What’s on your lanyard? What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 2

“Barry has crushes,” my supervisor explained to one of my colleagues. “You just have to let him talk them out.” Truer words have never been spoken, at least not about me. My crush of the week – that is, my latest source of inspiration I wanted to share with all I meet – is all about what I experienced last month during my family trip to Disney World.

In my previous post I wrote about the ripples that spread throughout my work after my February, 2014 trip to all four parks in Disney World. This post will focus on one of my take-aways from my recent trip: Accessorize Yourself!

Mickey ears – those ubiquitous hats with the matching ovals, the owner’s name etched in italics and yarn – are common sights around Disney World. They allow visitors to don a costume of sorts, to dress for the occasion. When Disney sells a set of ears they are inviting you to join the party. Putting one on is to announce you’ve accepted their invitation, you’re ready to enter their magic circle, with its own culture and rules, that set you free to express yourself and act in ways that distinguish this time and place from the rest of your life.

It’s part of how they get families to justify coming in person. It’s how memories are made.

400116184821Growing up in the ‘70s, all I saw at Disney were the ears. But last year my family discovered the power and joy of trading pins and, this year, Disney’s latest offering: Tagalongs.

It’s hard to miss the pins. Everywhere you turn people sport lanyards covered in them. In any Disney store you can buy a starter kit – a lanyard and a number of pins, perhaps even some duplicates for trading. Maybe you want the princess kit, or one with a Disney/Star Wars theme. The options are endless. The pins are metal, with cute images and one clear subject – a particular character, a favorite Disney ride, even the resort you’re staying at. Some are interactive – a TV set you tilt to reveal different images, a cellphone that snaps open, a wheel that spins, a book that opens, etc. Others are simple 2D images. But each reflect something about the person who chose to wear it.

There are two ways to get new pins. They can be bought in the store for between $8-15. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is getting new ones through trade. Almost all cast members (AKA, a Disney Park employee) wears pins. It is understood that ALL cast members MUST trade with you, and accept any trade you offer (cast members even receive exclusive pins that are not for sale). But it has to be a 1:1 exchange. In other words, as my children ran through the Parks, whenever the fancy struck them and they saw a cast member, they would review the pins offered and then make an exchange. During this time the cast member would talk with my children and make a connection with them.

The other type of exchange is between visitors – as with cast members, park visitors are constantly engaged in exchanges. But now there are no rules. A seasoned veteran might just give away their pins to a child new to the game (this happened to us on more than one occasion). I saw one boy dump a bag of pins on the ground while others surrounded him to make trades. Wearing a pin becomes a sign visitors wear that announce “Come talk with me. I might have something you want.”

Last year my son was motivated by the sheer joy of collecting and making exchanges. This year he was equally motivated by finding pins that reflected his identity and interests. He acquired one with “2015″ on it (to mark this visit), one for our resort (to mark where he’d stayed), a Star Wars rebel emblem in the shape of Mickey ears, a rock climbing pin (he is in a rock climbing club), and more.

This made me reflect on how Disney used pins to engage its visitors, deepening their in-person experience, and what it suggests for museums:

Social: With pins, visitors flock to Disney cast members in an endless stream, who often use the interaction to turn the focus from pins to their experience within the Parks. Museums work so hard to motivate the public to speak with the docents and volunteers who offer guided tours, interactive carts, and more. Could museum-content related pins generate a higher quantity and quality of visitor/staff interactions? And what about visitor to visitor? I rarely see strangers in the Halls talking to one another (if only to hold their camera and snap a photo). How different would it feel if visitors instead felt welcome to engage one another throughout their visit?

Collecting: The pins speak to an interest in collecting in general, reviewing other’s collections, and building one’s own. What interests me most here, however, is how public collecting provides the opportunity for visitors to make identity-shaping decisions (see below).

Identity: When my son drapes himself with pins marking his connections with his time (2015), his place (our resort, favorite rides), and interests (star wars and rock climbing) he is shaping a personal resume and taking pride in both building it and sharing it with the world. What could that mean for museums if visitors could similarly shape and display their own personal identity related to museum-based content? Imagine you are in an elevator between floors. The person to your right has pins featuring a T. rex, a dinosaur egg, and the latest space show; the person to your left has pins with a totem pole, the 2015 Night at the Museum sleepover, and the Kwanza celebration. Then they both look at you. What’s on your lanyard?

Interests over credentials: Disney pins are not earned for surviving the scariest ride or attending a special Disney show. They are strictly by choice – anyone can own any pin. They in no way suggest credentials for an achievement. But what if they did? How might that change the social ecosystem and people’s identification within it? What if visitors during the first week of a new exhibit all received “1st timer” pins, or a content-related pin after going on a Hall tour, each becoming markers for what they have done or know? What if our youth and adult education programs offered pins related to the content taught, the pins becoming markers of accomplishments? And is it even possible to think about this having a digital component someday? (Did someone just say digital learning badges?…)

Over the shoulder: Now, along with Mickey ears and pins, Disney recently offered something new, so new in fact that most cast members I encountered had no idea what they were: DisneyPark Tagalongs. When I first saw the Buzz Lightyear in his box, across from the Hollywood Studios insanely popular Toy Story Mania ride, I presumed it was an action figure. But Buzz had no moveable parts. He was just a tiny statue. But Buzz came with a coin-sized magnetic disc. Slide the disc onto your shoulder, under your clothing, then place Buzz on top. Now you have a buddy to walk with you through the park. My son wore Buzz while my daughter tried to take my Yoda from me until I got her a Tinker Bell (her choice).

I don’t want to get into what I thought about it from a product design perspective, other than to say they were fun to wear and, as with the pins, created opportunities that were both social (“Dude, your Yoda is sleeping” one man informed me, as my Tagalong drooped forward) and identity-shaping. What I did want to share is what happened my first day back from Disney, when I returned to work. I decided to wear my Yoda all day, to see what happened (and, yes, share my latest crush). But this time everything felt different. Sure, no one else was wearing one, but neither was anyone else in the Parks (as they are so new). And yes, I was now in an office setting. But my office is also a museum. Wearing my Tagalong at Disney felt fun; wearing it in the museum felt awkward. When my colleagues asked about what was on my shoulder, I usually inquired, “And what if it was a dinosaur? What would you think? What might we talk about?”

This experience led me to think about how Disney encourages its visitors to see their visit as a time to let their Disney freak-flag fly; to what extent do we, as a natural history museum, encourage our visitors to let their science freak-flag fly? When is the museum presented as a temple for deep contemplation and when is it presented as a celebration of science – and you’re invited to join the party!

So try an exercise with me: Picture all this available in your favorite museum. What’s on you lanyard? Who’s on your shoulder? Please share below.

I’ll go first: My lanyard would include pins featuring the Pterosaurs card game pin (the Dimorphodon will slide on a track), a 2013 Night at the Museum Sleepover (my son’s first), and one in the shape of the Willamette Meteorite. And on my shoulder? Franz Boaz on my left and a totem pole on my right (the Neil degrasse Tyson isn’t out yet).

Okay, your turn!

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to What’s on your lanyard? What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 2

  1. Love this. thanks for putting the time in to share with us.
    My suspenders have a Cray-1 Supercomputer, a toy soldier from 1939 peeling potatoes, a fire truck, the first Big Mac packaging…. on my shoulder is a bottle of Leinenkugel’s Red and a white buffalo. -Can you guess where I live? If we were a little bigger town, I would try this at the museum, but I might talk to the business association to see if this would be something to try during Oktoberfest or Pure Water Days…. Fun!

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