunshine makes the low, narrow tunnel that follows seem even darker. Reflective surfaces on all sides and overhead catch light from colored spots below, sparkling with jewel colors. The passage to the museum’s plaza is enchanting. Separating the outside world from what comes next, it invites visitors to dwell and explore reflections, textures, and shimmery effects. It heightens the sense of possibilities to come that begin to appear as the tunnel opens onto the museum’s plaza.
Bridge of Glass, Venetian Wall, Tacoma

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a 500-foot pedestrian overpass connecting the Museum of Glass to downtown Tacoma (WA). Pedestrians pass two 40-foot crystal towers, walk under a glass-topped pavilion populated by Chihuly forms, and move between two walls displaying over 100 glass sculptures. Crossing the Bridge of Glass, pedestrians catch the glow and blend of colors of glass illuminated by natural light from outside and above. The Bridge of Glass plays both to the city and to the museum.
Front Page at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.

The Dalî Museum, St Petersburg
There are also more contained gestures attuned to the larger museum idea that can help launch an entry experience. The trail of small ants familiar in Salvador Dalî’s paintings march through the doorway into the Dalî Museum in St Petersburg FL creating a very Daliesque moment. At one time, the Newseum posted front pages from approximately 80 newspapers daily along the Pennsylvania Avenue facade of its building. Passing the prominently displayed page-one news from newspapers worldwide and all 50 states introduces the complex stories about the press that the museum wants to cover. 

The Orangery, Dumbarton Oaks (Photo: Dumbarton Oaks)
I have also thought that there are entry experiences in search of museums. One excellent example is the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.  A Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture is a promising start for a compelling entry experience at various museums–if there isn’t one already.  
Perhaps if we are more alert to the museum entry experience and how it captivates visitors, museums might be more inclined to create highly engaging experiences that reach out and bring visitors into the museum experientially as well as physically.

•What is the museum entry experience at your museum? 
• What museum entry experience stands out for you?
Patrick Doughtery, Eastern Tennessee State University, Johnson City TN

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paradoxes of Play

Penrose LEGO by Erik Johansson

When something seems familiar we often assume we already know just about everything about it. We don’t bother looking hard or thoughtfully to reacquaint ourselves with it. Instead we gloss over gaps in our understanding and the hidden complexity. We are inclined to keep things simple.

Play is like that. We think we know what it is. Play is fun, what kids do, a child’s work.

As pervasive as play may be, understanding it is not easy. On the one hand, children everywhere and all ages seem to know how to play and what it means to play. On the other, adults struggle to relate it to work, pleasure, learning, or ritual to understand it. We contrast it to work and learning in its apparent lack of structure, material consequences, and productivity.

Play is variously viewed as the release of tensions, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, consolidating learning already acquired. It integrates several dimensions, each with potentially significant implications for development, learning, and wellbeing. Play seems simple, but is complex. That’s just one paradox of play.

More than merely difficult to define or categorize, play is full of paradoxes inhabiting its very core. They are not just variations among how experts and theorists define or explain play and they are not oversights of the considerable benefits of seemingly inconsequential play. More than interesting inconsistencies, they are aspects of play that are actively at variance with itself.

I am not the first to be struck by the disjunctions that characterize play. Brian Sutton-Smith explored this in The Ambiguity of Play in which he suggests that there is both a push towards and a resistance to orderliness in play. An interview with Thomas Henricks in the American Journal of Play highlights several examples of paradoxes in play as he explores how play helps cultivate who we are. In “The Paradox of Play” Ann Hulbert suggests that with the recent campaign to restore play in the lives of children, we run the risk of decreasing the very playfulness we are eager to increase.

But there are more. Below are 6 paradoxes of play that draw on the work of  theorists and researchers concerned with play: Doris Bergen, Stuart L. Brown, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, George Forman, Thomas Henricks, Johan Huizinga, and Anthony Pelligrini.

Rules, Risk, and the Roots of Later Experience
Play is order making and order breaking. It both honors rules and encourages breaking them in order to advance play. In play we land on an idea and develop it, try out suggestions, and transform it along the way. We work with our imaginations before acting on ideas, but in following suggestions, play is likely to change. A scene may change from a distant planet to a jungle, to inside of a cave. We develop rules for tossing a ball back-and-forth and change them to make the game more interesting or challenging. Play at building structures can become play at knocking buildings down–with equal delight. These transgressive acts extend and enrich play.

