Monday, April 13, 2009

A "Playful" Interview with Aaron Goldblatt

Aaron Goldblatt has an intense interest in what makes both museums, and their visitors, "tick". He was kind enough to answer a few questions for the ExhibiTricks blog, and I hope you enjoy reading his responses as much as I did.

What’s your educational background?

BFA in sculpture from Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts)
MFA in sculpture from Rutgers University. I attended High school in Maryland suburb of DC, and Grade school on military bases in the US and in Germany.

I Studied ceramics in North Carolina and still make pots now and then. I trained as a welder and carpenter.

What got you interested in Museums?

True to the data in visitor studies – I grew up going to museums to become a lover of museums as an adult. Every family vacation centered on visits to museums in the US and Europe (my father was an army doctor and we were stationed in Germany from 1961 through 1963). Through the 1980s I worked as a technical designer and fabricator for many sculptors, installing their work in museums around the country. I loved the art but loved the museums more – and the possibility that one could think about addressing a whole host of arenas beyond art through this curious medium of exhibitions.

Life on the road in the 1980s was fun but not sustainable. The birth of my daughter led me to hunt around for grown-up, stable employment. How funny that it would be Please Touch Museum! They were looking for an Exhibits Manager and with great skepticism in 1990 I applied for the job. I had in fact heard of children’s museums and my daughter and I had great fun at the National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC the previous year.

My skepticism grew from: 1. Worrying how I would maintain my studio practice in the face of a full time job, and 2. Would this children’s museum business just be silliness? Well, I got the job. 1. My studio practice was great for a year, but the job at the museum proved so compelling and rewarding in ways I thought previously could only come from making art that I happily closed up that shop. 2. It was silly in the best of all ways, and it was lots of other things as well.

I found myself in a place and at a time where creative thought was encouraged, teams of smart people worked on things that seemed to matter in ways that had never occurred to me before. The audience proved to be demanding, shrewd, and responsive. I also found myself in a community of children’s museums that were doing really interesting work nationally and they were enormously welcoming. I can’t exaggerate how refreshing it was to find an environment that deemphasized individual authorship and valued a collective focus on measurable success.

What has prompted your interest in "Play”?

At Please Touch Museum play was the currency of the realm. We talked about it all the time; we looked for it in our work and discovered that a playful process was necessary for a playful product. I started to wonder what play really was. I watched my daughter play alone and with her friends and figured way more was going on than what I understood. I looked at my own propensity to build things and thought the pleasure I derived from it must mean something larger.

A poet friend gave me a copy of Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga and it blew me away. Someone had actually thought about this stuff in a really deep way! He connected play to human behavior in the most fundamental way and placed it in a comprehensive historic context.

In 1997 I came across The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) and was once more blown away. There was a whole community of scholars from every conceivable discipline examining play systematically. Primatologists studied play among bonobos. Sociologists were studying rough-and-tumble play among boys in immigrant communities in Chicago. Early childhood educators were watching toddlers play among strangers in institutional settings. All of them struggling to define this slippery notion of play. The work of Brian Sutton-Smith and Bernie Mergen, both of whom had important relationships with Please Touch in its early years, opened my eyes even further.

In truth, I have found play to be my home for some years now. It is the filter through which I look at almost everything. I know my students weary of hearing me gas on about it.

Tell us a little bit about Storytelling Bootcamp, and how it got started?

I teach in the Museum Studies Graduate Program at the University of the Arts. During a strategic planning retreat a couple of years ago, a former student, Victoria Prizzia, and I found ourselves in the same breakout group. We talked about storytelling as a central characteristic of our task creating exhibitions. It occurred to us that it might be fun to begin every year, with the entering students, in a storytelling intensive workshop for two or three days. All kinds of people could troop through telling stories from their particular perspectives. Actors, curators, financial analysts – anyone who is interested in deriving meaning from a data set of some kind. There would be individual and group storytelling workshops. That way, each cohort of students would share some sense of the breadth and potential of stories. The idea of the workshop at UArts may or may not ever take off, but Victoria and I continued to talk about it.

It struck us that such a workshop could be enormously valuable for a museum considering any kind of important project. As a consultant, I have run up against problems when the museum cedes too much decision making control to an outsider. We felt that if the museum took control of the creative process right from the gate, they would be in much better shape when real planning and design took place – whether they hired out the services or kept them in-house. We also felt it could be a way for a struggling institution to refocus its efforts on what really mattered – and most importantly, in a playful way. The idea of prototyping the exercise at the MAAM Creating Exhibitions Symposium was an easy leap. We’ll see where it goes.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline) resources for people interested in finding out more about play?

Not in any particular order:

The Association for the Study of Play I love this organization. If I could afford it, I would go to their conference every year.

The American Journal of Play.
I subscribe to both the digital and paper version because I still need the paper in my hands.

The Strong Museum in Rochester NY made the bold leap to become the National Museum of Play a few years ago. They host TASP administratively and became the archives for Brian Sutton-Smith’s papers (he is generally regarded as the father of the contemporary study of play).

The International Play Association
is primarily an advocacy group and their site is excellent for seeing what’s happening around the world (good and bad) in children’s play.

The National Institute For Play
is a little overly focused on the work of one guy, Dr. Stuart Brown, but his work is really interesting, and it’s his organization after all.

