All posts by Rachel Ropeik

I'm a museum educator paying attention to the places where the arts intersect with social media, technology, and adventure. You can find more information about me at my website.

Press Start to Continue: What Museum Educators Can Learn from Game Design

Over the summer, I helped a group of teens make a mobile game at the Brooklyn Museum.

That’s a pretty innocuous-looking sentence, but it felt like a big, exciting Project of Note.  There were plenty of interesting factors at play: it was my own first foray beyond digital game design into actual game creation; it was a chance to see my home institution’s collections from a new point of view; it was a different kind of programming from my usual roster.  But it’s now almost two months later, and I’m still thinking about it.

Why?  What made it so special?

First, let me give you the basics:

  • This was a program called NYC Haunts, in which teens work together to design and create a location-based game people can play on their mobile devices.
  • It’s run by Global Kids, a great organization that has all kinds of initiatives to help teens become informed citizens of the world.  They’ve run this program in schools and libraries before, and this was the first version done in a museum.
  • NYC Haunts teaches teens the basics of game design and uses TaleBlazer (a free game-design app from MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program) to build the game.  TaleBlazer is a visual programming platform, which means you don’t write the code textually.  Instead, you put it together using click-and-drag building blocks that combine to form commands.
  • The game itself is designed to help a player solve a mystery about local ghosts of the past who may still be lingering around in the present.
Screenshot of the TaleBlazer interface.
Screenshot of the TaleBlazer interface.

In the Brooklyn Museum game, our team of thirteen intrepid teen Ghost Hunters collaborated on a game that invites visitors to explore our Luce Visible Storage Center.  The game is called Helen’s Treasures, and the player must find all the precious items collected by Helen (the ghost protagonist of our game, based on a Chester Beach marble bust), in order to help her remember how she died so her spirit can be at peace.

In-game illustration of Helen by one NYC Haunts Ghost Hunter.
In-game illustration of Helen by one NYC Haunts Ghost Hunter.

This program was an exciting step towards a goal near and dear to my heart: using digital technology to explore museum collections without the technology overwhelming or distracting from the artwork.  And it was a chance to explore the world of game design in museums, which has been on my museum education radar for a while.  (I still love Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery.  More recently, I’ve been watching as Sophia George, the V&A’s first Games Designer in Residence, develops and releases her art museum-inspired game, Strawberry Thief, into the world.)

A big part of what made it feel so special, though, was the open-hearted, open-ended nature of the whole project and that fact that the teens were building something together from the ground up.  Before we talked at all about the museum-specific side of things, we spent a good chunk of time talking (and iterating) about what makes a game successful and how the game design process works.  We started with the basics, which fed into conversations that started to sound a whole lot like the kind of conversations museum educators have when coming up with programming ideas.

There was debate over how the game should feel to a player and how to create that feeling.  What were the goals of the game going to be and how should they be met?  What did we want our players to get out of their game experience?

Once the game creation itself got underway, I co-facilitated the meetings with Global Kids staff, but we tried to stay out of the way of the process as much as possible.  The teens decided what area of the museum they wanted as the location of their game.  They collaborated on the game’s story.  They worked smoothly as a whole group and then as small groups that focused variously on coding, choosing specific collection objects, creating the in-game visuals, and writing the detailed story players discover as they go.

And what they came up with, after only eight afternoon sessions, was a playable game that made my museum educator heart thump proudly.

It was the teens, not me, who identified that it was important for a player to look closely at art objects to answer the game’s questions.  It was the teens who chose the Visible Storage Center for both the artwork and the atmosphere (it’s cold and dim in there, as well as being full of shelves bursting with miscellaneous, sometimes-mysterious things).  It was the teens who created a cohesive story that brought new meaning to objects in the Museum’s collection.

They told engaging and creative stories, they created an immersive experience, and they made a fun, new way for people to discover an often-unexplored space.

Those sound remarkably like some of my Big Goals as a museum educator.

I’m trying to keep these lessons fresh in my mind as I head into a new school year of programming for teachers.  How can I hang onto that spirit of open exploration?  How can I help teachers see the museum in new ways?  What experiences can I create that are playful and fun and build skills in the museum, all at the same time?

I know there’s plenty of debate about digital games in the museum (should museums collect video games as art?  why is gamification such a dirty word?  what advantages do games have to offer museums, anyway?), and I’d love to hear from others who’ve experimented with games in museums (to resounding success or constructive failure).  I don’t know how much game design I’ll be doing in the future, but I do know I appreciate having tried it out and that it offered plenty of valuable things to keep in mind for my museum programming overall.  So, thanks to the clever Brooklyn Museum Ghost Hunters and to the energetic staff of Global Kids, not to mention the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund who believed in the project enough to give us the money for it.

One final note: If you’d like to playtest the prototype of the Brooklyn Museum NYC Haunts game, you can download TaleBlazer for free (Android or iOS).  Open it on your device and enter gvxkfju in the “Game Code” tab at the top.  Helen’s Treasures will download to your device, and then you’re free to play, even without wifi.

 

Real is a Thing That Happens to You: Tracking a Theme Through the AAM Annual Meeting

“Real isn’t how you are made.  It’s a thing that happens to you.”

public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit
public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit

This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013).  Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.

The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day.  “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions.  Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there.  But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.

They ask some great, substantial doozies:

  • Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?

  • Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?

  • Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?

