Friday, August 2, 2019

Three Types of Fun

Dalston Mirror House, Leandro Erlich, artist

Museums find fun challenging. On the one hand, they want to be places where families, adults, children, friends have fun, and choose to go for a good time. At the same time, museums want to—and need to—matter. They want to be recognized for their value and for contributing long-term benefit to the people and communities they serve.

One way in which museums have thought about managing this tug between being fun and being valuable is viewing themselves as being both nice and necessary. Museums are very nice. They are pleasant places. Children, families, school, and community groups visit museums, have a really good time, and want to return. Being necessary is challenging and requires deep understanding of a community’s promises and challenges.

While thinking about museums as being nice and necessary is somewhat helpful, it presents a dubious dichotomy. Life is not so simple that an episode—a museum visit, tour, conversation, or experience—can be classified as either nice or necessary. Clarifying for whom, and in what time frame quickly becomes complex.

Powerful, Yet Flabby
Fun is powerful as a judgment of an activity, a conversation, or an experience. “That’s a fun place to visit” or “This is fun” endorse a place and what it offers, whether it is food, family time, artwork, or dinosaurs. At the same time, fun is not very precise. In fact, it is flabby in its meaning. A good synonym for fun is elusive. None of the three most common synonyms, amusing, enjoyable, and pleasant, convey the social, exuberant, laugh-out-loud, exhilaration often associated with fun. Neither they, nor fun, hint at the long-term value of a rich moment. When something is not deemed fun, is it the opposite? Is it Dull? Boring? Unpleasant?

Making these distinctions is difficult because fun is situational, contextual, and often personal. Licking an ice cream cone that is melting down one’s arm might be fun for a toddler but not for a businessperson in a fine suit heading to an important meeting. Rock climbing is fun for an accomplished rock climber but not for a novice unprepared for the challenge. Even within a family, team, staff, or group of friends there are likely to be different definitions of fun.

The question of fun, however, is never far away. Regardless of a museum’s size or focus, the role of fun hovers in developing a strategic plan, shaping the visitor experience, presenting a program, and communicating with the audience. What will make people want to visit the museum? Return? Spread positive word of mouth? Feel the goodwill of a great visit?   

Recently at the kick-off meeting with a museum developing a learning framework, the director asked how fun fits into all the discussion about learning. My brief reply was not wholly adequate. Fun runs through the experiential mix of play, special family time, exploring interests, and being inspired.

Only a few days later, at a planning workshop for an emerging museum, the question of fun was also raised. Wasn’t the museum supposed to be fun for children and families? Wasn’t everything supposed to be fun? Silence. Though familiar with this question, I had no good answer. Two members of the group offered examples that, while not resolving the question, shed useful light on it. One person said she runs everyday and has for 20 years. It’s not fun but she looks forward to it and she wouldn’t skip it. Another person said he loves gardening, but it isn’t fun.

Already attuned to this question about fun, I took note when an educator at a charter school referred to Type Three Fun. She then clarified it as an intentional process of co-constructing meaning—a challenging, but satisfying experience. While I wasn’t able to hear what Type One and Two Fun are, the possibility of distinguishing among types of fun seemed promising.

Soon after, I learned that outdoor enthusiasts have a fun scale. Three types of fun capture the realities of active, outdoor adventures, like hiking, skiing, and climbing that are supposed to be fun. Rewarding and invigorating, these experiences can also be demanding and, sometimes, downright miserable.

·       Type One Fun is something that is enjoyable while it is happening and enjoyable reflecting on it. A plan comes together; the challenge is perfect; the weather cooperates.
·       Type Two Fun is miserable while it’s happening, but, in retrospect, it was fun. There might be horrifying moments but they get better in the rear-view mirror.
·       Type Three Fun is not fun at all, not at the time, and not in hindsight.

Roughly in this same territory, is an extreme sport, Tough Mudder, that is considered fun and not enjoyable.

Types of Fun in Museums
A museum of any size offers a variety of experiences, environments, and activities. This is a prime opportunity for a museum to serve an audience diverse in age, backgrounds, interests and expectations with its distinct mix of fun. Inspired by the fun typology of outdoor adventures, while focusing on museums in particular, three types of fun emerge.

Yuri Suzuki Sonic Playground
(Photo credit: Michael McKelvey)
Type One Fun is what we typically think of as fun. Often spontaneous and playful, it is entertaining, straightforward happiness. Beyond an openness to what’s happening and enjoying it, Type One Fun is easy; it demands relatively little effort on our part. Usually it involves sensorimotor engagement: delight in interacting with materials; pretending; seeing or hearing something astonishing; being tickled by something funny. The social aspect of Type One Fun is likely to involve sharing a joke with someone, being infected their laughter, having a shared moment of recognizing incongruity.

Type One Fun can be fleeting, an enjoyable distraction. Consequently, it may not be taken seriously. It should not, however, be dismissed too readily, especially as part of a museum’s rich and varied portfolio of experiences. Type One Fun—exploring air, mirrors, water play, dressing up in costumes—can also be an important addition to sometimes somber museum exhibits and programs.

