Playfulness and navigation at BM&AG

I’m going to be working on a short project with Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery helping them to explore a few questions loosely themed around behaviour and navigation in the museum.

There are things we want to poke at about where visitors go, but this is also about the museum trying out different ways of working so, rather than me spending all of my 10 days working on producing a single thing for them, I’m instead going to be working in a much more open and collaborative way with staff and visitors to cycle through some rapid prototypes. The idea is that, through working in this way, we can come away having learned more and with much more of an understanding of where to direct time and resources in the future.

It’s making me think of the the vital failure in the manifesto Hannah Nicklin and I wrote. We stand to learn as much from what goes ‘wrong’ as to what goes right. Not that a single big outcome doesn’t also stand to fail(!), but this way we then get to ask why, make some changes in response and then try something a bit different.

Here’s the brief I’m working to:

  • 10 days of experimenting with fast, iterative methods of prototyping.
  • 10 days of trying out playful, collaborative approaches to designing.
  • 10 days in which to try out different methods of encouraging people to dwell in, and interactive with, the quieter parts of the museum.
  • 10 days in which to gauge how visitors react to more playful activities happening within these areas.
  • 10 days of demonstrating that playfulness is not just for children.

We set the precedent for some of this with the Invisible project I did at BM&AG in 2013. Inkvisible was the result of a hackday type event run by Caper at King’s Cultural Institute (King’s College, London), and a resulting commission that saw Linda Spurdle (BM&AG), Dr Gretchen Larsen (King’s College), Ben Eaton (Invisible Flock) and I working together over 4 days.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

There were lasers and things – which was exciting, yes – but the most important thing for me was that we did all our experimenting and testing out in the gallery spaces where visitors and staff could easily approach us and be a part of the conversation: trying things out, explaining to us where they found things difficult, and giving us a chance to see when people’s eyes lit up and they had big grins on their faces.

That’s the main thing I want to build on: transparency of the process and paying attention at each step so we can adjust the process as necessary as we go along.

Very important meeting

I met with Linda and a few other relevant members of staff a while back to get a feel for the lie of the land. Literally, it turns out. We shunned the basement meeting room and instead opted to talk as we walked. We’ve got a few areas within the museum that we’d like to focus on and a couple of starting points. Favourite excerpts from my notes include “go to the owl and turn right”, “doorway giggles” and “giving the snake full directional control”.

I’m not sure where this will go next, but it seems likely that there’ll be a few call-outs for volunteers to help us try stuff out. Watch this space!

Mobile Fun Factory

So we (Garry Bulmer, David Checkley, Rachel Sutton, Kim Wall and I) eventually finished building a Mobile Fun Factory for The Public in West Bromwich.

Designed as a mobile unit that is interactive in its own right as well as providing a method of displaying work made during the summer programme’s activities, the Mobile Fun Factory had quite a brief to fulfil. It also had to fit in the goods lift.

Here’s what we made…

Mobile Fun Factory

It sports:

  • A 42″ screen on the top
  • A smaller touchscreen screen in the Secret Cinema (behind the velvety curtains)
  • Some amazing velvety curtains
  • A camera sending a live feed to a screen on the other side of the unit (pleasingly infra-red)
  • A chimney that glows in a vaguely TARDIS-style manner
  • A scrolling LED matrix
  • Lots of mesh for attaching artworks to
  • A mahoosive blackboard
  • A Control Panel full of big pressy buttons, thunky switches, rainbow LEDs and random noise samples
  • A periscope
  • Glowing circles (really quite pleasing!)
  • And the best boot-up sequence ever (see below)

Mobile Fun Factory boot-up sound from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

And it still fits in the goods lift!

Well, sort of, the periscope and the chimney have to be detached, but we figured out ways of doing this in a reasonably straightforward manner whilst still having them secure once re-attached.

Here are a few photos (more here):

Waiting to receive and disseminate Fun

The gorgeous curtains for the Secret Cinema. What’s inside? Only one way to find out…

Nice kaleidoscope effect when the periscope points at the LED hoop

The LED hoop in all its glory. It also runs Conway’s Game of Life, which is rather nice.

The Control Panel – an easy way to lose track of time as you explore the different sound samples and admire the blinkenlights. All those switches and buttons do something; can you figure them out?

Photos of several of the bits don’t really do them justice, so here’s a quick video to give more of a flavour:

Mobile Fun Factory from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

The Mobile Fun Factory is now parked up in the main entrance atrium to The Public awaiting your interaction pleasure. Go have a play.

Building Fun

Following on from the Gallery Hack Camp at The Public back in February, I’ve been working with fellow attendees Rachel Sutton, Dave Checkley, Kim Wall and Garry Bulmer on a commission to build a Mobile Fun Factory to inhabit The Public’s atrium space over the summer.

Our brief was mostly centred around this steel frame that’s just a leeeetle bit smaller than the goods lift:

We’ve been tasked with turning it into a Mobile Fun Factory: a structure that can rove around the atrium space of the arts centre and be used to display the products of the summer workshops, as well as being a playful thing in its own right.


First step: a ginormous brainstorm to figure out what a Mobile Fun Factory might be…


Second step: breaking out the cardboard and gaffa tape!

We’ve moved on a bit since that first cardboard maquette built in March. For a bunch of people who, for the most part, had barely even met before, it’s turned out to be a formidable team. I’m also in the role of project manager, so it’s my job to keep an eye on these things, and my considered opinion is that these guys have some truly formidable making skills. HIRE THEM!

As we slowly get closer to completion, here are a few images from the build process so far…


An early sketch. The final Fun Factory won’t be entirely dissimilar to this…


Fettling new plates for the new castors


Yellow is the colour of Fun

top accumulations

Possibly the sexiest assemblage of soil pipe ever.


Seekrit bunker


Testing the camera feed

periscope simulator

Periscope simulator

secret cinema

The Secret Cinema starts to take shape…

We’re pretty much onto the final assemblage of component parts now, so hopefully the Mobile Fun Factory should be mobile and fun soon.

fun button

Games. Art. 2 podcasts.

Two pertinent podcasts that nudged their way into my awareness within the last 24 hours…

The first is Minkette talking on Shift Run Stop talking about adventures, real people, trains and better ways of augmenting reality.

Shift Run Stop, Episode 55: Minkette (source.)

The second is artist and Tilt Factor director Mary Flanagan talking on furtherfield on Resonance FM.

I particularly like the phrase “system designs that ask different questions”.

Below is an mp3 of the relevant excerpts, you can listen to the complete broadcast here.


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