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The Playful Museum of the Future

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Megan Dickerson
Manager of Exhibition Development,
The New Children’s Museum

The era of art hotels and pop-up art exhibitions has produced new pressures on the future of museums, particularly those that exhibit art.

Moving forward, should museums become hybrid? This notion has been at the heart of the past decade of experimentation at The New Children’s Museum, a genre-bending space in San Diego, CA, that is one part contemporary art museum and one part children’s museum.

Each “exhibit” at the Museum is a one-of-akind installation artwork commissioned from a contemporary artist. As the Museum celebrates its tenth anniversary of this model, Megan Dickerson, Manager of Exhibition Development, will share frank and thoughtful stories of this experimentation and provide insight into what this “new model” could mean for the future of the museum medium.

To love something is to have a very particular rising language. We love what we name. So for all of these people who’ve been part of the process, they’ve given it their own name, and the fact that you really couldn’t do it alone, we were able to make a shift to really thinking about, you know, who are we as a museum as a children’s museum that permission to artists that says we engage kids what does that look like find somebody who would be willing to kind of go on this whole journey and would understand that at the center of all this is the plane child there’s the playing child, there’s the supporting adult and there’s the broader community and how are we connecting with that community there’s that thread of connectedness and he did this for our museum. It’s Anjum the base undertaking I’ve ever had with the project. I’ve put in a huge amount of myself working with this mantra that the things that are most personal are going to be the most universal for someone to come in here and find it and know that they can walk through any part of it, or climb through or whatever it is that they have to do. They create their own personal relationship with the work and I think that’s another element of art. It’s a personal relationship that West has allowed us to create just packing it full of content that can be absorbed from so many different levels, while objects from junkyards and Colorado tonight brought out here on the X gathered in garnered from San Diego there’s writing everywhere, and there’s objects happy where it’s just this morning. It’s like my childhood imagine, but in real life,

what is it that you’re going to see that’s different than what I see

open my eyes to what that is everybody’s bringing their own memories and any space that they go into. This gives you the place to talk about them with the wish or follow the lead of someone else as they make their own memories.

Hi, I’m Megan. I met many of you, which has been a really great part of this conference. And I get to work there. That’s my museum.

Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about what I think could be the future of playful museum and I’ll go on to define that a little bit more. I know you’re gonna have a lot of questions about what I do once I tell you what I do

and will hopefully we can continue the conversation even this evening and go on and on and on. But I work at the new Children’s Museum, which is in San Diego, California. It is right on the border between US and Mexico. So we’re about 50 miles from the Mexican border.

And we are what happens when a contemporary art museum loves the Children’s Museum very much and they want to make that love into something new. So we are a combination of a contemporary art museum and a children’s museum.

So, what are the words to help me out with this that come to mind when you think of children’s museum? words or phrases? Just call them out? germs?

Definitely germs. What else? Touching light

Noise riding around dangerous

Been son been okay with that play? colorful inspiration and laughing so what are words that come to mind when you think of Contemporary Art Museum? Quiet,

Precious white

White walls? Or white other things?

right?

What else serious

thinking don’t touch with that

clean. So you can see where our model is a little bit of a strange thing for people in the museum business, at least there’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance that happens. Do you know that term, it’s where you have two beliefs that you’re holding them together at the same time and their conflicting beliefs, but you have them both in your mind creates this sort of mental distress. her resume is kind of place in a way we are a museum center where a little bit of this little bit of that is from Parks and Recreation, in case anybody I tried to give credit on most of my slides for the paintings. But this is Jerry’s painting from Parks and Rec.

So in our museum, every exhibit is a an installation commission from a contemporary artists. So what you see in our museum is real art by very serious artists. But our audience looks like this.

And that kind of audience doesn’t come by themselves, right? She didn’t drive that

she comes with some caregiver, someone in her life, excuse me, who took her to the museum. And so in our museum, we have people who look like that. And people who are adults like me, who are spending more time in contemporary art than in any other museum. Now, that’s not exactly research. But when was the last time you spent three hours in one installation

they do.