In play we take risks without being excessively risky. Whether building a block tower, zooming down a zip-line, or climbing a tree, play allows us the freedom to spontaneously explore, to push limits, build confidence, and feel mastery over few real-world realities. Even in rough-and-tumble play that looks violent, children are testing physical competence, interacting cooperatively, and engaging in social problem solving. George Forman describes play as problem solving without risk. By being able to assess risks and take risks, we learn to manage risk.

Play seems carefree, but it also helps us confront and manage unpleasant experiences and related emotions. In play we can change our relationship to what we have experienced. Imagination, creativity, and humor may help in working through and dealing with fears, frustration, and feelings of being left out, scared, or uncertain. A change in the story line, charging like T Rex, or invoking super powers may allow us to practice positive feelings and transform negative feelings.  

The learning benefit of play is not because it is a way of teaching specific skill sets, but as a medium for development and learning. Less concerned with what we are learning, play is about how we learn. Play is a search for knowledge, a form of agency, a vehicle for constructing meaning, a means for understanding physical and social relationships, and a way of conveying ideas. For young children, play is the primary medium for learning, but it is also a learning medium for future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Play nurtures skills that can only be acquired early in life, but that we need later in life. Life-long dispositions and skills are deeply rooted in early experience, including play. Play demands focus, collaboration, negotiation, and preparing for the unexpected. Without play, we have difficulty regulating appropriate emotions, interacting socially, and responding to the unexpected. In play, we improvise in response to changing conditions, discover our strengths, find choices, and respond to the world’s responses in creative ways.

In play, we both lose ourselves and find ourselves. Frequently we become so deeply involved in play that we reach a level of experience called flow and lose track of everyday concerns such as time and place. This happens when the player’s skills engage perfectly with the situations in which they find themselves. Sometimes at play, we are intensely in the moment and, at the same time, transported to another time or place.

The Promise of Paradox
Play is easily minimized because it falls so visibly in the world of young children. Furthermore its self-rewarding nature and apparently purposeless engagement is an anomaly in a world that values goals and impact. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss it so readily. Play is not just for the early years, but is pervasive throughout life and extremely important to human functioning.

Play is filled with paradoxes at its core. While not a new idea, these paradoxes are often overlooked or ignored. Certainly they make understanding play elusive. They interfere with defining it neatly; unpacking it in simple, convenient units; and measuring their value. Regardless of how we characterize these paradoxes, they matter. Separately and collectively, they hint at play’s richness, potential, and enduring value. They hold a key to understanding play as a powerful force in children’s development and clues to unleashing it.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

City Museums – Museums About the City

Heritage Museums and Gardens, Sandwich MA
I am drawn to city museums. I like a city museum when I travel. The City of Amsterdam Museum helped me get oriented, explore the city, and dive deeper into the city and its patterns. I like a city museum for where I live. The Mill City Museum located where St Anthony Falls, the Stone Arch Bridge, and mill ruins meet, the museum is about this place, where and how I spend my days. Still I wish there were more city museums to invigorate cities, connect citizens, welcome visitors, and for me to visit.

Michael Spock’s characterization of children’s museums as being for someone makes me wonder why more museums don’t also see themselves as being for (and about) someone: for and about us, residents and citizens of this city. When I read, Happiness, Design, and the Future of Museums, on the Center for the Future of Museums blog a few months back, I felt my hope for more city museums was closer to being realized.

Recently, when staff I was meeting with began describing how they saw their museum’s future, I couldn’t help but envision a city museum for them. Their reimagined museum is for children, youth and families, residents and tourists. It intends to put down roots in its current location, a transitioning neighborhood at the edge of two very different but old neighborhoods; one is home to immigrant families new to the region and the other is home to established and more prosperous families. The views out the museum windows frame the harbor and bridges in one direction and hills in the other. These views are livelier and more direct connections to the beauty, industry, history, culture, sports, and place of the city than the chosen list of focus areas: STEM, arts, literacy, and history. They were describing a city museum.

