Museums & the playful web – a revolution in sensemaking

Paper
Catherine Styles, Sembl, Australia

Published paper: Museums and the playful web – a revolution in sense-making

This paper recognises and pays tribute to the playful turn in museums, whose significance is greater than it seems, in a world where ‘play’ is associated with inconsequentiality, even pretence. I contend that at this historical moment, our innate faculty for playful thinking (by which I mean intuitive, associative thinking in particular) is critical: both underrated and immensely valuable.

Museums are keepers of material culture, and places for reflecting on the physical and social worlds we inhabit. For the last four centuries they have also been implicated in shaping modern Western knowledge, so it is fitting that museums should also be in the vanguard of reactivating unconscious or intuitive modes of cognition – it’s a timely counterbalance to the post-Enlightenment passion for rational analysis.

Playfulness emerges from, and fuels, an authority-shift among museums and their publics – indeed in the process of knowledge-making itself. In the early 21st-century context of abundant information, adopting a more playful attitude is clearly advantageous for a museum in terms of attracting visitors. But the benefit can extend well beyond the museum. As I will argue, by cultivating our innate faculty for pattern recognition, we can better comprehend the complex systems in which we are all embroiled, and begin to imagine solutions to the global crises we face.

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