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Promoting positive connections with playboxes at the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Claire Hargreaves, Public Programming Manager and Producer for the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and Stephanie Jefferies, play designer of Play Explore Art, share how introducing playboxes has helped the museum to create a heightened sense of fun and learning for visitors of all ages.

With almost two decades of experience in museum learning, Claire Hargreaves has spent 16 years working for the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), which has sites around the country and is based in Portsmouth and Gosport. In recent years, she has turned her attention to play in museums, working with children to bring more playful engagement and learning to the National Museum sites.

Stephanie Jefferies, meanwhile, works as an artist and play designer for various galleries and museums, creating sensory installation and textile play sculpture to encourage new, exciting ways of learning and engaging. The National Museum recently collaborated with Stephanie and Emma Bearman of Playful Anywhere to create a purpose-built, interactive Mini Playbox for the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.

NMRN boasts six sites across the country, each containing galleries, displays and exhibitions that capture the unique stories that have shaped the Royal Navy. From exploring decks to learning about the creatures beneath the waves, NMRN offers a varied and captivating view of all things maritime, especially with the introduction of playboxes.

As Stephanie explains,

“The playbox combines Claire’s knowledge about the collection with playful elements that we know kids love. We have been able to draw out points of interest and make playful activities where you learn about a portion of the history of submarines and submariners, and their life onboard. Children – and their parents – get to learn and play as one.”

“We wanted to set the scene with a playful element that we can continually reference throughout the museum,” adds Claire.

Interactive and inclusive play

The museum’s playbox is inspired by Playful Anywhere’s much larger creations – converted shipping containers that can be “dropped into places, like the middle of a council estate or a city centre, to activate a space and consult or engage with a community”, as Stephanie explains. The logistics of this can be difficult, which is why a smaller version was created for the museum. Claire says,

“Every section or drawer references a different part of the life of submariners. You can build an Arctic den, or learn about the pets they had on board – which ranged from dogs and rabbits to reindeers and goats!

“Obviously, it can be very dangerous and scary being in a submarine but it can also be extremely boring. As they could be living on board for long periods of time submariners became incredibly creative with the things around them. We’ve got some fascinating examples of handmade items in our collection, including a trophy made from an old milk tin, and a spoon whittled into a brooch shaped like a submarine. My favourite is a chess set made of nuts and bolts.

“This idea of loose parts and reusing things was something we wanted to introduce through the playbox. It’s an opportunity to explore and make your own creations with the same materials.”

Sized at around 90x50x60cm, the playbox features minimal prompts for users – often just one or two words, or a picture. The onus is placed on the imagination of those using it.

“It’s about encouraging play,” says Claire, “without trying to control the play too much.”

Play and the Royal Navy

The general impression of the Royal Navy is, understandably, one of a very serious organisation. While the gravity of war and conflict can’t be overstated, Claire and Stephanie explain that actually creativity, imagination and play are vital factors within all the Armed Forces. Claire suggests,

“People don’t think of a military museum as the most obvious setting for play, but whenever I consider a new play feature, I realise that the Royal Navy has done something sillier and more playful in its history. They use the power of play to keep up morale and build a community. That’s what we’re trying to do too.

“It’s about trying to make people feel more comfortable about the unknown, and connect with the stories we’re telling. It can be hard to relate to the idea of being a submariner in the Second World War but – especially after the pandemic when we’re more used to the idea of being confined in a small setting – we want to get people thinking, how did they cope with the isolation? How would I cope with that?

Even today, the Royal Navy still finds new ways to play and adapt. One such way is a game called ‘Bucketball’ which, as the name suggests, involves throwing a ball made from tape and various scraps into a bucket held by a moving crew member. It is sometimes called ‘angry netball!’ Sailors hold bucketball competitions on the flight deck of Aircraft Carriers.

“We wanted to reflect that sense of fun in our museum,” Claire states.

Finding the human element

The power of play allows museum visitors to connect with an exhibit on an emotional, rather than simply an intellectual level. By allowing visitors to explore and discover on their own terms, the National Museum found that people were engaging more closely with the humans behind the artefacts. Claire says,

“It’s about finding the human element. The Armed Forces aren’t always presented as individuals, so finding those playful, humorous examples can help visitors see the humanistic side of everyone. The element of humour, of finding a connection, of thinking about how it would feel in those spaces, all bring it down to a personal level.”

