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Can and should museums be playful places? Anna Bunney and Charlotte Derry believe so and are on a mission to discover how best to create the right conditions for play.

Image of people with paper on heads
Creating moments of nonsense at the Museums Association Conference in 2012

At Manchester Museum we are currently involved in a project to shape a series of principles, based upon our real experiences, loosely called ‘The new rules of the playful museum’. The project has evolved from experimentation and engagement over the past four years with playful ideas and practice in our museum space.

Our current project emerged from our Happy Museum Playful Museum project which enabled us to commission training for visitor-facing staff with playwork experts. Staff learnt from innovative work in the playwork sector and embedded new, creative ways of working which helped develop their understanding of play and provide more playful opportunities for visitors. They were encouraged and supported to challenge perceptions about play and space, try out playful nonsense, observe children and adults’ playful movements.

Our gallery staff have coined the term 'relaxy staffitude' as one of the key ingredients in creating the right conditions for play

With continued support from The Happy Museum, we are producing a rulebook, a sustainable resource which shares our learning and thinking, and a vehicle through which we hope to start a rich discussion within the sector about what a playful museum or gallery could look and feel like. The idea for the rulebook came about when we read a small booklet ‘The New Rules of Public Art’ produced in 2013 by the public art organisation Situations. Its 1940s ministerial pamphlet format is juxtaposed with challenging provocations and wisdoms gleaned from practice. Its rules prompted us to think differently about public art and encourage commissioners to think more about developing works with emerging, fluid and multiple meanings which can be created between artist, artwork and viewer/participant. The concept of a traditional-looking framework incorporating contemporary ideas struck a chord with us, as Manchester Museum is a traditional Victorian museum, but we like to experiment with our practice. We liked the playfulness of the contrast between the instructive dogmatism of a rulebook and the openness of its content. This has inspired us to play with the rules within our own rulebook, much as children and adults create their own rules for play when they take games in different directions according to the players and their environment.

With the format decided upon and a designer on board to steer and mesh our ideas into a coherent booklet, our next challenge is to consider how we will develop content that is resonant with all, so that the sector receives something of real value. We did not simply want to write a guidebook about “this is how you do the playful museum thing” so we are in the process of co-creating the content and the on-gallery team are playing their part in creating the initial rule ideas. They have now participated in three sessions to develop the core elements of the book, and the themes that have emerged include:

  • Creating the conditions to enable play to happen - whether through a smile, a wink, through flexible resources set out in the gallery, or by communicating something witty or playful.
  • Getting the support you need from across the organisation - to be able to experiment and try new things, whether it is giving permissions or initiating playful happenings.
  • Being able to fail and keep trying.
  • One size does not fit all – not all staff want to be playful and everyone’s position must be respected and accommodated.

A playful museum is an attitude of people and the environment. Our museum is a living organism and our gallery staff have coined the term ‘relaxy staffitude’ as one of the key ingredients in creating the right conditions for play.

And so the challenge now is to represent our themes and ideas through language and illustrations which can be universally understood and personally interpreted by staff at every level within museums and galleries. To do this we plan to pilot our ‘rules’ in other venues including the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Edinburgh Museum and Derby Museums. Their feedback will help us form our final version which we will be launching in the spring.

Anna Bunney is Curator of Public Programmes at Manchester Museum and Charlotte Derry is the project lead and an independent play and museum consultant.

Link to Author(s): 
Image of Anna Bunney
Image of Charlotte Derry