Following on from last week’s post on play, I want to share a few photos of the artworks, immersive installations and interactives that I enjoyed playing with on my visit to the US. In the name of research, it’s quite liberating to try out the extra bits and bobs, and not something I’d usually do. I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I also enjoyed having the place to myself. These museum displays clearly get a lot of use at weekends and school holidays, but on your average weekday, there aren’t many other people around so I could play to my heart’s content.
My favourite galleries at the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus (CoSI) depict a street scene of a mythical town called Progress, set in 1898, and then the same street again, but in 1962. The corridor connecting the two has a timeline summarising some of the radical changes that happened inbetween. It was a very immediate way of understanding change over time in only a few generations. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed galleries like this, where you can go into the shops and peer through the windows and have a rich immersive experience.
In the 1898 version was a telegram office that looked as though the postmaster/mistress had just stepped out of the room. To one side was a table with a Morse code machine and above it, a caged bird. The simple instructions on the table showed the Morse alphabet of dot-dash combinations and then gave examples of a few simple words, like cow or tree, that could be constructed using this system. The best bit – when you tap in this sequence, the bird then says the word back to you. I found this so engaging, to get the code correct and then the satisfaction of making the bird speak. I tried a few Anglo-Saxon words not on the list, without success, so I think there’s probably a shadow list somewhere of words that the bird can choose not to recognise.
In 1962, I went into a classic diner and found a couple of kids playing behind the counter and their dad sitting (wearily) at a nearby table, pretend-eating plastic bacon and chips. Without batting an eyelid, the girl asked me for my order, so I had an invisible milkshake, which cost me 15 invisible cents. The best bit – a real jukebox in the corner was filled with sixties hits. I played Green Onions, and then Fever, and had a mini-bop because I couldn’t help myself. I left those galleries feeling really happy.
CoSI also has a series of ‘Life’ galleries that explore the human body and consciousness. While the decor looks pretty dated, I enjoyed reading a text panel about all the different noises a body can make and what’s going on anatomically. Starting from the top, there were explanations on sniffing, snoring, sneezing and burping before heading further south. Next to this list was a keyboard and when you press any of the keys, they make a different disgusting body sound. So educational AND entertaining. I should have grown out of finding this sort of thing funny by now, but my shonky version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise was really quite special. It also brought to Ferris Bueller faking illness and lining up his legendary day off.
Moving back into more sensible territory, I found this postcard-making activity at Denver Art Museum (DAM) really straight-forward and captivating. The activity table had a spine of materials down the centre, including postcard templates, plain on one side and ‘this is from Denver Art Museum’ on the back, and a series of bespoke stamps, each with a detail from artworks on display. The stamps had cattle, cowboys, horses, clouds, birds, and fences that could all be mixed and matched to create a new scene. You could either take your postcard away or display it on the wire clothesline. I imagine this activity is fairly low maintenance for the staff and it did make me look again at the paintings that inspired the stamps.
Over the road from DAM is History Colorado, which has also gone all out with the immersive experience, recreating the town of Keota, a tiny Midwestern settlement which no longer exists. You can walk along a re-creation of the high street and go into the chemist, the local primary school or a typical home. My favourite part was clambering into the driver’s seat of a Model T and following an audio-visual narrative – the screen showed us bumping over prairies, while a soundtrack played the voices of a mother, father and two kids, having a conversation about their journey. The car itself jerked around to suggest movement over uneven ground. There was a big jolt when we ran over a snake and a spritz of water vapour in the face when it started raining. You got a good sense of how isolated the town was, the difficulty of crossing the landscape, and how important social connections were between distant neighbours.
And finally, I had to include Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout. This work is on The Virginia B Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acre, part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. You really need aerial photography to get a sense of the full piece, and up close each section is the perfect height for sitting on. For me, this was the ideal stepping stone challenge. Hopping from shin to thigh bone was simple enough, and I contemplated making the leap from spine to skull, but it wasn’t worth breaking my own leg in the process and common sense prevailed. It has been so thoroughly drummed into me to never touch the artworks, that I tend to over-compensate in sculpture parks and insist on touching (or climbing on) absolutely everything. And if Robin Williams taught us anything in Dead Poet’s Society, it was that standing on stuff we shouldn’t – be it a desk or a skeleton sculpture – is a great way to get a new perspective on the world. I didn’t YAWP but I could’ve.
A month of playing with all the toys in museums taught me that kids are hogging the fun and a bit of silliness is good for the soul. It’s also useful to be reminded of what it’s like to be a visitor and how a change of tempo, movement or tone can break up a museum visit and refresh flagging concentration. I liked spending time considering artworks, and then working on a half-completed puzzle, and then moving on to read some visitor comments, and then returning to some more art. I’m also interested in how we can incorporate movement into our museum experiences, so that we are considering the whole person, not just their experiences from the neck up. A fully rounded experience generates memories that span head, heart and hand and live in both the mind and the body. A mix of play and contemplation brings these aspects together beautifully.
Header image: detail from Tableau, 2016, by Hadley Hooper, at the Denver Art Museum