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Play, interactivity and environmental responsibility

Primeval forest of Silva is an award-winning interactive workshop and immersive experience for children. Launched in June 2022 to critical acclaim and visitor delight, the exhibition combines analogue and digital elements to educate and entertain children. MuseumNext caught up with the team behind Primeval forest of Silva at Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet to find out more about how this playful exhibition came to life and what it is teaching young visitors about history, art and biodiversity.

Upon visiting Norway’s Nasjonalmuseet, children are invited into a world where they can explore art and nature, whilst also helping to save a primeval forest. Targeted at an audience of 3+, the exhibition begins in a traditional workshop setting, providing a tactile and analogue experience. Children are introduced to mid-19th century landscape paintings, explorer artefacts and more.

The second part of the exhibition flips visitors into a wholly more digital experience, where children’s analogue creations are transported into a vibrant and immersive environment.

Billed as a multi-sensory experience that engages visitors with climate, endangered species and the preservation of biodiversity, the Primeval forest of Silva is an impressive example of what play and games can achieve within museums.

Education and Visitor Experience Curator at the Nasjonalmuseet, Ingvild Åse Hammervoll, says, “This project was actually inspired by an installation in San Francisco created by teamLab that we saw on a research trip in 2017. The installation enabled children to create drawings which could be transferred onto digital screens. That really inspired us and got us thinking about how we could do something similar at the Nasjonalmuseet.”

The challenge for the education team was how to create something that worked for the Nasjonalmuseet’s own collection. The solution was the Primeval forest of Silva – an exhibition that incorporated many of the physical artworks and artefacts within the museum’s own collection.

Senior Advisor to the museum, Per Odd Bakke says, “Since we launched last June the reception has been tremendously good. We have had a lot of school visits coming in each week and then also families coming through the exhibition on the weekends.”

Having recently won a number of awards for design and technology, including a gold medal for Digital Experience and Games from the Graphic Society of Norway, there is little doubt that the Primeval forest of Silva is providing an engaging and memorable experience for visitors.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition is, of course, the blending of digital and analogue elements. But the team at the museum are quick to point out that this hybrid approach is intended to be a seamless combination of two different techniques – rather than a stark contrast. Ingvild explains,

“The exhibition provides a mystery that needs to be solved by playing a game in these two environments. I don’t think visitors ever think about the digital and the analogue, they are encouraged to think about the tasks they need to complete.

“Play is a natural way of learning and, in art, it is one of the methods for exploring creativity. Museum education departments have looked to incorporate play into their exhibitions for many years. But perhaps other types of ‘play’ are enhanced now thanks to the digital technologies available to us.”

By educating children through multi-sensory experiences – encouraging touch, listening, looking and smelling – learners are given more opportunity to absorb information in different ways through the exhibition.

Guri Guri adds: “Many visitors mention theatre and scenography when they enter Silva, more than they focus on the digital experience.”

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that children learn in different ways and that not everyone is able to digest information delivered on paper in a classroom environment. So, by drawing on all the senses and wrapping learning in gamified experiences, the team at the Nasjonalmuseet hope to be able to leave a lasting impression on their visitors.

Pilots and prototypes

Piloting and prototyping formed an important part of the process for the Nasjonalmuseet team. Ingvild explains,

“We created models of the experience and invited in children from five years old right up to teenagers. We were glad to see that everyone loved what we had created and it was amazing to see the children indulging in the experience as we had hoped.

“Ours is a very flexible experience and the content can be adjusted to suit different age groups. As an art workshop the basis for the exhibition lies in art history and scientific exploration – so it’s important that we can tell stories and engage children in different ways, depending on their ages.

Education and Visitor Experience Curator, Guri Guri Henriksen, says, “The intention is to encourage people to be curious about nature through play and experimentation. We wanted to make people familiar with the collection and then use it to better understand what might go on in the environment and how people can make a difference.“We’ve tried to do this in a playful way, and make children aware of animals and insects they might not have knowledge about, without giving them climate anxiety.”

She adds, “As an art museum, we have a responsibility to teach children about artistic choices, and to enable them to develop their own aesthetic sense. We have been very keen to share the artistic choices that the 19th century painters from our collection used on how it expressed their personality and mood.  When the children work in Silva, they are also given artistic freedom, inspired by insects and animals to create their own expressions.

The project was facilitated with the help of a small army of contributors who supported the education team throughout. The exhibition drew on the expertise of specialist teams from Nasjonalmuseet responsible for lighting, projectors, sound, IT and artistic and art historical content. In addition, external support was brought in from three firms, Bekk.no, Annette Saugestad Helland (Lilledyret.no) and Artesan Tech, responsible for co-creating the digital solutions, user experience, graphic illustration, scenography and sensory features.

Per Odd comments, “For this project it has been of great importance to maintain both aesthetic and artistic aspects throughout this collaboration.”

Consultant biologists also contributed to the exhibition, helping to ensure that the 19th century digital forest was authentic and scientifically accurate.

Using fun and games to address serious issues

Within the exhibition, a core element of the storytelling revolves around the fact that the 19th century forest is dying and struggling to survive. This places a responsibility on child visitors to wake it up by creating new species to inhabit this natural environment. The wonder and magic of this engaging exhibition clearly contains underlying messaging about the environment and human responsibility towards the natural world.

As the Nasjonalmuseet’s website suggests, the loss of biodiversity is a major threat to life on Earth. And it is estimated that in Norway, 50% of threatened species live in ancient or near-primeval forests.

Asked about why the museum chooses to not just simply entertain but also advocate, Per Odd says, “There has been a great change in recent times and our museum has a clear focus on educating children.”

Ingvild adds, “It’s not just about telling children what we think, though. Our exhibition tries to engage children in a dialogue and get them to find solutions. We don’t just serve them the truth; we ask them to be part of creating the results.”

Having created the forest of Silva, the team are now developing a range of other activities and exhibits that tie into this headline exhibition. As Guri Guri suggests, “We want the Primeval forest of Silva to be a hub that allows us to incorporate more of our collection over time. We invite children to other workshops such as ‘bats and shadow play’ where children look at works in the collection, learn about bat types in Norway and make shadow plays. We also invite adults to seminars on the theme of the primeval forest in Norway today.”

Asked what their advice would be to other museums looking to develop a similar exhibition, Ingvild says, “The core of the project isn’t the technology. It’s not how we used digital or analogue features to highlight our collection and the importance of environmental learning. Instead of just focusing on the digital it’s more about what we wanted to say and what we wanted children to get from the experience. The solutions to achieve this goal must come afterwards.

“But once you’ve established the starting point, it is important to do your research and see what kind of installations are possible.”

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