There are tons of books out there. Some have been enormously important to me, but I don’t presume to think that any particular one would have a similar impact on anyone else. I do think that if folks just dived in a bit, they would start looking at all kinds of resources in different ways.

Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, is not specifically about play, but it got me thinking about specific arenas of play and the need to vary the “playground,” so to speak, and to honor them all.

What has happened to me, and has frankly tested the patience of my family, is that I have become much more conscious of play; when it is happening and when it is inhibited. I find myself watching people closely when I think they are playing and I try to figure out what they are doing (or not doing). I have grown to respect the specifics of play and many of the activities that are probably not play, but are critical to the development of play (exploration, for example).

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing better stories for their exhibitions?

I share your instinct: start with the stuff. What do you have? Of what you have, what do you see as most important? Why is it important? Why does/should it matter to your audience? I always seem to come back to the question; what are you trying to accomplish? These are questions that need to be answered internally by the organization (with outside help if necessary) and fully embraced by the staff and the board. They need to be answered before any thinking about a capital project gets under way. Without it, how do you know you’ll like what you build, or if your visitors will have any interest?

The scale of the operation or the project is immaterial. A $50M operation is just as capable of losing its way as a $50K operation (maybe more so). The amount of resources spent on a project is also less relevant than one might think. Being really clear about why a project is important and what is to be gained by doing it is way more than half the battle.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?

You know, six months ago I would have ignored this question – thinking that it is simply hubris to pretend to look into a crystal ball. I am now no more prone to predicting the future, but the current economic crisis has made me think a lot about what I’d like to see. If anything good can come out of this quagmire it is the realignment of what we regard as having value.

Museums do not exist in a vacuum and they have partaken in an orgy of expansion in the last few decades like many sectors of our society. I have participated directly in that process and remain in a business that depends on some sort of continuance of that phenomenon. But it’s not all good and it’s not all necessary. What is most important, it is not all sustainable. I don’t care how green a new building or exhibition is, all too often the fundamental question is not being asked – is it really necessary? Are there ways we could do this without building a new facility? The “necessary” part is a tough one because it refers to a larger set of criteria than within the institution in question. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should.

I would love to see museums do some real soul-searching and look closely at what they have/do of real value – maybe even articulate what value means in the context of their missions and collections. The political Right has had a firm grip on the term “values” for a couple of decades and used it as a cudgel against anyone standing on their margins. I think we are at a place and time when we can reclaim a wider, less punitive sense of value, and deploy it for collective enrichment (in the deepest sense of that word) rather than individual enrichment (in the most superficial sense of that word).

I realize how hopelessly naïve and idealistic this sounds. Oh well.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

I share your love of the City Museum in St Louis. I think the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is astonishing. The new Please Touch makes me cry, it is so beautiful. The Tate Modern is an act of heroic salvage. Eastern State Penitentiary is without peer.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum gave me permission to think about play in arenas that are serious and urgent.

I suppose I could tick off a long list of individual museums and exhibits (and even specific objects), but I am true to the data in other ways, too. Like most museum visitors, the experience for me is almost always a social one. I am with my wife (a museum dork as much as me!), or other family members and friends. If the experience offers us some way to connect over something of wonder – I am blissful. If the curatorial voice is too intrusive, or if we are mistreated by the institution (e.g. over-charged, filthy restrooms, stupid rules), I walk away unhappy. Depending on my and my group’s mood, we might have a marvelous time even if the exhibition is weak. It will be memorable because of the social interaction of my group and probably not because of the exhibition.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed with this, but if my experience is any guide, I suspect we, as exhibition planners and designers, have both more and less to worry about.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

I am very excited about the pending completion of an exhibition now under construction at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. There are great activities throughout the whole arboretum, but the centerpiece is a 450 foot long, 45 feet high boardwalk into the canopy of a temperate forest. There will be a giant birds’ nest and a net-climb suspended almost 50 feet above the forest floor. The whole point is to get folks to engage with trees in ways they never could before. This is a perspective reserved for squirrels and arborists. I can’t wait to see if it works – if people, offered a way to play in the trees they normally do not get, show signs of treasuring trees more.

We also have a project with a charter school in Camden, NJ. The big idea there is to make a place where students are encouraged to take seriously their own part in creating the material culture around them. We designed a gathering place where classes of all disciplines can do projects focused on Camden – its politics, development (or lack thereof), arts, infrastructure, etc. – all through the lens of junior and senior high students.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, but money has almost nothing to do with it (well, maybe not nothing). We’ve all seen projects that suffered from too many resources as an ideological starting point. Lavishing expensive materials on an idea makes it neither better nor worse. It just dresses it in expensive materials. Sometimes it even hides a good idea. You know better than most that duct tape is a wondrous material. I’m not even talking about necessarily lowering production values. There are lots of ways to do really good design with less than glass and stainless steel.

Some situations do indeed demand a serious commitment of resources – like an installation outside, or something that will be fully, physically engaged with. We are, after all, responsible for our visitors’ safety and we don’t want it to look like a pile of garbage one week after opening. But there are a million ways to get there and spending more money is a guarantee of nothing.

I am not too picky about content either. Really great visitor experiences can be derived from almost any content and really boring experiences can be wrung from the most compelling content. It is extremely easy for me to get excited about content. Given the time to drink deeply of that content and imagine cool ways to engage with that content, I’m happy.

Thanks to Aaron for taking the time to share his insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

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