Friday, July 20, 2007

Game Friday: Museum Mad Libs!

I read recently about an awesome project at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2001, Collecting Our Thoughts, in which visitors were invited to write the labels for an art exhibition (more another time). Which made my mind go to a far more irreverent destination: Mad Libs.

Go ahead. Pick a plural noun. Then an adjective. Then a number. Then a verb in present tense. Then another plural noun. (Mine are in all caps below.)

Now construct the story of an artifact:
"This painting by Vermeer was completed in 1663. It shows a woman holding a water pitcher next to a window. Vermeer wanted to include some ZEBRAS in the image but they were too FAT. The woman who posed for this portrait had to stand for 276 hours in this exact position. She often thought, "Gee, I wish I could TANGO with PANCAKES instead of doing this."
Is this educational? Not in an obvious way. But it's a lot of fun, and it could be a great way to construct a personalized takeaway from a museum experience.
It's also a way for visitors to express themselves, enjoy their own expression, and feel like they play an active role in interepretation of museum objects.

And that is educational. There's a lot of talk about training museum visitors to interpret museum content on their own, but the implementation of that desire is fuzzy. You look at the object, read the label, and then... what? Sometimes there's a proferred question to answer mentally. Sometimes school groups have scavenger hunts and they fill in blanks from the labels (arguably less educational than generating your own content). But in galleries of facts, there's often little prompting to be imaginative. And doing so is often the gateway to intrepretation.

I remember the first time an artist friend of mine took me to a museum and I watched him laugh at some of the art. I was shocked, and vaguely concerned that we might get in trouble. "Why are you laughing?" I hissed. "Because it's funny. The artist made something funny."

His training allowed him to think of artists as people with motivations and challenges, whereas I usually thought of them as names attached to objects. Games that allow visitors to imagine the mistakes, the accidents, the possibilities inherent in objects humanize them. They make them less perfect, less pedestal-y, more connectable.

Break it down and make a connection. Mad Libs seems like an ideal format for this conversion. It's both narrative and a game. And it belongs to the user. Leading questions at the end of labels, no matter how well-worded, come off as challenges from a higher power. They're owned by the museum. Holding the power to interpret in your own hand or pocket makes it yours--not the museum's--and that ownership encourages comfort and playfulness. Let visitors cheat--give them the paragraphs for each artifact with the blanks and let them put in the answers they think are funniest, most likely, or weirdest. Hold contests for the funniest submissions and put them on display at special events, or, if you're brave, alongside the objects themselves.

This kind of activity promotes spending more time with the object. One of the reasons I advocate strongly for games in museums is that games present compelling, addictive models for engagement with content. Most game content is banal, but it doesn't have to be. So often in museums, I find myself struggling to keep looking at the ancient rug or the swirling tornado after I've read the label and seen my fill. I have a hard time generating insightful questions and trying to answer them in my own head. But it would be easy for me to fill in Mad Libs. It would be easy for me to drop my own imagination into a silly story about the people who used that coin or how the museum built the xylophone. And these stories could point to hidden worlds of information--about conservation, object provenance, exhibit prototyping, the people involved--that otherwise are rarely discussed.

Creating museum Mad Libs for your institution would take about a day. Walk around, pick the objects you want to include, write the paragraphs, label the blanks with parts of speech, and take it to the copier. For about $1 apiece, you could produce 500 copies with a slick cardstock cover. Hand them out or sell them for $3 and see what happens. Offer them to school groups and families. Ask for feedback. Simple.

Or is it? The hard thing about incorporating visitor content in the museum has little to do with complexity or desire. I sincerely believe that most museums want their visitors to ask questions, give opinions, etc. The hard part is letting go of authority, telling visitors that not only do you want their thoughts about your stuff, you're willing to make a game of it. You're willing to let them laugh at the art, make up imaginary facts about the collection, and create stories about the experience. Some of the best Mad Libs are the ones where you get to change the words in famous fairy tales or nursery rhymes--where you get permission to mess with authority.

Cinderella has survived Mad Libs libel--Vermeer and your museum can too. How about it?

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