If I ran a museum…

After my sons’ enthusiastic response to National Chocolate Chip Day on Tuesday, I decided to look for s0me more “days” to celebrate. But before I even got started, I opened an email from APTE (a provider of educational resources) and found out that today is International Museum Day.

I started thinking about what museum to visit this weekend. Then I realized that my son has a Boy Scout campout this weekend, so the museums will have to wait for another weekend. But in the meantime, I got thinking about the idea of museums.

The APTE email informed me that “the word museum literally means a seat or shrine to the muses. In Greek mythology the nine muses were brought to life to rid the world of evil and sorrow. Their job was to protect art and knowledge.”

I really had never thought about the origin of the word museum before. I associate museums mostly with the idea of history. Even art museums usually exhibit mostly art from the past. There are modern art museums, but they never impressed me as fully legitimate museums – whether because they had little from the past or because I thought most of their art was not very good.

There are also science museums, but of course a great deal on display there also involves the past. Any exhibit dealing with geology or astronomy can hardly help but make mention of the eons that have passed since many of the objects we are looking at were formed. Even exhibits dealing with living things often trace their long history, and the most interesting displays are often those of fossils.

Once I had children, I discovered children’s museums, and found many exhibits that have nothing much to do with the past. You can find out what happens in a doctor’s office, pretend to shop and check food out in a play supermarket, dress up in costumes or use puppets to tell a story (perhaps for a pretend TV studio), do science experiments, or create your own artwork.

These are fun places for children to visit, but the word “museum” never seemed to fit them all that well, in my mind. If the role of a museum, though, is to “protect art and knowledge,” rather than putting history on display, perhaps the name fits a little better. I would say they promote art and knowledge more than protecting it, but one way to protect art and knowledge is to ensure that the next generation values it, and making learning both fun and relevant to daily experience is a good way to do that.

Of course, I suppose in that sense one could call a good school a museum, in that it both protects and promotes art and knowledge. (And then there are other schools, that are museums more in the sense that they are stuck in the past in one way or another.) Since much education takes place in the home, does that make a home a museum?

This makes me think about something I read in an article in Smithsonian while exercising at the Y recently. The article includes an interview with David Walsh, creator of a highly unconventional art museum in Tasmania, and Walsh compares his eclectic style with the “Wunderkammer, or Cabinets of Wonders, which would be kept in the private houses of aristocrats from the Renaissance onward to reflect their own tastes.”

What sort of objects would I put in a cabinet of wonders, I asked myself. Or, imagining more ambitiously, what sort of museum would I create if I, like Walsh, had the money and desire to create a museum according to my own tastes?

I am fascinated by words and literature, but those don’t require a museum, and these days they don’t even require a bricks-and-mortar library. There is some art and music that I like very much, but I find that they are best appreciated in small doses. Too much in one visit, and my appreciation turns to apathy and then to exhaustion.

Then I figured it out – I would create a museum about Games. Humans have created and played games since prehistory, and while they vary widely, there are certain types of games that show up across wide spans of time and geography. Ball games, word games, chase games, ritualized battle games, counting games, board games – just about everyone enjoys some kind of game. (Even my mother, who would do nothing without a self-improvement purpose, enjoyed Scrabble because she could learn new words.)

A museum about games would have all sorts of educational opportunities. You could learn about the culture where the game was played, its historical and geographical context, and the ways that the game was similar to games played in other times and places. Some games, especially ball games, lend themselves well to a study of Newton’s laws of motion.

Playing games requires learning various skills, both those directly related to the game, and the qualities of character needed for completing a challenge, and winning or losing graciously. Learning how to play a game from a different culture broadens one’s view of the skills and knowledge of people who may have seemed primitive or strange.

Then there is the challenge of trying to create a new game. It may seem easy, but it is surprising difficult (at least, if you want to end up with a game that people want to play again and again). I did a blog post on this topic a couple of years ago, when I was working on creating a new board game with my son Al.

I can imagine a museum with sturdy reproductions of objects needed to play games from various cultures, where visitors get to actually try playing the game. Wouldn’t that be far more interesting than just looking at exhibits? The museums that have children doing rather than just looking and listening have that part right – what is missing is that it’s not just children who learn best by doing.

Adults may have the patience to appreciate museum exhibits where they just look at objects, pictures, and text, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t learn more by greater involvement. And what creative person would not enjoy the chance to actually try designing a game board? What if subsequent visitors could vote on what games they liked best, and the winners could have their creations packaged as a “real” board game?

My husband has talked about how he wished he had the money to open a gaming store, which would not only sell books and other materials for playing a variety of games but also offer space for playing them, and attract people who not only wanted the products but were looking for other people to play with. One difficulty of profitably operating such a store, though, is that so many of the products can be purchased online these days. People browse the products in the store, but often spend their money at virtual stores on the internet.

So what if the objective were not to make a profit, but to educate? A museum just about always includes a gift store, so there would be an opportunity to sell products and bring people in to buy them. But getting people interested in games and actually playing games would be a bigger part of it. And along with the games, there would be all sorts of related educational opportunities, different ones depending on the nature and cultural context of the game.

I can’t imagine ever having the opportunity to work on such a project (or the organizational and promotional abilities, I’m afraid), but the idea captivated me. I couldn’t remember hearing of a museum like that, but I looked online to see if there were any games museums out there.

I discovered one – sort of. There was, until 2009, a museum that featured games at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The museum was closed and its collection transferred to the one of the Canadian National Museums. The University of Waterloo, however, continues to host the website, so you can check it out without having to travel to Ottawa.

The virtual collection contains a broad range of games, though the information on some of them is not extensive. (I am curious how this compares with what was – or is – available to visitors viewing the collection in person.) For the counting/capture games such as mancala, there is quite a bit.

But the section on chess contains little besides links to descriptions of particular chess sets. Perhaps it is assumed that people interested in chess can learn about its long history, the rules, and much more of interest on the topic (e.g. well-known champions, computer chess-playing programs, using chess to teach/motivate underperforming students) can learn it better at sites dedicated to the game.

The section on the painting Young Folk at Play by Pieter Brueghel has a page where you can click on details to find out more about the games the children are playing. I used to have (and maybe I still have) a jigsaw puzzle of this picture. Along with puzzling over what piece went where, I sometimes wondered just what those children were doing. If I had a museum of games, I would want not only a print of the painting with enlarged details on the games and an explanation of them, but also full-size examples of the objects used, someone on hand to show how to play with them, and room for visitors to try them out.

The website also includes information about games from various perspectives. One thing that surprised me is that, according to that website, there is no such thing as a “cooperative” game, because games are by nature competitions among two or more players. I wonder what E.M. Avedon, the author of that information, would think of the various games that have been created for young children to play cooperatively.

One of the games that Al and I used to enjoy playing was Frog Pond Fractions. There are various levels/modes of play, including some that are player against player. But there is also one mode that is players (all of them) against “Croak” the Frog. Either the players win, as a group, or Croak wins.

In that regard, it is somewhat like playing a solitaire game, except with a team instead of an individual. Does Avedon think that solitaire games are not true games? (I note that Avedon does include puzzles as a type of game, while acknowledging that they are intended for use by one person at a time.)

It may be that the kind of museum I have imagined is impractical, for various reasons. (It would definitely require some kind of legal waiver to be signed by visitors, I’m sure, in case of any kind of accidents while playing games.) But I’m just imagining, not trying to develop a business plan. (A bit like If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss, but not quite that far-fetched.)

Would you go to a Games Museum?

If you created a museum, what would it be like?

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