We hear from Rowan Guthrie and Jane Cockcroft about their experience of playful interventions at the Ashmolean

The Ashmolean Museum is an affiliate of the Happy Museum. Over the last year, we have been involved in a series of training days which have helped to shape our thinking about the importance and potential of play in the museum.

We were invited to take part in the Occuplay Project, which asked museums to experiment with pop up playful activities, ‘occuplaytions,’ to involve both visitors and staff.  These arrived as a series of ‘prompts’ emailed to us weekly with suggestions for playful activities, some of which we tried out. We welcomed the opportunity to be part of this project, as it has allowed us to experiment with new approaches, and reflect upon and question our own style of practice and relationship with play. This process has provoked lots of animated conversations with colleagues, and perhaps stimulated more questions than it has answered!

Time travel

This prompt was for museum staff.  The task was to go ‘back to the future’ and draw and label a map of a place they enjoyed playing in as children. Knowing how busy everyone is we decided to use the game as an excuse to visit numerous departments of our large museum and directly invite staff to take part. The opportunity seemed too good to miss to spread the word about the project. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to interact with colleagues in this way, and in general, staff reacted positively and enjoyed recalling childhood memories of play. This process allowed them to re-connect with the importance of play, and felt like a boost to the wellbeing of all concerned. But this was not true of every encounter.  Although supportive of the project, a few colleagues were reluctant to take part, not wanting to re-visit difficult memories of childhood.  We became very aware that we were on sensitive ground.

Overall however, while the mixing of professional and personal can sometimes jarr at work, this game was a breath of fresh air. It has made us consider how important playful interventions can be to peoples’ wellbeing at work. Work is a serious business, but trying something different can lighten the load and break down barriers.


The next prompt was for an impromptu hopscotch game for visitors to interact with. Keen to test different museum spaces, we decided draw one with chalk outside our main entrance, and another with masking tape inside in a busy carpeted area of the museum. The Playwork Principles state that children “determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons.” We therefore simply set these up and observed from a distance. We didn’t put out any signage or actively direct people to the hopscotch. Our main observation was that most people either didn’t see, or ignored and avoided the hopscotch. A few playful adults hopped over it on their way, with a smile. A handful of children played with it for extended periods. One adult looked at it, shrugging and tutting disapprovingly as she walked past. It became clear that the response was very mixed. Some visitors were uncomfortable or confused, or simply didn’t register the game at all. Others responded positively, such as a large group of international tourists who played together animatedly for ten minutes, talking and laughing together.  Perhaps the stereotype of the reserved British public was a factor?

This exercise prompted us reflect upon the idea that play is always best when undirected. We suspect the majority of people need some direction, even ‘permission’ to play. Museum spaces can feel serious, and this is a public perception which are aware of.  While we constantly try to break down barriers by creating a more relaxed environment, is it too much of a leap to expect spontaneous play from all our visitors?

Topsy Turvy World

This prompt involved playing around with furniture in the gallery to make an interesting space for visitors to interact with. We decided to put some chairs a row of pairs, to imitate seats on a bus or train, thinking that children might be inspired to play with them. We also put down a large rug to create a place to lie or sit. We set this up next to our family activity trolley in a prominent visible space.  This was without doubt the least successful activity as hardly anyone interacted with the space we created. A member of staff commented that people were avoiding the area as it looked ‘set up’ for a group to work in, for a scheduled activity. People were just not used to encountering playfully arranged furniture and didn’t realise it was for them. Signage inviting people to ‘You can play in this area’ might have helped give people the nudge they needed. We wonder too whether we should have run this on a day when more families were in the museum. It prompted us to question again whether ‘play for plays sake’ is currently quite the right fit for our museum. We aim to make our activities fun and as ‘free’ as possible, but also as a means to encourage meaningful engagement with our collections. While we fully appreciate the value of undirected play we also question investing our time and resource into creating this style of activity when there is abundant inspiration for play linked to our collections. We have learnt a lot from pushing the boundaries, but ultimately we will still lean towards focusing play around museum learning.

You can’t do that in a Museum!

This prompt was a reflective exercise, in which we were asked to imagine and risk assess an activity that would be ‘risky’ for us. Instead of focusing on potentially negative risk, we were asked to consider how the benefits of these activities might justify the risk.  From the very start of this process, we became big fans of the whole idea of ‘risk benefit’. We decided to risk assess a hypothetical ‘Beautiful Bottoms’ tour of the museum for families, based on our experience of the hilarity nudity inspires in many children.  When considering how to mitigate the risk of offense or sensitive and problematic discussions about sexuality we listed ‘Plan our tactics/responses should children want to talk about other aspects of nudity which they spot’ and ‘respond thoughtfully and with preparedness for any complaints or offence caused’. Weighed against the negative risks, we felt the principal risk benefit would be that ‘the use of a ‘rude’ silly theme will capture childrens attention and allow them to feel relaxed about their reactions to nudity in our objects and paintings.’

We will continue to use the ‘Risk Benefit’ approach when planning new and innovative activities and experiences for our visitors. We are not quite ready to try out our Bottoms tour for real, much to the disappointment of a colleague who we chatted to when writing the risk assessment, but we are now more open to taking risk with our activities!

Too playful for us!

Some of the prompts were a step too far for us. For example, ‘Whispers’ prompted us send nonsense sentences around the museum, to be passed between staff, visitors etc. We were then asked to observe the affect. We felt this would make staff and visitors feel uncomfortable so decided to skip this activity.

To conclude…

We are really grateful to the Happy Museum for inviting us to do this project and mentoring us throughout. It was great to try new things, and prioritise trying out playful experiments.  Although we have come away from the experience with lots of questions, it has provided us with an invaluable opportunity to reflect upon the way we work, consider how we might try new approaches in the future, and to understand ourselves better.

Rowan Guthrie and Jane Cockcroft are Family Learning (Jobshare) for the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford     https://www.ashmolean.org/

We can be contacted at families@ashmus.ox.ac.uk

Read more about Happy Museum’s work on Play in museums.