If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place.  Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.

the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.
the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.

I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference.  In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline.  The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.

But did that make those knick-knacks more real?  Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?

As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.

It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts.  Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.  Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”

Lively!  Fun!  Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.”  Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories.  The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.

There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*).  Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects.  Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art.  A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.

installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B
installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B

But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information?  A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”.  Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.

Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place.  He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented.  “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said.  The idea of provenance came up and was questioned.  How is provenance determined, after all?  Is it who owned a thing?  Who cleaned a thing?  Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all.  Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.

And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real?  Who determines that realness?  How important is that realness to a museum visitor?  And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.

I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one.  It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true.  The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:

I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real.  […]

After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage.  It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling.  I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater…  But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real.  So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself.  Just me…  How large it was…  I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland.  The pirate ship… the wooden moon…  And I closed my eyes and spread my arms…  And it was true.  […]

For a moment…  Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing…  And life went on.

I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning.  Do you have answers?  Thoughts?  Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?

Gravity and Grace: Cross-Departmental Collaboration at the Brooklyn Museum

If I were stitching a sampler about some of my recent museum education work, it might start like this:

A is for Anatsui.  B is for Brooklyn.  C is for collaboration.

Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com
Photo by David Sky, seemsartless.com

Where the rest of the alphabet would go, I’m not so sure, but those first three letters reflect my experience working on Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, the retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.  Every show in every museum takes a dedicated team to pull it off, of course, but I’m taking this digital moment to highlight what’s been a particularly wonderful example of cross-departmental cooperation, which isn’t an easy thing, especially in a mid- or large-size institution.  In this case, it led to a variety of ways to engage with the exhibition that ultimately (I hope) makes the show a great experience for our visitors.

We have a downloadable Teaching Resource for teachers who want to bring their students to see the show.  We hosted a conversation between El Anatsui himself, Susan Vogel (filmmaker and author of El Anatsui: Art and Life), and Kevin Dumouchelle (the museum’s Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands and curator of this show in its Brooklyn presentation):

We have an in-gallery hands-on activity inviting visitors to use paper and twist ties to imitate some of the folds Anatsui and his assistants use to create his massive metal artworks (more on that in a bit).  We have iPad kiosks that solicit visitor responses to the art on display using video questions posed by museum staff.  We have QR Codes to scan for those seeking further context.  And that’s in addition to our array of tours, workshops, and art-making classes designed for families, students, and adults.  So many options for engagement!

So how did all this come about, and what made it so collaborative?

PaperFolding
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

My part in it started when I took on the role of Project Educator for the show.  The Education staff here divvies up a given year’s roster of special exhibitions to assign a Project Educator or two to each show.  These folks represent Education’s voice in interdepartmental meetings and help shape education programming during the show’s run.

From the get-go, Kevin generously shared his knowledge, thoughts, and time with me and Matthew Branch, my fellow Project Educator.  For Kevin, the collaboration inspiration started even earlier in the process: with Anatsui himself.  “The work is so open ended,” Kevin says.  “There was a real possibility for thinking big and thinking of options that we might have been a little bit more cautious about if we had more specific instructions from the artist.”

While some artists provide detailed notes for how their pieces should be installed, Anatsui likes to leave it up to the team at each location.  “That filtered down to every aspect of the show,” Kevin adds.  “Which made it a lot of fun.”  Take a peek at this time-lapse video of the show’s installation. As you can see from the art handlers, designers, and conservators involved, it took a team to get the show up.  Not to mention Robert Nardi in our Technology department, who made this video to share with the internet at large:

Go, team, go!

Adding her enthusiasm and creativity to the mix was Sara Devine, the museum’s Manager of Interpretive Materials, who made sure we had a hands-on activity in an exhibition full of objects that, oh man, do you ever want to touch.  We can’t touch the art, but thanks to Sara’s input, we can do our own tactile experimentation.  Physically embodied engagement?  Check. Multimodal sensory inputs?  Check.  Music to the ears of any art educator.

iPadScreenshot
Photo by Rachel Ropeik

Sara also enlisted representatives from our curatorial and education staff (and, again, Technology’s cooperation) to record several 30-second video clips that ask visitors questions about the exhibition and invite them to enter their responses on iPads throughout the galleries.

All in all, it’s an exhibition that offers visitors a range of ways of interacting, and it could only have been done by creative interdepartmental teamwork. As Sara states:

“I know it sounds pretty obvious, but what allowed this exhibition to be a good example of cross-departmental collaboration was an ongoing and open line of communication, which is surprisingly rare. I think we all very easily get caught up in our own part of the process and forget to reach out, ask for input, and keep others informed. We all made a conscious effort to communicate and I believe that is the biggest reason our collaboration was so successful.”

I couldn’t have said it better.  This opening up of the closed doors–be they metaphorical or literal–between departments is a way many museums approach (or are starting to approach) their work, and it’s an exciting prospect to look forward to.  In Mike Murawski’s recent post about the Museum Education Division sessions at this year’s NAEA Convention, he noted that we’re in “a moment when many major museums are re-imagining (and, in some cases, totally disrupting) the traditional relationships between education and curatorial.”  Sure, it may be testing uncharted waters, but when it works (as it has with Gravity and Grace), it can produce amazing results.

How have you worked to open lines of communications across departments at your institution?  Join the conversation below, and share some of the best collaborations you have been involved with.