Participatory Museum or Playground? Or Both?

After our trip to the Met’s Luce Center to try out their technology prototypes, I was struck by one of the comments made– namely, that a young child using the computers in the period rooms was able to exit the program in order to use Paint to draw her name on the desktop.  It’s sort of a delightful anecdote and a commentary on the best laid plans of adults often going awry,  but it got me thinking about my experiences with museums as a child.  My first memory of visiting a museum is pretty hazy, but it was definitely to visit the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia (now housed in the fabulous Memorial Hall from the 1875 Centennial International Exhibition), and I was excited because I was allowed to dress up in “pilgrim” clothes and play pretend Thanksgiving with my siblings and other random kids.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later what the museum’s mission actually was, because it seemed light on traditional objects and heavy on being a child’s dream playground.  They have constantly changing exhibits which are interactive for both children and adults, and currently they  have something to do with literature (Alice in Wonderland), physics (a flight exhibit), and nature (a river exhibit).  The emphasis, as cued by the institution’s name, is of course placed on touch and learning by doing– something that seems to be a popular trend in science centers too, like we’ve discussed in class.  The point I want to make here is, that visiting the Please Touch (which my 5-year-old self called “Policetudge”–all one word), was memorable not because of what I might have learned about the Pilgrims, but because I could touch literally everything there.  To an extent I still hold that obsession of wanting to touch museum objects– there’s something about feeling the surface nuances and the weight and solidity of an object  that makes me feel as though I understand it more fully.

That said, I’m wondering how to classify the Please Touch Museum… now it feels more like a learning center or discovery center than my traditional concept of a museum (another bias leftover from childhood: my points of comparison were the more traditional style PMA and the Barnes Foundation where touching is, obviously, prohibited).  As we see with the Luce Center’s more intuitive study computers, there is definitely a rise in more entertaining and accessible technology or interactive features in museum exhibition design.  The Please Touch concept is just a simpler version of this type of interaction. I guess the answer to Steven Conn’s question “Do museums still need objects?” could start to get its answer here.  Apparently, they need more toys.

Michelle Jackson

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One response to “Participatory Museum or Playground? Or Both?

  1. Michelle, you make a really interesting observation. I, too, remember going to “museums” as a kid, such as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and having a really fun, hands-on, playful experience. The exhibits, all with the the intention of teaching through interaction and “doing,” were so much fun, I didn’t realize I was learning in the process.

    Perhaps this is why interactive exhibits at traditional museums might initially be considered less informative or “dumbed-down” than the expected “panel-reading, object analyzing, reflection, move to the next object” format that we’ve become used to when visiting museums as adults. Maybe interactive elements aren’t always easily accepted because they seem childish, too accessible, since academia and knowledge have become so heavily tied with dense texts and quiet places.

    I always want to touch the objects in museums as well, and maybe you’ve hit on something there by saying it stems back to being a kid and learning through touching and interaction. I suppose when dealing with sensitive objects in museum collections, technology and interactive elements are the closest we will get to actually putting our hands on the objects.

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