Creating the GLS Museum of Natural History

At this year’s Games, Learning and Society Conference (GLS), I worked with Nick Fortugno, Debra Everett-Lane, and Hannah Jaris to create a unique conference experience to explore what it means for contemporary museums to bring games to the public (Nick had to step out at the last minute and we very much appreciate Christine Walsh for stepping in).

Rather than just TALK TALK TALK about it (which we did for the second half), we designed an interactive, project-based activity for the first half – not just for the participants but also for others to check-out over the course of the conference. The project was to build a pop-up museum, not just an exercise at the conceptual level, but a real one, with real donated objects. Before we explored games as constructed public experiences we aimed to situate that process within museums as designed experiences, and then explore what happens when the two are combined.

In the weeks before the conference we promoted the session and invited people to donate real objects from the first decade of GLS. These objects were then sealed in envelopes and then labelled with such information as:

  • The donor’s name
  • Material
  • Brief description
  • Reason for donation
  • Date of acquisition
  • Etc.

Over the weeks, people donated GLS volunteer t-shirts, GLS conference programs and posters, GLS badges and reuseable bags, and even a pair of GLS socks. Along with the objects waiting for curation, we also supplied materials for presenting the collections and providing label copy.

If the first participants drifting in 15 minutes early, having finished lunch, expected to settle down to digest their food or catch up on emails, they were out of luck. We grabbed them at the door and set them to work. The first people to entered were giving badge-size cards labeled “Museum Curator”. These explained their job was to hire 1 exhibit designer and 1 exhibit writer, with associated cards describing those roles, and to pick one object from the GLS collection. By the time the session officially began, multiple teams of three had selected their objects and had begun to design both the museum space and their exhibit.


Copy being written for the “GLS Badges of Barry Joseph” Exhibit


Boxes being constructed to display the “Catalogs of GLS” exhibit

Others entering received different roles – the tour designers were tasked with selecting at least three objects and creating a tour, and the game designers were… well, this is where things got interesting. At the Museum – my museum, in NYC – we’ve been adapting Tiny Games for visitors to play when visiting the dinosaur halls, as a sort of experiment in both youth learning and playful exhibit engagement. We customized our mobile web site for use by GLS, allowing the creation of quick, short-learning curve games that can be explained by the smart phone but then played offline. So the role of game designer at GLS was to learn how to make these games, learn from the curators what they were designing, and then post one game. In about 15 minutes.


Game designers consulting with exhibit designers.

Then, we announced that the construction of the museum had concluded. Opening day would now begin! All tour designers were now tour guides. Everyone else was a day 1 visitor – and had to either find a tour guide to show them around OR play one of the new games (or, time permitting, both). The games had titles like: Find the Obsessed Museum Staffer, Evolution GLS, and Statue Talk.


Proud designers show off their sock exhibit.


Showing off “GLS Volunteer T-shirt” exhibit.


“GLS reusable bag” exhibit. Note, on the left, how it is a hands-on interactive and, on the right, it comes with processing questions (I think a museum exhibit writer designed this, for real).

(view more photos here) Then we closed the museum and send everyone towards the exit (represented by their seats) and processed the experience. First we talked about what it was like to build the museum – “Fun” – and all the different roles people took on. Then we talked about what it was like to design, then give, the tours. Then we talked about what it was like to design the games. Then we got to the main point – What was it like to take the tours, to play the games, and to do both? How did they differ? Someone who took the tours said they could hang-back if they liked. Someone who did both said, with the games, she had to put more of her self into it, so she couldn’t hang back, and it forced her to pay closer attention to specific aspects of the exhibits. When asked, the museum creators agreed to keep it open until the end of the conference. Feel free to go play at any time, in the Main Lounge. You can tour on your own, or go play one of the games at: You can even go add your own game here (for username and password, please request access in the comments below or send me a Tweet.) Oh yeah – then for the next half hour we did the talk talk talk. Using the American Museum of Natural History as the use case, we first  positioned games within the history of museum-based innovations in public engagement and education: GLSMuseum.001Then we explored two specific projects. First, Playing with Dinos: GLSMuseum2.001Then the upcoming MicroRangers: GLSMuseum3.001If you’d like to see the full deck, please let me know. And here’s all the lovely feedback we received during and after the event via Twitter: Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.09.04 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.00.49 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.00.34 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.08.57 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.08.50 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.08.42 PM  Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.00.26 PM


Happy visitors to the GLS Museum of Natural History participating by adding their faces to a Photoshopped image from an earlier GLS… drawing themselves into history!


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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