Diary of Hands on! Conference

by Raluca Bem Neamu

Last October I was happy to participate for the first time at the Hands On! Conference in Czech Republic, organized by Hands on! International Association for Children in Museums. I have known about this association for years, I was interested in participating at the conference, but only this year the planets aligned with my goal and schedule. I admit, this is the best conference I have ever been to, the result being that, even if it took place in three different cities in Czech Republic, I did not have the time to visit them – as I usually do when I am abroad – because the conference was too interesting for me to miss anything.  And I do not consider this because I am really familiar with the subject, as we want to open the I Wonder Why Children Museum in Bucharest, but because I truly believe that the quality of lecturers was very good and the format of the conference – perfect.

First day, Pilsen

The conference started in Techmania Science Center (http://techmania.cz/ ), a huge former industrial building transformed in an interactive science center (Czech Republic has no less than 8 such interactive centers). The  area where the building is looks half-communist, half-industrial and all grey, with a touch of nostalgia, but the new institution arises exactly near the railway lines, posing against static and old dusted buildings. Well, for a science center, the interior is full of classicinteractive installations; what I really appreciated was the beginning of the conference when groups of dancers, being children and young people, filled the air with local sounds and popular or industrial movement (rhythmic and abrupt), very well suited in the former factory.

The structure of the conference balanced between one hour sessions of VIP lecturers, sessions of one hour and a half with 4 or 5 panelists on one specific theme, practical demonstrations on different subjects, workshops facilitated by various representatives of museums and parolados, short presentations of 7 minutes for some projects, museums or museological approach. Maybe because of this diversity, it was impossible to be bored and moreover, I always had the feeling I lost something important in another venue, as sometimes more events took place at the same time.

Well, the first day started with the lectures of two VIP guests, a Czech one that reactivated the theoretical work of an interesting Czech educator from the 17-th century – Jan Amos Komensky and his revolutionary theory of the twelve senses, very well chosen for a children museum, from the interactive education point of view. Then, a Czech by birth but American by choice, the neurologist Martin Stránský explained how digital media influences the development of children‘s brains. From my point of view the speech was a little bit too subjective (even if very funny and popular), with the processes of rationality dotted about with gaps and non-impartial conclusions. Nevertheless, the title of his session was one of the reasons I decided to go to the conference. Because my background is not scientific, I do need this kind of very specific information about how the brain works in order to better understand the needs and preferences of children in museums.

The day continued with various practical demonstrations that one could attend: ”How to Work with Schools?”, ”How to Develop Exhibitions?”, ”How to Use and not to be Abused by Technology?”, ”How to Create a Multimedia Interactive Zone?”.

Another venue for the afternoon conference was Depo 2015 (https://www.depo2015.cz/en/), a space for creative industries. Here, a lot of workshops took place, facilitated by art educators from US or European museums.

The third venue was the West Bohemian Museum where the international panel was named” Shall Traditional Cultural Institutions Adopt Digital Technologies?”. I consider that the balance between technology and analogic was the main theme of the entire conference. Good examples from each part were presented and advocated by several specialists and I think the advantages of each method were multiple and very well put into the context.

The day ended with an elegant dinner in the context of the Children in Museum Award gala, a becoming-classical-award for museums, organized by the European Museum Academy and Hands on! International.  20 museums took part in the contest, with only 10 of them being on a short list of finalists. The award was given to the Stockholm National Museum of Science and Technology for” its innovative approaches to foster curiosity, creativity for neuroscience and the brain’s extraordinary abilities from a contemporary perspective (…). There is a great focus on availability as an expression of the museum’s comprehensive and consistently implemented strategic renewal to be a place for everyone. MegaMind, with its high quality design, total accessibility and basis of serious research and development of contents reaches a new level in children’s museums, while acknowledging that there has to be a permanent process of development and change to reflect present-day questions and challenges.”  The contest is open for this year till the 1-st of March 2018: http://www.hands-on-international.net/award/apply-for-the-award-2018/

Second Day, Písek

Another day, another city, another venue: Sladovna, Písek, a former malt house reconstructed in a cultural gallery for children. A space where an interactive exhibition about ants curated by an artist represented the stake for workshop and where the theatrical performance” Lion hearts” gave the occasion for children to play the main characters in an interactive and movement-involved multimedia show.  As visitors, we took part in the first activity led by Dutch curators from the Rijksmuseum. It was a challenge for us, because we had to be critical from a minority point of view and pass through the exhibition while trying to identify inaccessible parts of the exhibition for that impaired people. It was difficult to be in other person’s shoes and to emerge into a new exhibition with the thoughts and feelings of another different person. I consider that this exercise is very good for each museum worker that, more or less works for the audience. I consider this workshop was very formative on a deeper level for us, as museum professionals.

I also participated in ”Lion hearts”, an original show where the creators presented and analyzed the artistic creation process of transforming a text book into an interactive show for children. Being into the show and finding out a little bit about the artistic process was an inspiring experience revealing that original ideas could be embodied in a proper context and with creative artists.

 The 15 sessions that were scheduled that day gave me a headache because I had to choose between them. The organizers proposed: theoretical conferences, practical workshops and some study cases; nonetheless they all sounded so interesting that I still have the feeling that I lost important information for not attending all of them.

Third day, Prague

Tha last day started with a very inspiring session, an hour and a half presentation of Andreas Heinecke’s ideas, principles, complains, quotes, exhibitions, values and moreover, the melting of all these into an original social enterprise having as a main result the exhibition ”Dialogue in the Dark” or how to become the other during an extraordinary visiting experience.

From theory to challenges in the museum field, from a strong belief in his own concept to a critic of the most trended museums, from models of leadership to his own version of it, Andreas’ discourse was incredibly inspiring and helped us enhance our trust in us and in our work.

Another fulfilling experience was the one at the National Gallery of Prague where we first visited an interpretative-educational-workshop-space for children having as starting point Ai Weiwei’s exhibition ”Law of the Journey”. The theme of refugees and their dramatic journey was transformed into an experience where children could play, build and practice the feelings and fears of the emigrants. Practical and significant – a great translation of the huge and impressive artwork for children!

Conclusions

The conference fostered a lot of food for thought and I leave some of my thoughts below, even if lacking the whole context, they might not be as useful to you as they are to me:

  • The immersiveness of an exhibition as an important principle for children exhibitions;
  • One standard I truly believe in: that the digital supports the analytic;
  • Connections between STEM and the arts might be a challenging ingredient (for Eureka at least, it is);
  • Playfulness should be the main stake for a children museum (there is a department named Play and Learning team in one important children museum);
  • The elevator is the most successful installation in the museum ☺ Try all the installations before creating them!

All of these above are much more consistent in my mind and they helped and still help me to figure out my own conclusions, as it usually happens after a good conference. The networking was also an important outcome of the conference and moreover the confidence I gained after three days of conference and 7 minutes of presenting our own project in front of 2000 participants. My presentation was about an interactive exhibition and about the concept of ”I Wonder Why” association stating that it is possible to create an inspiring space for children where culture is part of the game.