Anthropology, Post-it Notes and the HAM Way – Fun in Museums1
It’s a word we tend to use a lot but never really define as we also spend a lot of time pretending to think like the ‘user’ or ‘visitor’ – mapping out ways for the them to see the exhibition/collection with a sprinkle of ‘entertaining’ activities.
However, us humans, we’re a funny lot. We don’t always behave as we’re expected. That could be due to translation (language barriers), rebelliousness (raises hand), miscommunication or boredom. Actually, feel free to insert your reason as I’m sure I haven’t covered them all.
As someone fortunate enough to travel internationally and to visit a lot of museums, art galleries, national houses/parks, I get to see a lot of different ways the sector tries to interact with the visitors. Traditionally, we often see:
- Family Backpacks
- Audio Guides
There are more but that’s to give you an idea. (Signage is one of the biggest areas I feel we are failing. Often walking through the front door is a big step but the journey to the front of house or reception is not always as obvious as we like to believe but we’ll leave that for another post.)
I love a bit of anthropology in a museum. Sometimes I’ll stand outside with my headphones in giving the impression I’m waiting for someone. Than I’ll go inside and continue to have my headphones on as I wander around – basically I am listening in on conversations but they don’t know that. It’s amazing how people will talk freely when they don’t think anyone is listening…
A typical scenario is a family (of various size, for this I also mean grandparents, friends with kids, etc) that enter and try to figure out where the starting point is. Or a map. In fairness to museums, often there are wonderful Front of House that try to assist and breakdown any barriers but it’s often the family that are feeling to awkward to ask for help.
The HAM Way
When I was in Helsinki I noticed Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) had post-it notes for visitors to take when they enter. They were in the middle of the room on a standalone pedestal (and yes there are front of house people there also). No barriers, no awkwardness. People knew to go and take one. They were also in 4 languages (Finnish, Russian, Chinese and English as they are the top visitors).
It was such a genius concept on it’s own but the notes are so clever I had to share! I’m sure HAM wouldn’t mind anyone using these ideas (always best to credit them) or better yet – reach out to them and tell them how awesome they are!
Don’t Look at the Art Works: Look at the frames of the artworks. What would an artwork look like if the frames were different? Or if you’d take the frame off completely? Is the frame part of the piece of not?
Raining, again ….: Does weather affect your mood? Is it raining outside? Think of sunny summer days. Is the sun beating down? Cool down in front of a stormy painting. How does the weather affect the mood of the artwork?
Get Emotional: Which artwork is the scariest? Or the most fun? Saddest? Grimmest? Happiest? Most daring? Most melancholy? Most peaceful? Full of hope?
Size does Matter: Find the largest artwork at HAM. Does it evoke different emotions than smaller works Would the work be the same if it were smaller? Or if one of the smaller ones were larger?
Imitate art: Don’t just look, act it out! Dance a few steps like the dancers in the painting. Mimic the posture of the person in the sculpture. Is it really natural? Curl up into a lump on the floor like the sculpture. Imitate speech or music of a sound installation.
Date of the Museum: Get to know each other with the help of art. What do you like and don’t like? Why? Pick a work each that reminds you of your companion.
Retitle art works: Invent a name for an artwork you’re looking at. Then read the title given by the artist. How does the title affect your thoughts of the work?
A Portrait of you: Which one of the exhibition’s artists would you like to paint your portrait? Why?
Museum marathon: Combine exercise and art! Don’t creep along the walls! Walk calmly crisscrossing through the exhibition taking the longest route possible. Stop to stretch or do squats in front of the artworks that interest you the most. (Health and well being in museums!)
Be Inspired: Choose one of the artworks in the exhibition and try to make your own version of it at home. Or be inspired by its technique and create something entirely new! Share your creation with us with #HAMHelsinki
Pick and Linger: A movie lasts two hours, a concert one and a half, a dance performance one … on average a person spends 9 seconds looking at an artwork. Pick the works that you will spend a longer time looking at. The artists may have spent months or even years making them!
#bestofHAM: Which art work would you like in your living room? Which one don’t you like at all? Take a picture of your favourite and post it #bestofHam #HAMHelsinki
Are you in a hurry? Pick a number between 5 and 10. The bigger the hurry, the bigger the number. Ready? If you choose 5, for example, stop only at every fifth artwork.
Art on your skin: Is there a work that you could imagine having tattooed onto your skin forever? Why did you choose that one? (NB: Only tattoo I’d ever get is Kermit holding a C but that’s another story…)
Metal or Macaroni? You can make art out of anything. What if the sculpture in front of you were made of popcorn or mousetraps? How does the material affect your understanding of the work?
Imagine more: Artists choose only a tiny silver of the world to put on their canvas. What is happening outside of the frames?
Let Children Lead the Way: Art you visiting HAM with a child? Kneel down to see the works from a child’s perspective. Which piece is your companion most interested in? Why? Let your little guide tell you what’s happening in the piece.
Stare at the Backside: Who decides from what angle should you look at a sculpture or an installation? Crouch down to look from below, step in if you can or walk around to the back. Do you see something new?
Find the Untitleds: It can be annoying when artworks don’t have a name! What is the artist trying to say? Does the artists want you to interpret the work yourself or just to focus on the colours or shapes? Find all the untitled works. Do they have something in common?
#museumselfie: Make yourself part of the art by taking a #museumselfie. Blend into a landscape, take a silly shot with you and a portrait or give bunny ears to a sculpture. (Obviously, I love this one!)
The Worst Piece in the Museum: Spend the longest time looking at the piece you feel is the most boring or annoying. Pay attention to its details, techniques and materials. Why di the artist choose them and not something else? Read the wall text about the work.
When I asked a similar question on social media, some of the answers were similar.
— Mar Dixon (@MarDixon) August 28, 2016
The idea was to be broad in the question and try to make it so both museums and ‘general public’ could answer. The responses from Facebook (more visitors than museums people)
Scavenger hunt, Open bar, Sketching, acting (like people in a painting), alphabet hunt, rainbow hunt (find paintings/exhibits in the colour order of the rainbow or in as many colours as possible), talk to staff for more info and fun stories, write their own quiz based on facts they discover, etc. Focus on only one painting/exhibit and not try and do the whole place in one visit. Discuss emotions: How does the man in the painting feel? How does that seascape make you feel? Which painting or object shall we take home? And why? Where will it go in the house? Detail Hunt, create your own label.
Twitter: (More museum people than visitors)
@MarDixon Group collaborative social media posts in general. Make videos/Vines to share. Create a story to share via SM using museum objects
— #ITweetMuseums (@ITweetMuseums) August 28, 2016
@MarDixon find the oldest, grossest, smallest, scariest, nicest, redest, greenest… Object
— EuroGav Reads (@gavreads) August 28, 2016
@MarDixon I-Spy, simple postcard trails, find your favourite item & tell others why, draw favourite item for ‘today book’.
— Lizzie Glithero-West (@heritage_lizzie) August 28, 2016
What would you add? Have you done your own fun in museums? Museums are always looking for new ways to let the non-visitors know museums can and are fun!
We opened a small exhibit last year Mysteries in The Museum, featuring about a dozen objects in our collection not immediately identifiable- natural history and history. Each case offers a stack of blank post it notes and pencils and we invite people to guess what the object it and post it to a community board next to the object. Then they can open a small door and read what the object actually is. It’s a simple concept and has been very popular with schools as they’ve applied the concept of the scientific method to viewing the exhibit – observe, guess, test, etc…