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The Museum of Before: An experiment in participatory thinking about the future

June 22nd, 2015

Educational research typically involves a lot of  logico-analytical thinking. Much of our time is spent planning projects, gathering and analysing data, reviewing literature, writing research reports and so on.  But every now and then, we stretch our creativity and imagination and dream up thought experiments as we chat over our morning coffee. “Imagine if we could….”, “Wouldn’t it be fun to…”, “What if we tried…”.

Occasionally there’s an opportunity to take a creative idea beyond a thought experiment. To actually try it, to see what happens.

One of my favourite examples has been  “The Museum of Before”, an immersive, science-fiction, participatory role play workshop that was originally developed by me, Jenny Whatman, and Sue McDowall for the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) held in Wellington in January 2013.  Two and a half years later, I’d like to revisit The Museum of Before to explain why we did it, what happened, and what we learned. To borrow a common practice from the game development industry, it’s time to dig up The Museum of Before for a good old postmortem. Curious? Read on!

What happened in “The Museum of Before” workshop?

In the original ICOT conference version, you would have turned up at a conference room not knowing quite what to expect. I can almost guarantee you  wouldn’t expect to encounter myself and Sue McDowall dressed in head-to-toe coveralls, briefing you on a strange sequence of security protocols before we let you into the room. This included:

  • a compulsory retinal scan (pretend, of course)
  • us zipping you into an (invisible) full-body protective coverall
  • signing a strange document to grant yourself access to “the secure archive facility”.

If you were game enough to comply with our bizarre instructions about how to enter “The Museum”, you would have then been ushered through into a briefing room to discover that you were now almost 100 years in the future. You’d quickly realise that the Museum of Before was built in the late 21st century to help people understand what life was like in the early 21st century.  You’d understand that you – the participant – were an invited  “expert” on 21st century educational history. Your job was to help us identify the artefacts and  plan an interactive exhibition for our late 21st century museum visitors to know what education was like  in the early 21st Century.

A little background: Science fiction

Our original inspiration for this workshop was science fiction, and the interesting ways that learning, education, and human growth and development are represented in science fiction texts.

Our very first idea was to do a conventional discussion workshop where we’d look at some different examples of education in science fiction and talk about how different stories represented different ideas about learning and the role of education in society. Then, after a particularly stimulating coffee-drinking session, we had a moment of inspiration: Rather than us delivering a presentation, or having people engage in activities like deconstructing ideas from particular science fiction texts, why don’t we turn our entire workshop into a role-play science fiction scenario? We drew on ideas from process drama as we developed our storyline and activities, particularly the concept of The Mantle of The Expert. We also drew inspiration from some of our favourite experiences as audience members in Wellington theatre productions (like the brilliant Apollo 13). Basically, we designed the kind of workshop that we would get excited about going to.

Here’s Sue and me giving a video interview (in role) the day before we actually ran the workshop for the first time. This footage has never seen the light of day until now, (perhaps for good reason)!

Yep, live action role play.

At this point, you might envisage yourself running screaming from the room. I get it. Not everyone feels comfortable stepping into a role play. Heck, we were nervous  ourselves. We learned a lot  about how to bridge people into role play in ways that aren’t too threatening, and aside from possibly making a few people a little uncomfortable, no-one was harmed in the making of this process drama. Having Jenny in the team, with her background and knowledge of drama education, certainly helped.

We thought a lot about how the drama would unfold to give people some key beats or moments in which they had to respond creatively to the task at hand and share something back with the group, in role. The  culmination of the workshop was when The Museum Director (Jenny) arrived and we all walked around each table group, asking them to explain the artefacts they’d identified, and their suggestions about the installations we could create in the Museum to help our late 21st century visitors understand education “in the past”.

The funny, thoughtful, and sometimes bizarre ideas that came out of this workshop were a surprise and a delight. Afterwards, we collectively stepped out of role to debrief about the experience. You can get a taste of the workshop and some of the debrief discussions in this video.

So what did people think?

The first thing that came up was the initial surprise and trepidation the participants felt when they realised “whoa- this is a drama thing”. But people also told us they liked the opportunity and freedom to do creative, lateral thinking and to really “get into” ideas, even fanciful/humorous ideas, as well as the multisensory and tactile nature of the workshop. They liked getting to handle familiar objects with the permission to view them through unfamiliar eyes. They were intrigued and surprised by the tendency for either utopian – or dystopian – narratives to permeate their own descriptions of either the present or the future. Someone said that because the scenario was set “so far” into the future, they felt freed up to step out from their current thinking frames and try on some different ways of seeing the present, and telling different stories about the present.  The constructive feedback was that they would have liked longer – perhaps a whole other session – to dig deeply into the ideas that came up while they were in role, and ask critical questions about the different ideas and values that were embedded in their narratives about the imagined future and present.

We ran the workshop a few more times in 2013 with different groups. The feedback in subsequent iterations of the workshop was similar. Some people reaaaaaaally don’t feel comfortable with the freedom to play in the imaginary spaces of the future. Some people  think the activity should be more structured to ensure the outcomes are more productive and tangible. They think we should spend more time around the “so what, what next” questions, which is a fair point. Other people just express pleasure and gratitude at having had a fun, memorable, and provocative whole-body experience that gives them more to keep thinking about as they re-visit their own thinking about education and the future over time.

Was it successful?

Again, looking back to the video interview we did the day before we actually ran the workshop, here was our best effort to articulate the thinking behind our design.

Looking back, what do we think now?

I’ve learned a lot more about live action role play (LARP), and “participatory culture” since then. With hindsight I can see some of the things we did well with The Museum of Before and other things we could have done better. We wanted it to be memorable and experiential, and carry an emotional component, and most of all, be fun, surprising, and playful. We felt it was very important to create a situation which allowed the participants to do the creative thinking work, and to have an opportunity to notice what that felt like, and then talk about what it means to actively think about the future and what kinds of ideas  float to the surface when we are asked to imagine the (inherently unknowable) future. I think we definitely succeeded in creating the conditions for people to start thinking differently about the future, and their role in shaping it. Could we have taken it further? Was there a logical next step in our experiential futures-thinking curriculum? Probably yes. Did we have the time and courage to keep building on our initial experiment? Well, sort of, in a lot of little ways.

Why did we stop running The Museum of Before?

It takes a lot of time and set-up to run The Museum of Before workshop. Eventually we stopped doing the full-blown workshop and instead reincarnated aspects of the concept in various presentations and resources that were less production-intensive.

The Curriculum For The Future Game is one such descendent of The Museum of Before. Like The Museum of Before, it draws on role play, and casting people into a future setting to explore familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. Hopefully, The Museum of Before also lives on in some way inside the hearts and minds of the hundred or so people who experienced it in the different iterations of the workshop during 2013.

I’d definitely consider pulling this one back out of the vault if anyone was interested, but even if it never happens, I hope it had some lasting impacts for those who experienced it. I know it had a lasting impact on us.

Future focussed issues, Shifting research

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