It’s Play-Time!

Jose Antonio Gordillo Martorell

Healing Museums through Community Well-Being

An interview by Diana Fehr / December 2022

Jose Antonio Gordillo Martorell is a member and advisor of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force as well as the Climate Action Community Task Force Team in Europeana Foundation, one of the biggest cultural platforms in Europe that groups together 4.000 museums, galleries, libraries, and archives with more than 5 million objects digitalized. He is also currently a Partner of Cultural Inquiry initiated by Happening Studio together with Karen Nakada and Masato Nakada. He holds the position of Source & Cultural Change Driver, Participatory & Co-Creation Strategy in a passionate and vibrant international Studio specialized in supporting cultural organizations with customized research tools and work methodologies to reconnect with their communities.

MuseoSpace: Jose you are a professional with 23 years of experience in education, collective creativity, content co-creation, change-driven strategy, and vision, with a passion for the democratization of minoritized and unrepresented cultural voices and cultural heritage. You also founded Children’s Boards in different cultural institutions in Museums like the City of Arts and Sciences, Norrbottens Museums, or The Mishkan Museum of Art, and Ein Harod to put the children’s mindset at the center of the museum decision-making processes. Nowadays you are running organic projects in Museums like HOTA-Home of the Arts, the Museum of Design in Zürich, Play Africa Museum, ArtScience Museum Singapore, Swiss National Museum, or Creaviva- Zentrum Paul Klee. And you also consider yourself a kind of Museum Doctor, which is a very interesting term.

Why do you use it to describe yourself professionally?

JAG: Well, this is completely connected with the new pandemic scenario for Museums. What we called the after-apocalypse landscape. It created a kind of widespread Museum trauma that can be clearly observed in the Museum teams, their urgencies and priorities, the lack of resources, their “business as usual” obsessions or even the attempt to have a clear picture about what is happening and how can they continue doing relevant work for the community and also for themselves.

MuseoSpace: And this is connected with your “organic museum” approach.

JAG: Exactly! In our international assessment everyday practice, we see a lot of professionals hungry for this kind of new narrative that helps them to meet their daily challenges but also to face their medium and long-term needs and expectancies in a fertile way. As museum professionals we have usually moulded into the “oner year programming” thinking mode. We challenge this vision working with a “nature-based” concept of time that is long and cyclical. We also put at the center of this narrative a new vision that conceived the museum as a living organism ruled by similar principles as other ones from a plant to a giraffe (but not a dino!), including of course human beings. A museum is envisaged as an organism born, grows, reproduces, evolves, and if it doesn’t according to its contextual needs can even die. We have saw this during the pandemic but also now. Some museums have died. Some others are  surviving by any means. What we want is vibrant and thriving Museums able to evolve towards their best versions in the near future.

MuseoSpace: What is the main advantage of this approach?

JAG: Mainly it permits you to realign the core values and identity of your museum with your own community mindset and needs as the crux of your mod-long term strategy. It’s a kind of start to search for similar patterns that resonate with you and stay on the same frequency. As a museum professional you need to start the conversation with your community at certain point.  In our opinion, that’s the best way to be also nature-connected and to be consistent and respectful with our ecosystem.  The interesting thing about this approach is that you are not inventing anything. All is out there waiting for you to start the healing process in your museum by doing it on yourself first. You only need to unlearn some issues and practice deep listening. We use healing in its root meaning sense, “returning to the wholeness”.

MuseoSpace: What role do children play in this healing process?

JAG: You have used the perfect word “Play”. Because, nothing in life is more serious than playing, and there is an urgency in our museums to be unstructured play-time providers to local families.

MuseoSpace: And why is it urgent?

JAG: Families have serious difficulties to guarantee their children this fundamental aspect for their healthy development. So, why not offer them a safe environment to constantly create and recreate children’s enjoyment, with their own rules, through their own experiences? At the same time, with this community service, we are taking root for future empathic adults who will be able to understand others, put on their shoes, and be compassionate and considerate. This could have an immense impact on the long-term social fabric dismantling toxic racist behaviours and dynamics from the very beginning.

MuseoSpace: Do you see some connection between play and democracy?

