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Michael John Gorman on ‘play’ in museums

Can museums be considered a place to play? Michael Gorman tackles this question and more

For many people the museum experience is one that can broadly be described as “intellectual”, “informative” and perhaps even “serious”. But while museums are certainly places to learn and engage in reflective silence, there are institutions that choose instead to rage against that preconceived idea of quiet contemplation and traditional education.

building a global science museum network

What if we started encouraging people to think about museums in a different way – as a place to have fun? This was a mindset posed by Michael John Gorman, founding director of BIOTOPIA in Munich – a natural history museum located in Nymphenburg Palace that focuses on interaction, entertainment and experience as well as education.

At a recent Michael John discussed the importance of play in the museum space, and what this can bring to the museum experience overall.

Why does play matter?

Introducing this most intriguing of topics, Michael John describes the act of play itself as an important part of the mammalian and fowl experience, referencing tigers, apes and owls and how play forms a significant part of their learning. He then shows images of visitors to the Mori Art Museum in Japan interacting with Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich’s “Building”. Just one more example of mammals engaging in play.

Michael John describes some of the common misconceptions around the act of play, including that it is frivolous, useless, requires rules in order to work, is a distraction from so-called real education, and is, in essence, “just for kids”.

However, Michael John argues, there is real value to play among adults. There are “three key elements” as to why the act of play matters, and why it matters in a museum, according to Gorman. These are:

  • Play as an essential part of learning, particularly for social learning
  • Play as an essential aspect of creativity. Michael argues that “all creativity is, at its heart, play, whether it’s creativity in a science or an art”
  • Play as an act of subversion, and a “critical tool in the subversion of authority”, encouraging us to question things.

Homo Ludens

In exploring the act of play, Michael John refers to a key text: Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga (1938). In this text, Huizinga describes play as an act that absorbs the player “intensely and utterly” in its own boundaries of time and space.

In play, humans are “apart together […] sharing something important of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms.”

Michael John offers this as an accurate description of the museum environment, as well as of play. Museums aim to create a space “where the usual rules do not apply, sharing something important.” Within the walls of the museum space, visitors are encouraged to step “a little bit outside of business as usual.”

Taking on a new perspective

Tomás Saraceno is an Argentinian artist known for his unorthodox pieces and methods of creation. In his presentation, Michael John highlights one exhibition in particular, shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

This exhibition features pieces not created directly by Saraceno’s own hand, but rather work made by hundreds of helpers – helpers that happened to be spiders. These spiders were residents of the Palais de Tokyo, and visitors were invited to enter exhibits and essentially “become the spider” by standing within a giant spider web. Visitors could play on the threads and respond to vibrations. And critically, this exhibition was for adults to enjoy as well as children.

According to Michael John, the exhibition succeeded in transporting visitors to “a different world, into a different perception” – a vital aspect of play.

What’s more, the exhibition didn’t end with a trip through the gift shop, but with a trip through the workshop, where visitors could create their own works. These works were both fun and important, making key points about climate change and the environment.

Critical Play

There is a key link between play and experimentation, Michael John argues. And this link is explored by Mary Flanagan in 2013 book Critical Play. Within the pages of this text, Flanagan argues that play is a key part of learning:

“Play is about creating a safe space for experimentation.”

In many ways, the words “playing” and “experimenting” can be used interchangeably. Few people would argue that museums have a responsibility to explore, document and promote experimentation, so in this way, thinking of museums as a place to play doesn’t seem so radical.

Science Gallery: learning is fun, playing is learning

One key example of play within the museum space comes from Science Gallery: an incentive of which Michael John is a part. Science Gallery began in Dublin, but has since become a global network aiming to rethink the way museums “create public experiences”.

One piece displayed in Dublin, as part of a “Music and the Body” project, was called My Hairy Banjo by Joan Healy. Visitors were invited to pluck the strings of this strange musical instrument, made from human hair. What the visitors didn’t realise was that the artist herself was present in the exhibit, hidden, and every time a string was plucked she would tune the banjo with her toes.

This was a strange yet memorable piece which was objectively playful in nature, and which explored the relationships between human and object; between sound and silence; between action and consequence.

Museums: a place to play?

Museums often act as spaces that reconnect us with the world in which we live, and this is also key to play. When talking about the power of play within the museum space, Michael John refers to three key elements: curiosity, empathy and agency.

This last factor is particularly important. Play requires and encourages action in order to be successful. For museums to encourage its visitors to “get out and get active” and connect with their world around them, play is vital.

And this doesn’t always require a conscious effort on the part of the museum. When thinking of novel ways to engage and educate, says Michael John, we “almost inadvertently” fall back on the fun and the playful. Museums around the world have been playing with their visitors for years, but thinking of it as educating. This, more than anything else, shows how connected these two acts are.


About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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