Jul 29, 2011

Museums that feel like fun parks

I have often visited the various museums of Nepal. Me, my sister, and cousins have enjoyed going to the Chhauni museum and its several wings, Basantapur museum, and other museums. We enjoyed looking at the artifacts, discussing them, and having picnics on the premises. But more often than not, the”fun” part of going to museums came from us, and not from the museums, because the museums represented themselves as scholarly, remote, and somewhat untouchable. In America, I saw a vast difference in the way museums represented themselves (of course it’s the museum personnel who are responsible for this representation, but for a while let us pretend that museums have a personality too.) Their stance was more fun and approachable. I could see that visitors, especially children, were impressed but not overly awed by the museums. I was wondering if these approaches could be tried in the museums of Nepal to attract more visitors.

First of all, many museums allowed visitors to touch selected exhibits. At the Lincoln Memorial museum in Springfield, a stone statue of the face of Lincoln was displayed with the notice “please touch”. At the Chicago Art Institute is an exhibit called “water”, which is basically a curtain made of many different glass beads. You have to walk through this curtain to get to the other room. According to the artist, the purpose of this exhibit is to show that art should be embraced. At the Field museum in Chicago, replicas of dinosaur teeth were available for touching. Also at the Field museum, two inch samples of several kinds of fur were available for touching. I now know the difference between the textures of mink and angora coats. In real life I could never afford either of these furs and will probably not come across them in my life. The most fun “touchable” exhibit was also at the Field museum, where there was a replica of dinosaur’s footprints. The footprint was probably made of some sort of hard clay or mold, and it was so big that me and my friend were able to fit both our feet in it comfortably, and there was still space for at least three more pairs. I bet children had a lot of fun trying to measure up to the dinosaur feet.

The next step to touching objects was giving visitors custom made photo opportunities. Field museum had many such spots, we could actually climb on old models of cycles or fake horses and take pictures. Lincoln Memorial museum has statues of Abraham Lincoln’s family grouped together, where you could sling an arm into Lincoln’s elbow for a picture.

Sometimes, we actually got to play with the exhibits. Chicago Art Institute had an exhibit of post modern furniture, where people could actually sit and rest on the innovatively designed new age sofas and chairs and some unnamed pieces. At a special exhibit for whales, the Field museum had a huge model of whale heart complete with valves. Children could actually enter the whale heart through these valves and play inside. At the dinosaur section, we could press a lever which emitted a deep sound -supposedly imitating a dinosaur's voice. Nearby was a model Native American house complete with kitchen utensils, and even real looking food in the utensils. Of course the food was all artificial and the utensils were stuck to the kitchen floor, but still we could pretend as if we were cooking for a while. The Lincoln memorial museums had an even better idea: there were costumes from Lincoln’s era that children could actually wear and play in for a while.

These fun activities also catered to the nerdy visitors. Field museum had games and puzzles for children (and inquisitive adults) at regular intervals of few meters. Some of them were played on touch screens, but others were played on plain wooden panels. Usually a question is asked and the answer is covered, and we can move a simple piece of wood to discover the answer. From these types of panels I discovered that many food items that we take for granted today, like Chilli, Cocoa, Maize, Potato, and Tomato all originated in the two American continents. Would never have known that if I wasn’t having fun with the panels! There were also more elaborate games like puzzles or jigsaws.

Museums also have special exhibits to attract visitors from time to time. The Art Institute of Chicago holds exhibitions of specific historical times, or specific artists. The Field museum at Chicago goes one step further and holds special exhibits of “cool” subjects like Pirates and Dinosaurs. Children may not be attracted to regular subjects like history of Native Americans, but they would certainly like to see pirates!
Field museum building during Pirates Special exhibition. Note how the entire building is converted into a promotional advertisement

I was wondering, why couldn’t we apply some of these ideas and make our own museums more fun! Many museums earn a lot just by selling t shirts with the museum’s name or artifacts printed on it, Nepali museums could do that by selling t shirts, replicas of artifacts, or local crafts. We have such a vast collection of interesting information in our museums; they just need a more approachable front. Maybe visitors could be allowed to touch some exhibits, or replicas of exhibits (usually the touchable exhibits that I mentioned were replicas of real artifacts and not the originals). Or they could be allowed to pose with some ancient swords or cannonballs, they could be allowed to pose near statues, or they could be allowed to wear replicas of ancient costumes for a fee. Special festivals could be organized according to themes! That way, museums can attract not just hard core nerds, but also children and people who just want to have fun! Once someone ends up at a museum, they are bound to learn something! The schemes listed above are not expensive, though of course, many American museums employ expensive schemes involving lots of extra hardware. However, creative presentation is worth much more than expensive hardware any day, and in Nepal, everyone is a creative genius!

Note: This article was published in Tourism Times Fortnightly


Yug zee Tah said...

I completely agree! Remember how much fun we had playing in India's Birla Museum. So many things to do and experience!

sewa said...

oh wow, i COMPLETELY forgot about that!!!!!!!!
I would have included if i remembered, that was such fun, wasn't it! :)

Anonymous said...

Today is documentation indisposed, isn't it?

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