Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing with Ideas

The stuffed alligator
"Why?"

"Because it is not a toy. It is not something to play with."

The little boy's inquiry to his mother was an honest question regarding his touching the stuffed alligator on display. The display encourages visitors to touch the alligator's teeth and skin, asking "why" questions as a form of engaging children. The display includes a teal-colored, eighteen-foot length of tape stretched across the lobby to indicate the size of an adult male alligator. While the display was designed with children in mind, adults often interact, walking the length of the tape as the display suggests.

The mother's statements startled me. Immediately, I wanted to walk over and say, "but it is a toy, it is something to play with." My judgement told me not to interfere with parenting and to let the situation be. The family soon walked out. The incident provided me with thought about exhibits, museums, and playing. I had read this article about designing exhibits for adults a few weeks back. One of the first things I learned in grad school was some statistic that more adults trust information coming from a museum than coming from a classroom. I do not believe people should take information given to them as fact, it should be something they think about. Wait for it... Did she just... Isn't that...? Interpretation, yes. Provoking thought, yes. Playing with ideas.

Museums should be considered toys and the ideas contained within as ideas to play with. Kids know learning everyday is a fact of life and they are constantly figure out where to file these ideas in their head (see another child's response to the stuffed alligator and some of her own inquiry prompted by the display here). They explore naturally. Adults don't lose the exploration pulses naturally; often they just tuck that pulse away, getting along to go along. Institutions of learning, whether academic or cultural, school or museum, should engage brains in a way that allows for new thoughts to swirl into the mix. Adults should be given the freedom to figure out how information contained in these places fits with what they already know. That "figuring out" looks different for each adult (just as "playing" looks different for each kid).

Museums presenting ideas from the past especially need to provide ways for adults to engage the resources in manners that allow them to connect to the place in their own way. They should feel free to play with the ideas. "It is not something to play with" may be how many understand how content presented to them should be received. You read the exhibit, you file the fact in your brain, maybe one day it will come in handy for a rowdy game of "trivia." How can museums encourage a process of receiving-and-playing-with content? Is it physical interactions? Is it emotional connections? Is it none of the above or all of the above? To quote a little boy who wanted so badly to feel the ridges of an alligator's back: "why?"

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