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Do Adults Really Want to Play in a Museum?

January 21, 2011

by Ngaire Blankenberg

Do Adults Really Want To Play in a Museum?

I’m thinking about interactive museum exhibitions. Of course, everyone who is recommending an interpretive approach will include ‘interactives’ as a ‘category’ of exhibition, to meet the needs of more ‘hands-on’ learners- most frequently at science museums and children’s museums. But how often do we seriously consider this as an approach for adult learners – in these and other kinds of museums?

I’ve been trying to write the themes for an interactive application I’m recommending. The idea is that through some kind of personal interactivity device (ipad, mobile phone etc.) there will be an interactive layered experience over an existing permanent exhibition.  The purpose is to encourage the visitor to make the connection between their own experience and the stories and information they are reading, watching or listening about.

I’m finding myself writing the ‘themes’ as a series of questions that invite responses- thereby inviting interactivity. But no matter how hard I try- the questions end up sounding childish- like I’m developing a school project, and not developing an intriguing adult visitor experience at a history museum. Even when I venture out of the ‘questions’ framework, it feels forced and a little immature…

Do adults actually interact in a museum? Or do adults sit encouraging children to interact so we can feel better about the quality of their learning and therefore ourselves.  Do adults seriously write their thoughts, feelings and opinions on message boards, or punch buttons for a desired result? Do adults play on the touch tables and computer games?  If so – do we do it in the same way as kids – who are usually unselfconscious and curious in their exploration?  We do know that adults pick up audio guides – but that is barely interactive. What else do we do? 

These days, interactivity in a museum is touted as a way to empower the visitor—making him or her somehow in control of their own experience.  But I wonder if adults generally find the passivity typical of the average adult museum more soothing and less pressured than the opportunity to exercise agency every 5 minutes.  What if adults actually haven’t suppressed their urge to play (and consequently will be grateful to the museum who liberates these latent urges), but actually just don’t feel like it anymore.

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Ngaire Blankenberg

About The Author

Ngaire Blankenberg is internationally recognized for her work planning innovative cultural spaces. As European Director and Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, Ngaire advises the private sector, governments and museums throughout the world on ways to develop their cultural assets for public benefit.

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