Now how we happened on this model is sort of by accident. We started as a more traditional Children’s Museum in La Jolla. We were called the San Diego Children’s Museum and we started in a mall. But at a certain point, we needed to find a new space and space that we’re moving into. wasn’t quite ready. So we moved like many artists have in the past into a giant abandoned warehouse in downtown San Diego,

and suddenly the exhibit signers had expansive space to fill. So what do you do? Well, if you think like an artist, you might think why not take a 1954 Chevy truck and bring a bunch of tempera paint out and let his painted

why not work with local UCSD professor and a Silva and create a house that represents how San Diego and Tijuana share the same ecosystem. The same rain that falls and TJ falls in San Diego.

Why not commission artists Chris burden really well known for shooting himself in a performance. Anybody know Chris bird in here, right? So in the 70s, so not the first person that comes to mind when you think Children’s Museum,

maybe Contemporary Art Museum, but even a contemporary art museum. He’s pushing those boundaries. So you had that moment probably of cognitive dissonance. This Children’s Museum, probably not. So you get I don’t know what’s happening. There’s a bunch of people shirtless walking through a field. I don’t know this is a non sequitur.

So Chris Berta and created a piece for us starting in 1994 called The Tale of Two Cities. And it was a pretty large scale miniatures installation that kids could look at and have conversations around. Around this time. We also started working with Alan cap room, who is an artist famous for what are called happenings. So events, activities that brought people together where the artists would set it up, but kind of just go where it would go,

they only controlled it to the degree that it keeps shaking, right?

Instead of a funny thing to use in the context of San Diego and all the earthquakes. But

people get uncomfortable sometimes. But I say that the museum there’s no way there’s no shaking, its fine, there’s no respect. So it’s loosening control. You can’t control the performance, you need to let the performance go where the performance needs to go. And when it doesn’t go. Quite right. Maybe you reoriented a little bit this model of working with artists was working. And so in 2008, we reopened with a new name and a new building

and conditions specifically for us, we became the new Children’s Museum and there’s joke sorry, the Children’s Museum for new children like really babies or as it when you’re gonna when is it because of the old children’s museum? I think the joke was that while they’re building the new Children’s Museum, they kept calling Well, when the new Children’s Museum opens and they just stuck with it. That’s my guest for the first exhibition. we commissioned 11 artists to create installations all throughout this really beautiful crazy concrete building. And one of the first that we commissioned was from an artist named Brian tick where we asked him to reinvent two artworks by Alan Capra who at that point had passed away so the pieces were yard so this is where Alan Capra build a gallery at Martha Jackson gallery and outdoor sculpture garden with tires

and no rules except where he had covered the walls of a gallery and LACMA with pillows and their budget. Also pills that you could play around with. Move around that in the reinvention that Brian directed. Well, he couldn’t choose just one. This is our hybrid of the problem. We’re never just one thing or another. So Brian shows to those artworks and reinvented them as this piece. So the tires are made of pillows, and there are mattresses all throughout the room. Those of you who said dirty and bugs probably got really scared when I said that, right? You go straight to like, Oh, god, they’re gonna pee on it. And yes, they do. Yeah, that happens. We’re preparing. I mean, this guy probably is doing it right now. I don’t even know.

So we reframed ourselves as a contemporary art museum for children.

And for the next few years, we produce shows where the main concept was, it’s not art until you’re in it, you need to be part of the art in order for it to be fully realized.

Even things like Jason hacking words. balloon sculptures like this, Martha were made with people watching and kids learn how to tie the balloons themselves as well. Even our donation box is a commission work of our by machine project in LA. So in a way, it seemed like, Yay, we did it. We made it work. attendance was pretty good. People were coming. We had that dwell time and contemporary art museums. That is unheard of.

But back to this idea, the museum center and back to this idea, dissonance

we’re finding that pretty soon, attendance started to go down.