Examples from all types of museums highlight the open-ended, playful, sometimes comical activities characteristic of Type One Fun that visitors enjoy.  
§  Face painting, with colors and creamy textures, transforms a familiar face and may bring out an inner animal or unknown species of butterfly
§  Making bubbles, creating a pocket of air in a thin iridescent film and watching them float, hover, and burst
§  Walking through the rooms of a house once occupied by a beloved author from childhood
§  Watching live animals at the zoo, noticing their movements, antics, and play, and feeling a connection to them
§  Striking an exact pose in front of a painting or sculpture mirroring the one on view

Type Two Fun is enjoyable engagement punctuated by fun. Both greater agency—choice, freedom, self-direction—and greater investment contribute to this kind of fun. Compared to the jocularity characteristic of Type One Fun, Type Two contains elements of amusement and gratifying moments of social, physical, emotional, or intellectual connection. The drama or beauty of phenomena such as a plasma globe; seeing ourselves in a new or unusual way; reconnecting with a favorite painting, place, or person in an interesting settings; or cleverly engineering a paper airplane design combine the engagement, accomplishment, and delight of Type Two Fun.

Type Two Fun: Seeing ourselves in
new ways (Photo credit: Vergeront)
Playing with context can shift the fun value in the museum fairly easily. Add a clown face to a rocket launcher target; set up hula hooping for 50 visitors; or climb through TapeScape the climbing structure made of lengths of clear tape. Sometimes fun is more apparent in hindsight, telling others about it, or revisiting the pleasure of a small triumph. Type Two Fun captures what many museums do well that visitors enjoy and remember.
§  Being mesmerized by the slow movement of a giant pendulum or wave action in a huge wave tank
§  Doing something we don’t usually get to do: seeing a giant fossil up close; climbing to the top of a lighthouse
§  Keeping a copter hovering in a wind column for an extended period of time because of a particularly clever design
§  Pulling off an impressive building project of cardboard construction or Keva Planks with others
§  The Grossology exhibit exploring the science in the human body and its many and sometimes messing, amusing, and impolite expressions  

Type Three Fun is situated in the rich and meaningful experiences of challenge and complexity and related feelings of deep satisfaction. Unlike the immediate burst of happiness of Type One Fun, engaging in Type Three Fun involves an awareness that something is both enjoyable in the present and meaningful beyond it. Playing with ideas, being inventive, watching a family member accomplish something difficult, and being in the presence of something extraordinary create powerful moments that delight, transfix, and lift the spirit. The social aspect of fun also has a presence in Type Three Fun, when we work with others towards a common goal, connect with someone around a powerful experience, or share personal stories.

National Museum of Mathematics
(Photo credit: Vergeront)
Of course, not everything is fun. Museums present stories with unhappy endings, feature events with tragic outcomes, and ask hard questions with no easy answers. Finding a delicate balance of content, compelling approach, opportunity for reflection, and making meaning can create a moment of lightness, beauty. And sometimes humor is the best way to make the unbearable bearable.  

Museum examples of Type Three Fun reflect the complexity and opportunity of challenging topics that many visitors find rewarding.
§  National Museum of Mathematics offers insights into puzzles, patterns, and the beauty of structures—surprises and fun for some—while anxiety producing for others
§  Climate change, a complex topic that is difficult to grapple with, can be explored through stunning representations of changes that are occurring, distressing future scenarios, and playful experimentation with airflow
§  Body Worlds navigates topics of healthcare and anatomy with the strange and sometimes disturbing beauty of dissected human bodies
§  Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson’s 1992 installation at the Maryland Historical Society, juxtaposed slave shackles and a whipping post with beautiful, elegant 19th century objects
§  Race: Are We So Different both looks at the complex topic of human variation and celebrates our differences

Playing with Fun
Museums are unlikely to make everything over-the-top fun. Yet, they can give fun an honored presence and create an intentional experiential mix that brings together all types of fun to serve and connect with their wide range of visitors. When they are attuned to dimensions of the three types of fun, museums can create more openings for fun.

Along with sharing elements of humor, playfulness, or enjoyment, the three types of fun also take place in a physical context, are social, and involve engagement.

Fun’s origins are varied, subtle, and sometimes surprising. They include intellectual wit and nonsense; hyperbole and drollery; incongruity and spontaneity; the whacky, the weird, and the wonderful. Fun can emerge from an off-kilter take on a subject, something amazing we can’t do anywhere else, and something utterly familiar and daily.   

The physical context in which fun is situated, matters: objects, materials, scale, environmental features, views, and adjacencies. A zoo might place a bench for watching animal antics. A museum might place a mirror over head for a surprising view. A ridiculous theme like a carnival may be the backdrop for outer space exploration. What about Morning yoga in the Asian galleries or sculpture park?

Fun requires a friendly setting where people feel welcome, come together, and are available to enjoy the moment. Museums are just those kinds of places. Feeling a sense of connection to others feels good. Laughter and smiles are contagious. Remembering a happy time with friends casts a warm glow. At the same time, fun and indifference do not mix. Each type of fun requires some effort, some investment. We must be paying attention, imagining, making connections, choosing, listening, remembering, taking photos, taking a risk...if we want to have fun.

What kinds of fun do visitors find and enjoy at your museum?

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