Playfulness as a strategy in a center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

by Elise Grimsrud Christensen, Educator, and Hanne Steien, Exhibition Designer, The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

As a participant in the GIFT Action Research, The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies was challenged to conduct experiments exploring how new concepts and ways of thinking might help our center develop organisationally. One of these concepts was “playfulness”. In the following we will share some of our reflections on how we approached the concept, how we came to understand it and how we used it within our institutional framework.

Playful is not a word easily applied to the Holocaust. It does not resonate very well with our fields of research, educational programs or exhibitions. In addition to the wider subject of anti-Semitism and Holocaust in Europe, the genocide of Norwegian Jews and Norwegian Romas, our center also researches other genocides as well as studies of racism and the plight of minorities in contemporary Norway. Both expectations internally and externally to what a Holocaust center should be, made it a challenge to approach playfulness as a concept. In dealing with highly complex, emotionally charged and sensitive subjects, the center has often chosen a considerate, research-based approach rather than a playful one. Experimenting with a change of approach was challenging – can a Holocaust center allow itself to be entertaining? Will that be consistent with our goals? Are we still being respectful? These were some of the questions and concerns we had as we started our experiments.

Searching for playfulness in existing practices

Looking more closely at our exhibitions and engagement with our audiences we did however discover existing practices that mirrored forms of playfulness. Applying the concept to activities rather than to the content of our research, educational programs and exhibitions, we found that even a Holocaust center could hold traces of play. Already, our educators use pedagogical and didactical methods that encourage the students to investigate, create and play with ideas when they come to the museum. One of our programs is called “Create your own exhibition”. Here the students photograph historical objects in our permanent Holocaust exhibition in order to create their own. This method invites the students to be a curator and choose their own elements to create a story of the Holocaust. They are encouraged to play with ideas, and explore and debate how their chosen sources include certain things while excluding others.

Another school program asks the students to act as historians. They are given a set of primary sources (replicas) and, as a detective/ historian, they must piece together the fragments of the past into a narrative about a person or a family who experienced the Holocaust. The main purpose with these educational programs is to invite students to use their creativity and critical thinking in order to solve tasks. The students are also encouraged to play with different genres in presenting stories from the Holocaust, such as podcasts, comics and creating leaflets. Essentially, we chose to understand playfulness as closely aligned with activating our audience. We chose to apply the concept on existing methods that challenge the audience to practice historical consciousness, always bearing in mind that it is through the present we understand the past and create our understanding of history.

By raising awareness about playfulness in our organisation, we found that it helped us approach our fields of research and education with new perspectives. Playfulness was not irrelevant for our institution – it was already there! This awareness unlocked new doors to how we present and communicate both with our visitors and within the organisation itself.

Organisational experiment

As part of the GIFT Action Research, we also did an experiment that looked into the possibilities within our organisation to develop a more open and democratic culture for planning and creating new temporary exhibitions. The center has started the process of building an extension, creating space for exhibitions specifically dealing with contemporary issues and minority studies. For many, this building signifies a new period for the center: How might we build a more democratic, open and inclusive culture?

Bearing the concept of playfulness in mind, we created a series of workshops for the entire staff to participate in. Our aim was to create a better environment for cross-departmental collaboration. To make sure that all employees could participate, it became central to develop playful strategies that could appeal to all of our colleagues, creating a positive attitude to more cooperation and excitement for the centers extension and new exhibition spaces.

The concept of playfulness was at the core when the working group at the museum started to create methods and tasks for our workshop. We wanted to play with boundaries and norms, both institutional and within our fields of research. The group assignments we chose were playful, challenging the participants to discuss different perspectives that could influence the results of the task. We believe the methods called for different types of perspectives and competences: e.g. for researchers to acknowledge and include the insights of the receptionists, the educators to listen to the PR-department and the management to be more aware of how an open and inclusive process can inspire enthusiasm and creativity.

How did the concept of playfulness contribute to our work?

The methods we developed and the workshops that we organised have been successful in many ways. The playful methods and the inclusive form have created more excitement and cross-departmental cooperation. The concept of playfulness was in many ways new to our organisation, although it existed already in the way we engaged students and schools classes. By exploring the concept and consciously applying it to our work on developing our organisation, it allowed us to combine a respectful approach with playful methods to charged subject matters. Playfulness thus added a new dimension to our work. In our experiment the concept helped us develop methods that inspired an inclusive, engaging and enthusiastic outlook as we expand.