And I’m thinking about that we were wondering, is it because people expect this. So on the left, that’s the Miami Children’s Museum. And when people often think of Children’s Museum, they think of the pretend grocery store and don’t know how common they are in other parts of the world. But the United States they become a pretty calcified in some ways model. You go to a children’s museum, you kind of know what you’re going to get. But they were getting at our museum, things like the midden project from the Institute for figuring which was a giant net that hung in our one of our galleries that was filled with one family’s trash for a year,

and you couldn’t touch it. There were many things that you could touch. But this was something that you couldn’t touch. And so we wonder, Is it because of museum genre? Is it because people can’t separate Contemporary Art Museum and children’s museum? Or is it something a little bit different? Some of you may know the theory of loose parts from Simon Nicholson, which is this idea that the degree of creativity or discovery or inventiveness and in a particular space is in direct proportion to a number and variety of variables in it. So he says, Why do adults get to have all the fun the artists, the architects of the designers, that’s the same thing

here as it is there. So the designers of these spaces are having a lot of fun making it. But how much room does a child really have to make it their own to really feel like it’s their space.

So

we made a shift. And for those of you who are in contemporary art, this may strike you as slightly uncomfortable because we moved from being a contemporary art museum for children to a children’s museum that works through the arts. And I have a real soapbox about reusing the arts to teach math, you know, that as an art isn’t good on its own, that it has to be somehow useful.

But at the same time, when you de emphasize the contemporary art aspect, you’re getting away from some of the taste that plagues the art world, you’re getting away from the fact that if an artist has a show at our museum, they’re artists actually valued higher on the market. Because we are even though we’re we’re Museum, we aren’t museum. So he came to this idea back to Ellen cap room,

the idea of the an artist, so he wrote that in the future artists will need to become artists. And they’ll need to continue to play as they did under the banner of our but among those who don’t care about that,

so play,

what does that really mean. And we often think of play and we think of games, and we think of running around in the field. And if you Google Play children playing, it’s literally at least on my Google kids running through a field smiling. But play is the most diverse thing we do. Gordon’s direct said that trying to define play is like trying to find love, you can’t do it, it’s too big for that you think about the thing, you close your eyes. And you think about the thing that you love doing more than anything else. Not the thing that you might do just pass the time like, watch something on Netflix, or maybe it is Netflix. But the thing that makes you feel totally alive. The thing that makes you feel really you that you lose track of time you feel in flow that’s play for me, I like to rearrange furniture. It’s a thing I like to do. I don’t anybody else like to do that now is a it’s weird, everybody has their unique kind of play. And I my hope is that museums can also accommodate all these different ways that people like to play. Because for me, play equals being yourself being truly you.

So to do this, to make the shift, we introduce a few things including a practice called play work. Has anybody heard of play work here before? Anybody heard of adventure playgrounds, okay? So the people who work on a venture playgrounds are called play workers, and they practice a way of working with children. And with just adults too, there is not an intervention style, it’s not I’m here to seek out that teachable moment when I was an informal educator was always looking for did they learn that thing about dinosaurs? Yes, they did it right. And I felt good about myself. But play work is about meeting people where they are wherever they are. So here’s Catherine, who’s one of our play workers

Hanging out with some kids. I don’t know what’s going on. But it’s not an activity that she set up there leading the activity and that she’s being invited into it.

And we started to again commission artists and actually we’re working with more artists than we ever did before piece like this is cat food hands work who focuses on environmental issues and ecological ecological issues he installed five chickens in our museum. The title The piece is called SOS 5pm and 5pm stands for five poop machines because chickens like to poop and the chickens would come out with our teaching artists, all of Whom are practicing artists and would do chicken chickens. This is an art project or reframing what art can be something like this. Nina Wiseman’s orange. We actually is talking about mirror neurons and empathy and that if you’re climbing up these ropes With these big oranges. Perhaps you’ll get some empathy for the experience of orange pickers because you’re hearing the oral histories of orange pickers while you’re climbing or Marysol Brendan’s wobble land a not so still life of fruits and vegetables that you can Climb on and over and this is an area that specifically for kids three and under and their caregivers, we also started commissioning artists for our arts education programs which we have been for camps, but also for our community outreach. So right now as we speak res Javier is doing a project in six community centers, working with this idea of who do you miss Who are the people in your life that you miss and making these beautiful dolls with little voice recorders, so you can record a story and then send that thing To the person that you miss if that person is still available to receive it in 2016 we open the Wonder sound which we opened with today so the the film you saw the trailer and this project to our prototyping for our installations with the artist Westham Bruce into those community centers. So why do we prototype with people who are already coming to our museum.

