Museum Next 2015 – the playful museum

By Ben Templeton, Events, Opinion

A conference about the future of museums wouldn’t be worth its salt without some robust discussions around technology. As you’d expect from Museum Next, in Geneva this year following previous stints in Newcastle, Amsterdam and Barcelona, a healthy chunk of airtime was handed to agile, mobile, web dev and iBeacons. But the pervading theme of the conference this year, and indeed an important part of MuseumNext’s general appeal, was a focus on people. Good old human beans!

Call it user-centered design, audience advocacy or visitor focussed development; however you cut the cake, it’s people that power museums. For all his provocative claims that technology will save us, Stephen Feber was really speaking to the enormous strength of human curiosity – the profound desire to fill our brains with things. It’s impractical, not to mention unpleasant, for museums to become hyper-personalised, open plan Amazon warehouses. Why go at all if you can visit from home via virtual reality? As Gail Lord argued, museums have evolved from being repositories of knowledge to centres for education and more recently hubs for social interaction and entertainment. People visit museums to meet, to play, to learn and even to relax – “yoga for the mind,” suggested Carl Grouwet.

Shelley Bernstein, from Brooklyn Museum, did a fantastic and frank talk about ASK, a new service where onsite visitors can live chat with a curator through loaned iPods. The ASK team have been situated in the lobby, helping raise awareness of their service, but also sending an important message to visitors. Further proof that people make museums tick. Southbank Centre had similar success with The Glass Box, a war room for the redevelopment of their website, slap bang in the middle of the cafe. Better public visibility, but crucially better staff visibility and more useful conversations. There’s a reason Apple, Facebook and Google et al spend so much on social spaces that force interaction.

As institutions go, there’s no avoiding that museums are generally conservative, run by a predominantly white male board, even as the lower ranks fill with liberal, forward thinking staff. This friction is clearly a frustration for those angling for change. It’s also an opportunity, and technology is one of mankind’s great levellers; with a web connection, anyone can be anyone. This year at Museum Next felt like a tipping point, where digital wasn’t a ‘thing’ anymore, but embraced wholeheartedly, and no-one has run screaming from the building. Games are another great leveller, further democratising these hallowed institutions by lowering the barrier to entry and sending out a message that these organisations are inclusive, welcoming, friendly places for all kinds of socioeconomic groups.

The challenge is to break out of using technology to design solo experiences because research shows people rarely visit alone and most commonly in pairs. Shelley Bernstein and the ASK team have a wealth of qualitative data,  captured through a single device, where the conversation is first person plural: “We think…”, “We’re confused about…”, “We’d like to know more on…” There were countless other examples of group interaction in Jake Barton’s talk about designing memorable experiences. His media design firm Local Projects worked on Gallery One in Cleveland, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s Pen and other large scale media installations to make any British museum deeply jealous.

At the Science Museum in London, our very own multiplayer game Rugged Rovers is seeing incredible results. For the first time, visitors can engage directly with exhibits using their own devices. 300,000 rovers are designed every month by onsite visitors and players around the world. The average exhibition dwell time is 16 minutes and four rovers are designed every session, clearly demonstrating iterative design learning in action. Games give visitors autonomy and ownership, they stimulate collaboration, healthy competition and discussion.

In the opening keynote of MuseumNext 2015 the future museum was envisaged as one for the head, the hands and the heart. As the perception of museums change – from information hubs to social play and learning hubs – the onus is on organisations to harness the catalytic force of technology. It moves at such a pace we can sometimes forget we’re designing for human beings, who haven’t changed all that much since digital became de rigeur. Our instincts of curiosity, investigation and play run as strong as ever and games are a wonderful medium to direct this energy for good.

Preloaded have more than 15 years of experience designing for the arts and culture sector and our team are deeply passionate about building experiences that engage and entertain. If you’re reading this and are intrigued by what games can do for your organisation, get in touch for a free ‘Games with Purpose’ workshop with our wonderful team.

A fan of arts, culture, capoeira and cups of medium strength tea. Above all, Ben is passionate about the power of play to transform the way we learn. Since 2005 he has created learning games for businesses, brands and cultural organisations around the world.

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