Museum participation

16 July 2014

Back in April, we hosted Drawabout: a relaxed roving drawing experience within the Medicine Now gallery space. Jack Millner tells us about how it enabled him to engage with our gallery and about participation in museums; a significant element of our current exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition.

 design by Jennifer Rae Atkins

Featuring guidance from a curiously adorned and mustachioed Adam Taffler from performance company Adamotions, our Drawabout event was a combination of storytelling and drawing. People were drawn alongside objects in the gallery as Adam and the group discussed the themes and stories around them, which were in turn incorporated into the drawings.

Medicine Now explores aspects of medical history through art and science, making drawing a natural way to engage with the exhibit for both children and adults. Taffler invited the participants to discover meaning in the objects through discussion and art, playfully exploring the connection between mind and body, disease and mental health.

The Drawabout was a fun way of engaging with Medicine Now, but it made me start to imagine activities that could harness the potential of participatory theatre in gallery and exhibition spaces more generally.

The history of medicine offers up a rich landscape for dramatisation and participation – imagine stepping into an 18th Century human dissection in an anatomy theatre and making sketches of the body parts in a morbid twist on life drawing.

 A lecture at the Hunteriana Anatomy School.

A lecture at the Hunteriana Anatomy School.

The success of Secret Cinema, the company that transports its audience into the world of a film using dressing up, actors and audience participation, has shown that immersive theatre can breathe new life into familiar content, as well as provide a memorable and fun night out.

So why should galleries and museums be any different?

In fact, participation is often a central part of science exhibitions and children’s museums – the Exploratorium in San Francisco is an exhibition space built entirely around interactivity. And do you remember how much fun you had as a child in the Science Museum’s launchpad?

In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon makes the case for participation in museums for adults too. She imagines an institution that “uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for visitor experiences.”

People learn more effectively when they take part rather than just observe; breaking the one-way flow of information in a traditional gallery space could enrich the experience for everyone.

The Participatory Museum is available to read online, and you can check out Nina Simon’s blog, Museum 2.0 here too.

Russell Dornan talks about our latest participatory exhibition

Our current exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, takes participation a little further: half of what’s on show has been contributed to or generated by our visitors. For every letter of the alphabet there’s a theme presented in the gallery and explored through Henry Wellcome’s weird and wonderful collection of objects. Opposite each one is your chance to explore the theme in a different way.

 A visitor listening to some music on the "For your contribution" side of the exhibition, featuring listening stations and digital games.

A visitor listening to some music on the “For your contribution” side of the exhibition.

From weighing in on debates (such as “is war inevitable?” or “are you ever too old to have a baby?”) to adding your height mark to the wall; from adding parts to an ongoing story to writing your fears down and leaving them with us, we are asking our visitors, all fellow experts in the human condition, to simultaneously explore and add to the exhibition.

 R is for Resourcefulness.

R is for Resourcefulness.

 K is for Keeping up appearances. We've asked visitors to draw how they present themselves to the world.

K is for Keeping up appearances. We’ve asked visitors to draw how they present themselves to the world.

 T is for Tale-telling.

T is for Tale-telling.

You don’t need to visit to be a part of it. Several themes ask for submissions on Instagram: share your images that evoke urban living or reveal something curious you’ve spotted in nature. We’re printing your photos out and putting them in the gallery itself as well as adding them to our Tumblr.

 U is for Urban living. Share your photos using #HumanSardines and we'll display them in the gallery.

U is for Urban living. Share your photos using #HumanSardines and we’ll display them in the gallery.

 S is for Skin. Share a photo of your tattoo on Instagram using #HumanSkin and we'll add it to the album in our gallery.

S is for Skin art.

Wether you’re able to visit Wellcome Collection or not, we would love you to participate in our exhibition and add your stories to the #HumanCondition.

Jack Millner is one of our Wellcome Trust funded Science Journalism students.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.