Game-changing museums

Playful approaches let visitors engage better with museum content and each other.

As museums struggle to break free of the pandemic, they are unleashing fun and games on the world.

We may picture museums as venerable repositories of static objects that are embedded in glass cases or hanging on white walls, perhaps explored in a guided tour. But institutions big and small are adding dramatically more personalized programs to engage their visitors–some very simple, some very complex, some tightly based in the real world, some not.

Last week’s Museums, Games and Play Summit, a virtual global gathering held by MuseumNext, highlighted dozens of such initiatives. Their goal is not only to broaden and deepen the museum experience but to draw in people who don’t visit–among them, millions of young people who enthusiastically play online games but don’t know how to play a museum.

“It’s a new kind of participatory storytelling,” commented Erica Gangsei of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Offerings such as the Tate Modern’s team card game and the New York Hall of Science’s Connected Worlds have been proving themselves for years, Gangsei said, but we’ve moved beyond the pioneering stage.

Group games can connect visitors not only with museum content but with each other. “Through collective activities we find meaning and happiness,” said Rachel Briscoe of Fast Familiar, a London developer of “audience-centric” theatre. “Collective experience is an excuse for people to talk to each other… Games are the ultimate collective experience.”

Take the Acquisition Panel, “a serious play game where a group of strangers take on the role of an advisory board to a local museum, helping them to decide which objects to acquire and what stories to tell about them,” Briscoe said. “Over 90 minutes, participants hear a range of different perspectives on a single object, which becomes a prism through which to examine the legacies of European colonialism and to ask what role we want museums to play in our society. A group of strangers wrangle together with big complex questions. The last time we did the show, we had someone say, I’d much rather do this than go to a museum, because the experience helped him go deeper, and allowed him to hear the perspectives of other people with different experiences.”

Another Fast Familiar showcase was the Life Course Golf Course, a version of the Life board game focused on health. Participants played minigolf, given quite different golf balls, and those differences affected their healthcare experiences as they moved down the course. Why minigolf? Conversations open up when you’re busy doing something. (“It’s easier to have conversations when walking because it’s difficult to eyeball someone,” Briscoe points out.) Also, players don’t have to worry about how they’re appearing in public. (“You can’t look particularly stupid playing minigolf.”) And if they just want to play the game, that’s perfectly all right.

Tabletop role playing, basically games based on printed material with a set of well-known rules, provides another flavor of group experience. Take Carved in Stone, “a project showcasing the rich and complicated landscape of 7th century Scotland… allowing you to truly play as Picts.” The crowdfunded book is a collaboration among experts from Dungeons on a Dime and Dig It! (“a hub for Scottish archaeology”), writers, artists and other talented folks. “In reality, the Picts were a diverse range of farmers, hunters and gatherers, bards and poets, creators and carvers, and all sorts of professions that in a story like Dungeons and Dragons would be background detail,” said Jeff Sanders of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. “The way that we’re trying to get people to explore the past is through being these regular people and going on exciting adventures as regular people.”

Location-based augmented reality (AR) technology can offer new experiences. Most of us first heard about such AR apps in 2016 with the Pokemon Go game; your phone lets you interact with objects in front of you. “It’s not just the reality that you see, but it’s an overlay of reality,” said Sarah Burslem of Niantic, which built Pokemon Go.

Niantic now offers the Lightship software platform, designed to make it dramatically easier for organizations to deliver AR apps. Britain’s Historic Royal Palaces and Science Museum both plan to roll out Lightship-based AR offerings this year. The AR environment is a nice match for outdoor settings or for other spaces such as historic rooms that would have been mostly populated with people rather than objects in glass cases, noted Cathy Spalding of the Royal Palaces. An AR experience will enhance this summer’s Superbloom, which will celebrate the Queen’s platinum anniversary by filling the Tower of London moat with flowers.

EPIC, the Irish Immigration Museum in Dublin, was born completely digital. “We are actually a museum of digital stories,” said EPIC’s Shannon Wilson.

Especially stories entered as games. In our media-saturated societies, “humans are now preconditioned towards gamification media since birth,” she remarked. “Gaming, when used with thought and consideration, can directly and positively augment the impact of the experience to make it more meaningful, closing the gap between the past and the present.”

“There’s still a gap between representing the past and understanding it, between learning about history and experiencing it, and between sharing people’s stories, and empathizing with them,” Wilson said. “And this is something that I believe gamification can tackle, due to its immersive nature, by positioning visitors as active players in history they experience rather than just playing witness to it.”

One EPIC story is a life-size electronic version of an 1890s board game based on the 72-day round-the-world adventure of Nellie Bly, the trailblazing investigative journalist.

“More complex information can be communicated and understood more easily by different age groups through gamification,” Wilson claimed. “This is because there are no explicit barriers to engagement, as there might be in more traditional museum exhibits, which rely on a certain level of reading ability.”

“Gamification by its very nature is a social enterprise that encourages teamwork and competition, as players either work together or compete in order to complete a task,” she said. “Encouraging visitors to work together, they bond. And they create shared and lived memories and experiences, in effect, changing the association of museums from solitary and academic to social, vibrant and immersive spaces.”

EPIC has won the World Travel Award for Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction three years running. Who doesn’t want to visit?

But Summit speakers emphasized that it’s also critical for museums to remember that children in particular play and learn wherever they are with whatever they find around them.

“We don’t have to create a specific area for children to play,” said Claire Hargreaves of the British National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. “Believe it or not, children will play anywhere.” Quick exercises like silly selfies can make a museum visit more fun for children and their families, at little or no cost to the museum.

Moreover, there’s a powerful and almost subversive message here for museums, schools and everywhere else: “It doesn’t matter if it leads to learning, play in itself is enough,” Hargreaves said.