JAG: For sure. Play -as well as human connection- can be critical for democracy’s survival. Loneliness and sadness are corrosive for democracy. Could we have as museum professionals another more important today’s priority? More playful and connected children mean respectful adults with others, with their ideas and opinions, with their cultures and beliefs. And that’s essential to maintain a vibrant and strong democracy. Maybe we are missing the mark by focusing only on the adult democracy problems perspective but what about shifting a little bit and including the children one? By the way, when will be the appropriate moment to initiate the debate about the possibilities to expand children’s voting rights? It’s very sad to hear from the people who are against it the same arguments used one century ago against the voting rights of women.

MuseoSpace: Researchers often highlight the importance of play in terms of children learning. What is your opinion about this?

JAG: The way children learn is by playing, and more specifically, by playing with all their senses and the whole body. In this regard, museums can be unique children learning boosters through play. Remember that many museums continue to consider themselves as “serious” places where it is not permitted to laugh, call out, dance, jump or run. The Museums-Mausoleum culture. They are conceived as “no-play” places. But all this is very artificial and obsolete. Nothing in life is more serious than playing. We propose conceive museums as  may extensions or connected dots to support some key social-emotional and academic developments creating hybrid teams with educators and researchers. The focus should be on the real children nor the idea of children we have as museum professionals. As you have mentioned neuroscientists have demonstrated that play impacts the parts of the brain associated with social interactions and thinking. Studies of children have also shown play’s benefits, including improved language skills, problem-solving skills, and math skills. Certain types of imaginative play have been found to improve perseverance. Play can even be used to close achievement gaps between young children reinforcing collaborative thinking and pro-sociality.

MuseoSpace: Is there also some relation between play and the way we consume and produce in our depredatory societal model?

JAG: There is a complete and deep -even pathological- connection, with the way we conceived children’s free time investment. We involve them in prefabricated formats and products/toys (some of them are even toxic). But this Obsolescence Programmed Play typical mode of consumerism where the children are mere consumers, should be replaced by another one Free-Style play, Nature-Based Play, and Play-Together Making model. Museums can be active agents of change in this regard by providing safe and more nature respect spaces where children can make their own toys using nature-based materials (clay is perfect for this) and invent their own games. The impact on the children if they have the possibility to do the toy is completely different is completely different than if we give him the toy already made. By the way, this is not something new. Recently some archeologists discover 5000 years old stone reproducing owls made by children for play but also for funerary matters. Museums can be the crossroads of these permanent past-present-future connections.

MuseoSpace: One last question. Why do you think museums don’t do enough to involve children in their visitor activities? I ask this because I have often seen that museums offer a lot activities for children.

JAG: It’s true. Thousands of museums over the world offer what we tell “The Children Program quote” to be socially appropriate, and politically correct, and to get funding too. Unfortunately this refers to the majority of cases, but with some honorable exceptions. Many of them are “adult mindset” designed activities, not “children-mindset” ones. They work with a very stereotypical version of children’s interests and behaviours, which speaks for a “ventriloquism” effect. There are activities with and for children but not from children. Has anyone taken the time to ask the children what they want to do in the museum instead of supposing it? Maybe they don’t want to do anything just stay calm or lay observing the ceiling spiders and imagining some story created with some spots.

The usual children museum activities are mini-replicas of adult activities (workshops, guide tours, etc) adjusting a little bit to the language and including a lot of cartoons and confetti. What if children start to guide tours instead of “be guided” by an adult? But the interesting thing is that unlike so many museum professionals think, involving children in Museums (if you do it seriously, of course) it is so disruptive and challenging and flips all the organization dimensions as we have demonstrated time after time with our Children’s Board Project. And that’s the main reason why Museums involved children in their programs only to a certain extent. Because if you overpass this point you need to think of pivotal museum issues such as the role of your staff, the sense of purpose of the organization, etc. which is almost dangerous as it could open a Pandora’s Box. Unfortunately, so many museums continue seeing children as “complements” instead of allies and agents of change.

MuseoSpace: Thank you for this interview and I wish you the best of luck with your work!

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Owls plaques: Scientific America

Children: City of Arts and Sciences

Portrait: Jose Antonio Gordillo Martorell