I’m working on a virtual museum project these days, and one question that often comes up is “What is the most fun thing we could let visitors do here that they can’t do in the real world?” Inevitably, the answer involves irreverence, whether in the form of interpretation (the comedian’s tour of the museum), instruction (how to guides for not looking stupid while talking about art), or downright destruction (smashing valuable objects). Every time one of these ideas comes up, a guilty silence spreads around the team. Can we really do this? Will the establishment support it? What risks do we run by casting our nets for humor?
After all, most of our ideas don’t require a virtual landscape; any museum could commission Kid Rock’s tour of the galleries. What they do require is a willingness to explore using humor in the museum.
There are plenty of good reasons that most museums are laugh-impaired. Some are cast as temples for objects to be revered. Others explore subject matter that is patently unfunny. Others believe any nod to becoming an “entertainment venue” is a topic for concern (though many are headed that way). But the biggest reason I think museums avoid humor is humor undermines authority. To make a joke about something, you have to feel comfortable playing with the item, with visitors, and with your own role as an “expert.” You have to be okay with the idea that someone might laugh at you.
So why do it? Because humor is a design tool that can be employed as powerfully as a skillfully placed light or a fabulous slice of audio. It can break up and lighten an oppressively intense experience. It can provide connection points among strangers. And educationally, it can be an open hand inviting novice museum-goers to have a comfortable and enjoyable museum experience.
Let’s start by talking about design. As more museums move towards narrative presentation of content, the bank of useful design tools grows to include those used by other storytellers. Consider television. I was watching an episode of CSI recently with audio commentary from the director and many times, he pointed out humorous touches designed to “lighten” the tone of the show. Amidst dead bodies and gore and weapons and test tubes, they’re telling jokes. Lots of them. The sarcastic puns, the gallows humor—it’s all over the show.
Sure, it’s entertainment. But it’s also about murder. The topic is not exactly levity-central, and yet they still find opportunities to crack jokes and try to make the audience smile. The show’s creators, like most entertainers, want to create a positive experience for their audience. And humor is a big part of that. As more museums seek to diversify beyond the intellectual experience of objects and ideas, humor should sit alongside emotion, spirituality, expression, and other newfound palettes for experience design.
But what about the fact that humor often feels silly, like a grab for something profane? Real humor isn’t about knock knock jokes (unless you’re eight). It’s an emotional release valve. Does humor lessen the impact of an intense experience? No. Humor provides comfort, whether in the face of death or potential disaster. It humanizes the experience of stress. It also can encourage people to keeping going or try again.
Consider its use in games. Game researchers have shown that humor contributes to players’ investment in the game, comfort with failure, and general enjoyment. When you see your last ten minutes of agonizing moves go up in smoke, the cosmic funniness of seeing lemmings jump off the cliff or your character get swallowed by a giant toad softens the blow.
It’s also a decent (though debatable) educational tool. Museum professionals know to lead with a joke when they speak at conferences; why not do the same in exhibitions? Punctuating serious presentations with humor keeps people engaged. One of the strangest ways I see this employed is in the ride safety videos at theme parks. These videos, about how to survive a roller coaster, used to be dull and practically unwatchable. Now, they’re full of slapstick—crash test dummies breaking the ride, crazy things you shouldn’t do—and by extension, fun to watch. The theme parks found a way to turn an onerous requirement into a useful piece of entertainment, and I imagine more people are aware of the safety restrictions now than previously.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, humor can be used as a way to connect with visitors who are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or wary of the museum experience. For that large part of the population, museums are foreign landscapes. The visitors don’t know how they should act or what to expect. Making a joke out of these overwhelming first experiences, whether by modeling silly behavior as in the theme park example or making fun of traditional models of museum-going, releases the pressure valve on uncertainty.
But it’s not as easy as throwing a couple puns on the wall. The biggest challenge inherent in the use of humor is its power to alienate. A lot of humor is about us laughing at them—and the identity of us and them are different in different situations. In museums, it’s important to be clear about who these groups are. Probably the safest way to use humor is to make jokes about ourselves, about the museum, and let them laugh at us. What jokes are you willing to tell?
So a priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a museum…