Museums & the playful web – a revolution in sensemaking

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.

Bennett, Tony. 1988. “Museums and the People.” In The Museum Time Machine. London: Routledge.
———. 1995. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.
Copplestone, Tara and Botham, Luke. 2014. Buried.
Crimp, Douglas. 1993. On the Museum’s Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Flatow, Ira. 2013. “EO Wilson’s Advice for Future Scientists.” NPR.
Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House.
Friedman, Thomas. 2012. “Come the Revolution.” New York Times, May 16.
Gerald, George. 1990. “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: Observations on Going Astray.” In Visiting History. Washington DC: American Association of Museums.
Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
Jones, Jane Peirson. 1992. “Colonial Legacy and the Community: The Gallery 33 Project.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Karp, Ivan. 1992a. “Introduction: Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
———. 1992b. “On Civil Society and Social Identity.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Koestler, Arthur. 1975. The Act of Creation: A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Humor, Scientific Discovery and Art. London: Pan Books.
Lohman, Jack. 2011. “Preface.” In Panamanian Museums and Historical Memory. Museums and Diversity. Oxford: Museum of London and Berghahn Books.
MacDonald, Sharon. 1996. “Theorizing Museums: An Introduction.” In Theorizing Musuems: Representing Diversity in a Changing World. Oxford: Blackwell in conjunction with the Sociological Review.
Merriman, Nick. 1989. “Museum Visiting as a Cultural Phenomenon.” In The New Museology. London: Reaktion Books.
Palmer, Amanda. 2013. “Connecting the Dots.” In The Muse and the Marketplace. Grub Street.
Popova, Maria. 2012. “How Intuition and the Imagination Fuel ‘Rational’ Scientific Discovery and Creativity: A 1957 Guide.” Brain Pickings.
Roppola, Tiina. 2012. Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience. Routledge Research in Museum Studies. New York and London: Routledge.
Shapiro, Jordan. 2013. “How Game-Based Learning Can Save the Humanities.” Forbes.
Silverstone, Roger. 1994. “The Medium Is the Museum: On Objects and Logics in Times and Spaces.” In Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge.
Stevens, Victoria. 2014. “To Think Without Thinking: The Implications of Combinatory Play and the Creative Process for Neuroaesthetics.” American Journal of Play. Volume 7, Issue 1: 99–119.
Tchen, John Kuo Wei. 1992. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Warner, Marina. 2011. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. London: Random House.
Way, J. Edson. 1993. “The Modern Gallery Exhibition as a Form of Western–Indigenous Discourse.” In Imagery and Creativity: Ethnoaesthetics and Art Worlds in the Americas. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Whitelaw, Mitchell. 2009. “Exploring A1: Items to Documents.”
Zimmerman, Eric, and Heather Chaplin. 2013. “Manifesto: The 21st Century Will Be Defined by Games.” Kotaku.