While museums in the past may have attempted to control the way information is uncovered, today’s spaces – including the National Museum – are increasingly choosing to put the power in visitors’ hands. Finding Arctic trinkets, naval games, or archive photographs of Submariners’ picnics through their own discovery makes visitors feel closer to the stories on display. Claire adds,

“Creating a playful environment helps visitors feel more comfortable. It helps people break down some of the barriers, especially for younger children. A lot of people do perceive museums as being a bit boring and stiff, and play helps to counter that.”

Embedding play into exhibits

A play area in a museum is not a groundbreaking concept. Many institutions offer a designated children’s space or soft play area where parents can let their children blow off steam while they explore the more subdued exhibits. The National Museum was keen to avoid this route, however, opting instead for a more interwoven form of play and interpretation.

“We wanted the learning to come from play, and vice versa,” says Claire. “Through play, a visit becomes a more communal and active experience. When people go into the galleries, they’ll find the things that they’ve played with in the playbox. The children might play with the nuts and bolts, for example, and then find things that have been made out of them by the submariners within the exhibition.”

Stephanie adds:

“Our play supports engagement and interpretation, and brings people in. It’s not just for children either. A lot of people struggle to relate to boards of information in black and white. We use playfulness to engage, and to launch into the rest of the collection.

“The box itself is a form of play inspiration and facilitation,” says Claire. “And it also helps people start making those connections as they go around the museum. It’s not a standalone entity. It’s integrated.”

The importance of inclusion

By including minimal cues and constraints within their play, the National Museum prioritises inclusion, encouraging as many visitors as possible – from all walks of life – to discover these stories for themselves.

Museums are, as Stephanie says, “developed for the public”, and should therefore aim to accommodate many different kinds of learners in their exhibits. She adds,

“The museum world is in a state of flux where everything is changing. There are no set structures, and you need to be playful in order to ride the wave. You need to let the public take an element of control, whether it be the route they take, the way they interact with objects, or the questions they ask.

“Everyone learns differently: how many of us are finding out that we’re neurodivergent? Everyone will come into a museum with different opinions and different ideas. Play is a way to connect to everybody, whoever they are, whatever age they are.”

“Museums can be intimidating and overwhelming,” says Claire. “You need to change the feeling of a visit to make people more comfortable, and play is one of the most important and effective ways of doing that.”

Play for the sake of play

While learning is intrinsic to the museum experience, more and more institutions are changing their exhibits to reflect the idea that learning comes in many forms. Often, an emotional connection is more important than an intellectual one.

According to Claire, there’s a significant benefit to playing for the sake of playing. At the National Museum, the team often look at play as a way to get information across – but they embrace that sometimes play and enjoyment itself is enough of an outcome.

“We’re now looking at how we can expand the idea of the play through playboxes across our all of our museums, to increase the visibility of play and the availability of play items.”

Stephanie adds:

“Play brings open-ended, self-led activities to the table, letting people make their own connections. They play with items, then see the same items displayed within the exhibit. Through play, they’ve connected to the past in a tangible way.

“We take a lot of information, and we break it down to the simplest form to help everyone engage.”

Creating an emotional connection

Some may baulk at the idea that museums shouldn’t necessarily prioritise learning. But what Claire and Stephanie suggest through their work on the playbox at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is that, while learning is vital, it doesn’t always come in the form of passing on facts and figures.

“School is learning set things,” says Stephanie. “Museums need to differentiate from that. What’s more important is encouraging individual thought so that visitors can go away and questions things, and think about things differently.

“Once you start to question the things you see in museums, you start to questions the things you see in the outside world too, and this promotes curiosity and connections.”

Claire adds:

“Sensory connection goes beyond saying, ‘Here’s an item and here’s some information about it.’ Your brain makes connections by touching, smelling, feeling, and playing with things. That’s how we stay curious.

“People might leave NMRN with a huge number of new facts about submarines, and that’s great, but what’s more important is that they make personal connections with the people they’re learning about.

“The human in the story. That’s what we want to highlight. And that’s what play helps us do.”

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