Okay, well, because we want to make our museums accessible to people who are already coming but if we want to be relevant to people who aren’t coming. Why don’t we do our prototyping in those places, go to them.

So we did a series of workshops all over the city and it resulted in this crazy three stories structure with Tom’s and and stories throughout it that’s really, really, really hard to describe some of you have been here amid the water sound and I Can’t you just have to come visit come visit me stay and my guest for him. It’ll be great. Okay.

So the focus is really not on us as the designers or the artists. The focus is on people like this, this little guy. So thinking About the plane child.

What is the playing child really want to do rather than what do we want to start. What do we want the plane child to know how does the playing child want to be

A big part of that is losing our ego

Contemporary art ego right, there’s a lot of that.

So the same thing is there in children’s museums. We think that people need to know what we want them to know so i wonder with This kind of experience, do we become something like the on artists do we go on doing what we have been doing, but not taking ourselves so seriously do we become I’m museums, there’s pressure on museums to be more and more and more.

I don’t know if being a museum center is the answer.

And I think from our experience when we try to do both. We weren’t doing either of them quite that well the metaphor I rather use at this point in time is an estuary.

So estuaries are places where saltwater and freshwater come together.

So it’s never quite one or the other. You’re always going back and forth and they’re often really stinky. Right. Anybody been to an estuary lately.

We kind of brackish time Smells like a nappy which is where I’ll say here diaper,

But it’s where it really interesting things happen and the kinds of conversations that we’ve been hearing among families are the kinds of things that maybe we as museums hope people will get two questions about culture and about place children named the spaces in our museum in the most poetic ways we get notes back from school visits where they’ve drawn different installations and one had the Spoon room. So the spoon room is in the Wonder sound and you go through a tiny tunnel and you emerge in this room that has 3000 spoons hanging from the ceiling in his height little space and they called it the dark silence

So much better if we Tried to name that even if we’re Sam Bruce and tried to name that I don’t think they would have come up with something that was just as beautiful as that the tire room, no rules, except they call it the sinking place because you sink into the mattresses.

So there is a lot that goes into the maintenance of a space like that to do play work you have to anticipate the issues that might happen so that you don’t say no all the time.

Why say no running. What is the reason why you can’t run in the space.

Why can you can’t you take a implement from one space to another. Why couldn’t you roll one of those tires to another installation and our shift has also been involved artists, because I’ll say to an artist. Is it okay If this leaves the space and goes somewhere else and usually they partner with us for so long that they know there is great joy in the possibility of that happening.

I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut

And it’s from time quake And he says that in speeches. Sometimes he’s asked you know why are and he says a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being live at least a little bit at least a little bit if You leave the museum and you see things that you hadn’t seen before. Because of the experiences that you had that feel successful.

So perhaps for museums are plausible mission is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.

So I’m going to close here. So there’s hopefully some time for questions.

A couple of resources that might be helpful is there’s a pamphlet called rules for a playful museum that was developed by fair like dairy and Stuart Lester through the happy museum project Stuart lesser was My professor and he’s the reason why I think about play the way that I do. I came to England on a whim ended up getting my masters in play with him and Wendy Russell and this is how he describes entrenching playgrounds, what they might Be and if you will just humor me. I’m going to read it.

We aim to provide a play environment in which children will laugh and cry, where they can explore and experiment where they can create and destroy where they can achieve where they can feel excited and elated where they may sometimes be bored and frustrated and may sometimes hurt themselves where they can get help support and encouragement from others when they require it where they can grow to be independent and self reliant where they can learn in the widest possible sense about themselves about others And about the world.

Thank You

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