by David van der Leer, December 10, 2019
When I was curating for the Guggenheim Museum, I occasionally tried to bring the word “fun” into meetings at the museum or for biennial projects. At that point, my colleagues would often look at me as if I had walked into the wrong room and, in some cases, even the wrong building. Maybe something was simply lost in translation there. I was educated in the Netherlands and one of my favorite books of the time was Fun (Pret), an exploration of leisure culture in Holland, written by my now friend Tracy Metz. In those same years, one of the national radio stations, 3FM, introduced the tagline “seriously fun,” developed by another friend, advertising strategist Bas Velthuis. Maybe the Dutch just had a penchant for using the word “fun,” but I was surprised that it was taken as a dirty word in the museum context because, if nothing else, fun is a good hook for getting people to think about more serious issues in a different way. Of course, a lot has changed since then.
Museums have come to realize that it doesn’t require a full overhaul of their mission and core values to stop treating fun and visitor experience as an afterthought, and to go deeper than creating the perfect selfie moment.
While these days, to many, the world is less fun on an everyday level, the actual seeking of fun has penetrated many corners of contemporary culture. For one, “experiences” took on a new meaning, aside from the regular dictionary definition, and became a distinct type of cultural phenomenon. First, there were the experiential, pop-up, and immersive installations like The Obliteration Room and Rain Room—and then those morphed into entire institutions built around fun experiences. Just think of Meow Wolf, TeamLab Borderless, and Artechouse, to name a few. Even many of the more traditional museums have embraced the idea that their audiences should have some fun during their visits. From curatorial exhibition sessions to long-term strategy meetings: “fun” has definitely seeped into the museum planning vocabulary.
Museums have come to realize that it doesn’t require a full overhaul of their mission and core values to stop treating fun and visitor experience as an afterthought, and to go deeper than creating the perfect selfie moment. I believe that you cannot fully engineer fun on behalf of others, but what you can do is make space for it. This may take the form of games, immersive experiences (analog and/or digital), or public programs, but, on a more basic level, designing with fun in mind is more about creating space for a little messiness and letting visitors feel that they can play a more active role in their own cultural experience, balancing intellectual aspects of culture with emotional and playful ones.
Despite the sometimes successful attempts by traditional institutions to join the fun train, two of the most intriguing fun museum-like exhibition-based experiences in New York City are taking place at newer venues. The Museum of Sex (a for-profit entity that makes great programs but, sadly, is often looked down upon by the more conventional cultural players) now has a great immersive fairground of experiences, Funland, that contextualizes sex as an everyday topic rather than a taboo. I was there a few weeks ago on a Friday evening and saw young couples—particularly straight couples of a variety of social backgrounds—having a great time in the different experiences. They were competing for the longest kiss, jumping down a slide of body parts, and asking a RuPaul fortune teller machine about their sexual futures. To me, the most interesting moment was when a group of four or five slightly intoxicated straight men felt enticed to follow their (new?) girlfriends into one of the more serious and staid exhibitions. The exhibition featured a lot of gay content, including nudity. I loved seeing them trying to make sense of it all, likely, in large part, to come across as open-minded to their more inquisitive female counterparts. To me, this was an excellent example of institutional “fun” creating openings for education and understanding.
It can be about significant content, about moving people’s level of comfort inch by inch, and about providing new entry points to information.
The second recent experience was at DVDL DD’s team outing to Spyscape: a new museum dedicated to spy culture, housed in one of those otherwise nondescript new towers that have popped up all around the city. Well designed by architect David Adjaye, Spyscape offers visitors of all ages and social backgrounds a great series of experiences to find out what type of spy they might make. You test your observation skills, the speed of your responses under pressure, your strategic thinking, and more. It came as no surprise to me that I would make a good Surveillance Officer. And, while it is all fun, the beauty of Spyscape is that you actually learn a lot about some of the most famous spy stories of the past century and, upon leaving, you do look at the city differently for a day or two.
Fun does not have to be cheap (actually Spyscape is ridiculously expensive) or dumbed down. These two examples show us how we do not need to carnivalize our cultural institutions to create fun visitor experiences. It can be about significant content, about moving people’s level of comfort inch by inch, and about providing new entry points to information. There is certainly a place for more ‘serious fun’ in museums—not despite, but because, of the turmoil we see sweeping across the world.