Collaborating for the Future
Every city has its challenges. Competing demands on limited resources, population changes, employment shifts, environmental pressures, and diverse perspectives change a city or town. However, a city or community with engaged citizenry and strong connections, can weather these challenges.

Communities also have libraries, museums, cultural organizations, artists, activists, designers, enthusiasts, and advocates with knowledge of, love for, and aspirations on behalf of their community. When museums see themselves as serving a community, they can be part of transforming a city into a better, possible version of itself by collaborating with cultural, civic, and learning partners.

City museums know that people make cities. Certainly, different versions of the city exist for its many inhabitants. Yet, the city is also a strong, shared context for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences and container for their lives. Inspired to find ways for community members to express how they see themselves in the city and in the museum, city museums focus on connecting people, not only on collecting objects. They facilitate people finding personal connections, sharing stories, revealing hidden heritage, and interpreting place. For city museums audience, citizens, participants, and visitors are the same.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Museum in the City, City in the Museum
A city museum is not a replication or imitation of parts of the city, a display of its economic activities, or a showcase of cherished landmarks. Rather it is an interpretation, investigation, or even an unwrapping, of the city that reveals its personality and promise through the eyes, experiences, lives, hopes, and connections of its citizens and visitors.

A city museum is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past; as much about the change it hopes to realize as the changes that have occurred over the decades. A city museum is where traditional heritage and contemporary heritage meet and mix. It is where the community meets and mourns a tragedy and gathers to celebrate a victory.

An occasional exhibit or program is inadequate in distilling and defining the city and engaging members of the community in meaningful ways. But exhibits, projects, programs, installations, events, social media, and partnerships can be ways to open the museum to the city and its people. With partnerships, participation, and creativity from across the community, these exhibits, events, programs, and installations may be created in schools, community centers, and on the street and offer a decidedly original turn.

The city museum is inescapably local and decidedly place-based. If an exhibit is about bridges, it’s about that bridge seen through the window–the High Bridge, the Aerial Lift Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. If an exhibit is about water, it’s about this river or lake, its currents, its flooding, its water quality. Neighborhoods organize for the local bird and bug counts. The artists and makers that are showcased are from many neighborhoods. The weather exhibit is about the lake effect snow the city knows well or why it’s cooler by the lake.

The city museum has all the challenges of being inclusive, diverse, and accessible that every museum does–and more. It issues louder invitations to participate and it challenges itself to listen to, amplify, and learn from more and new voices. This is a museum that organizes itself to be guided by the creativity and ingenuity within the community. This museum’s everydayness makes it extraordinary.

Taking on the City
Some museums are taking on the city the way Jane Jacobs took on the city in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities They shift their visions; incorporate a strong contemporary perspective into an historic focus; open their doors, and explore contemporary heritage. The Museum of Vancouver has issued a bold vision, “To inspire a socially connected, civically engaged city.” When the Historical Museum Rotterdam became Museum Rotterdam, its one-word name change reflected a major shift in focus following extensive and deliberate effort.

The Museum of Art and History has been working thoughtfully, actively, and nimbly with its Santa Cruz community on creating opportunities for citizens to bond and bridge and developing a theory of change for their vision. The Museum of the City presents a very different model, a virtual model, for a city museum. Several other city museums are visited in a 2013 issue of Journal of Museum Education on Urban Design and Learning. A related perspective is explored in Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, by Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg.

These are some of the city museums finding ways to be of greater use to their city contributing to its resilience, sustainability, and vitality. One city museum may be combining scholarship, stewardship, and sustainability; another may become part of the city infrastructure for wellbeing. As their journeys reveal, museums can re-imagine themselves without abandoning their core. In identifying and strengthening connections to their cities, they shift slightly, gradually, and strategically. Such shifts are not limited to history museums. A children’s museum, a science center, an art museum, or natural history museum can be a museum of, about, for, and with the city.

Perhaps these stories of change and possibility will inspire more museums in being deliberate about opening up to the city, letting it in, both reflecting it and shaping it.

Related Resources
City Museums and Urban Learning, Journal of Museum Education. Vol. 38, N.: March 2009

Related Museum Notes Posts