“Play is the genius pleasure mechanism that drives children to assimilate everything that they see, hear, think or feel, to understand their minds and their bodies, to discover who they are, and what their special talents and passions are,” said Penny Wilson of Assemble Play. “Almost all of us can trace back to our childhood play a legacy that’s still alive and kicking in our adult life.”

“But over the last decades, play has been adulterated, colonized by adults,” she declared. “We ignore the fact that children experience infinite possibilities when they are left to play. Accepting instead the fallacy that at all times an adult should be in charge, using play to teach or train or control or reward, all on grown up terms reducing its potential, free play is being slowly annihilated.”

Wilson and her allies create pop-up playgrounds “supported with light touch by experienced play workers, and furnished with carefully curated loose parts to offer the richest possible play environment,” she said. “Parents stay, taking the time to relax and enjoy the great privilege of watching their children playing, finding out about their brand new world. We like to work in unusual spots in the public realm, creating a spectacle that adults coming across this powerful, beautiful and rare phenomenon realize that they haven’t seen for years.”

Object lessons

What do museums save of our pasts and which of those treasures do they surface in public?

In a giant two-year-old warehouse in South Greenwich, the Prince Phillip Maritime Collection holds almost anything you can imagine that connects to Britain and the sea. Huge rooms filled with racks of paintings. Calfskin charts of the Mediterranean that predate lines of latitude and longitude, 400-year-old astronomical globes of remarkable precision and beauty, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian boat model… altogether, something like two million objects. Last week it was my privilege to take a behind-the-scenes tour of this motherlode, led by friendly staff.

I also wandered the Museum of London, just north of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and its beautifully designed galleries with artifacts along a timeline from the prehistorical to the present day. This is not at all a small museum but a vastly larger version is well underway, created in part to display more of the  collection of some seven million items. And I gave a wave to HMS Belfast, the largest survivor of the British WW2 navy.

I’m a huge fan of digital humanities efforts, notably the European Time Machine megaproject, that seek to digitally preserve and present a wealth of historical material that otherwise could never appear in public. But we also hunger to see the original beasts—to come (almost) close enough to touch the actual paintings or charts or globes. How do museum curators choose?

HMS Belfast

Nobel art of science

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings lay out the brain in surprising detail—and beauty.

“An entire universe that has scarcely been explored lies before the scientist… Each cell presents us with the unknown, and each heartbeat inspires profound meditation within us.”

He grew up in poor Spanish hill towns near the French border, bright, impulsive, strong-willed, prone to escapades that have more than a touch of the medieval. He was endlessly curious, experimental, energetic, determined to think things through by himself. By eight years old he was drawing incessantly wherever he could, coloring his drawings with paint flaked from walls, bitterly opposed by his doctor father. He was a famously disobedient student, often beaten by teachers, once locked up by himself for more than a day. His father pulled him out of school and apprenticed him to a shoemaker for a year. He was an enthusiast and expert for drawing, painting, birds, nature walks, wooden cannons he built himself. Years later, he plunged deeply into gymnastics, chess, gymnastics, philosophy, hypnotism and whatever else caught his interest. When he grew excited by photography, he not only taught himself excellent shooting skills but developed emulsions for developing prints that were better than what he could buy. He and his father stole bones from a graveyard to help their anatomy studies. He joined the Spanish army as it fought rebellions at home and in Cuba. He survived malaria and then tuberculosis.

Such was the education of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who became the world’s greatest neuroscientist.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1906 and is best known for his theory that nerve cells in the brain are not directly wired together but connected by chemicals—a theory not confirmed until the electron microscope debuted, decades later. He possessed an astonishing intuition for guessing at brain function based on structure, backed by an astonishing amount of hard work to reveal that structure. He couldn’t afford a good microscope until he was given one for his help in a cholera epidemic. He taught himself German, the language of biomedical science, to keep in touch with the latest findings. He published his own scientific journal when it was the only way to spread his own discoveries, which were numerous and major.

Perhaps most famously, Ramón y Cajal presented what he saw in the brain in thousands of drawings that elegantly show the brain’s wild menageries under the microscope, artwork that is stunningly created to emphasize structure and concepts. You can now see 80 of these masterpieces in the well-received Beautiful Brain exhibition at the MIT Museum.

Ramón y Cajal lived in a very different time—for instance, his autobiography has nothing but good to say about his wife but never mentions her name. He was not just genius but appealing human being. He was thoughtful, kind, wryly humorous, sociable, patient with others, resourceful, surprisingly tough, endlessly curious.  He wrote superbly on science and his own remarkable life. His aphorisms are still quoted. His lessons still stand.

“Drawing enhances discipline and attention, for it forces us to observe the totality of the phenomenon and see details overlooked in ordinary observation.”

“In our parks are there any trees more elegant and luxurious than the Purkinje cell from the cerebellum?”

“Nature is a harmonious mechanism where all parts, including those appearing to play a secondary role, cooperate in the functional whole.”

Museums and the shock of the old

Coming face to face with the Dama de Elche


Millennia later, physical reality still has its moments, at least in museums.

In Madrid last week for Thanksgiving, at the quite wonderful National Archeology Museum, I suddenly realized that I was looking at the Dama de Elche. I hadn’t known that this limestone bust from the 4th or 5th century BC was life-size. Or so haunting, so human. She stands near two full-length compatriots, the irritable Dama de Biza and the huge-eyed Dama del Cerro de los Santos. No one is smiling. Who were these women? Were there ever Señores de Elche, Biza or Cerro de los Santos?

The museum’s remarkable collection of artifacts also includes the beautiful sandals below, which look almost as wearable as when their Neolithic weaver tied the last knots 7,000 years ago. Museums clean up these ultra-rare survivors but leave almost all of their mysteries, along with the realization that they were created by people very much like us.