The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transmutation #11 - Artistic change? Live performance and participation at the Natural History Museum

Sarah Punshon is a freelance theatre maker, working on curatorial projects with museums such as the Wellcome. She begins by showing us a video about a project in which she and her colleagues worked with the Darwin centre by producing an enlivening experience through a Nature Games Weekend, a Campsite, and a nature trail through the museum called Curious Collectors.  These projects were realised with the assistance of games designers, artists, tv producers and theatre makers. The prerequisite was interactivity; and it seems, from the video, as though this was achieved.

These were all part of a one year experiment. So what did they change about the Darwin Centre and what were the results? The way the museum used its space changed. The visitor experience changed. Visitor understanding and perception of the museum changed. The skills of staff, including the artists, changed too.

The Darwin centre is a new, white extension to the London Natural History Museum. It's clinical, cold and apparently unpopular. The events run by Punshon and her colleagues increased the visitor footfall by at least 10%, peaking finally at a figure of 67% of visitors to the Natural History Museum visiting the Darwin Centre too. Previously, the figure had been about 13%. They made, then a significant difference purely on that account.

So, what worked? It might be obvious, but it was colourful, bright things at the entrances, costumed interpreters, the possibilities for participation, role-playing, dressing up, flexible parental role, real specimens, measurable rewards and consequences, having room to run about, and free admission which really seem to have made the difference.

Marie Hobson, who can't be here today, found it striking how much the project changed the visitor perceptions of the museum. Children who thought they would find it boring did not. The perceptions, actions and attitudes of staff too, was altered - when leading experts in entomology are able and willing to play with children dressed in teeny-boppers, that's a significant change.

Working with artists pushes people in different ways that they wouldn't ever have considered. When things are marketed as an 'artistic experiment', and only temporary, they can seem much safer. Many museum staff, I suspect, would find the idea of 'capturing' children as specimens, no matter how much in jest, quite disturbing.

Was it value for money? It might have been useful, but was it purely an add on, not sustainable. Punshon believes that there are many reasons the scheme is no longer continuing; the bureaucracy and size of the Natural History Museum, the brand, the mess the kids made, the influence of digital and the costs of live work - whilst live work has significant impact, digital has fashion and finance behind it.

There is now no department to deliver this kind of thing at the Natural History Museum, and this has an impact on institutional memory. Who will change things in the future if we have no memory of the change?

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