Fostering deep engagement and enhanced learning through wonder, creativity, and play

David London, The Peale, USA


Offering research, methods, and new perspectives on how museums can embrace and utilize experiences based on fostering wonder, creativity and play to offer deeper engagement to their visitors, while simultaneously facilitating a mindset that is highly conducive to enhanced learning. Based on over 20 years of experience creating interactive and wonder-based experiences, along with a lifelong investigation into magic, mind, and creativity, David London brings a unique attitude and approach to contemporary museum practice. From medieval alchemists to stage magicians, Surrealists, mystics, art therapists, and adherents to concept of "flow," it has long been known that an engaged and receptive state of mind can be achieved achieving a balance between the physical and the mental. David believes that experiences of wonder, creativity and play are the easiest and perhaps most direct path to access this heightened state of mind. While the typical museum model puts the object first, supported by label text, but David proposes the inverse-- story and experience first, supported by the objects. As opposed to the aimless meander through museum spaces, the visitor experience can thereby be intentionally designed to foster genuine engagement and retention of knowledge. By developing museum experiences designed first and foremost to place visitors into an open and receptive way of seeing and being, the resulting effect is that they often forget that they are learning, while simultaneously remembering more information.  Embracing and adapting proven tools of engagement through techniques that alter consciousness can allow museums to not only continue to provide new information and ideas that remain with their visitors, but also to maintain their role as an integral part of culture and society at large.

Keywords: Wonder, Awe, Creativity, Play, Interactive, Immersive


I come to the museum field as a storyteller and magician who has spent nearly 30 years studying all forms of magic while honing my stagecraft and creating a variety of Immersive and interactive experiences. It was shortly after accepting an invitation to curate an exhibition on Harry Houdini, that I began to realize that museums are some of the most interesting places to tell stories, and that much of my learnings from the study of magic was immediately applicable to the museum field.

The word museum originates from the Greek work mouseion, where it meant “seat of the Muses.” Before the word was adopted to mean a collection house of objects, museums served as places of philosophical contemplation. In the spirit of the word museum, this paper begins with an exploration of the various philosophical underpinnings that will serve as the through line for the rest of our discussion, mainly an examination of the ideas of non-duality, wonder, creativity and play. In Part II, we will examine extrapolate this philosophy into museum practice, and conclude in Part III with an overview of the practical applications of these practices.

My overall thesis is simple: that wonder, magic and play are incredibly effective tools to open people’s minds, and there is no better time to deliver information tab when someone’s mind is open. This opening of the mind occurs through facilitating non-dual and dialectic thinking, and cultivates a mindset that is highly conducive to deep engagement and enhanced learning.

Part I – Philosophy

The Illusion of Duality

My lifelong study of magic has taken me to ideas far beyond just the performance of tricks, and into understanding esoteric realms of magical thought and practice dating back thousands of years.

While every system of magical beliefs is unique, the majority share a common denominator at the core of their beliefs— the idea of non-duality. Simply put, there is a shared belief commonly belief that heightened state of mind can be achieved through the union of opposites, or, more accurately stated, through the acceptance that the very idea of these dualities are in fact an illusion.

While I will keep returning to the two magical belief systems which have had the most profound impact on my own life and thinking— alchemy and surrealism— the notion of non-duality far predates both is most easily visualized in the well-known symbol of Chinese mysticism, the yin and the yang. Two equal pieces, each containing a piece of the other, with both halves necessary to create a whole.

In order to fully see duality as an illusion, we must come to accept that the difference we perceive in seemingly opposite states of mind are not actually opposites at all, but rather just different scales of one singular idea. For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the idea of hot and cold. While seemingly opposites, these ideas are, in fact, just varying degrees of one thing, known as temperature— two opposing points on one singular scale.

Each magical system of thought has their own unique names or metaphors with which they understand opposing and complementary forces of the universe: the masculine and feminine, mind and body, physical and spiritual, logical and emotional, or, simply put, the seen and the unseen.

For the alchemists, it was the sun and moon, sulphur and mercury, the king and queen. Several centuries later, the surrealists of the early 20th Century sought the union of conscious and unconscious, desire and action, imagination and reality, and dreams and everyday life.

Along with the labels themselves, each non-dualistic system of thought also proposes its own method to achieve this union of supposed opposites. Whether through ritual, drumming, or chanting, most of these methods are based on a physical act taking place in the physical world, equally combined with an accompanying mental process.

Removing any spiritual or mystical connotation, philosophy itself offers its own insight into non-duality with Hegel’s Dialectic. A form of argument based in contradiction, where a thesis is met with an antithesis, resulting in a conclusion which contains the best parts of each, known as the synthesis.

While the methods for achieving a synthesis of ideas— of  breaking through the boxes which hold together dualistic approaches and attitudes- may vary, the goal is always the same. When seemingly opposing forces are experienced simultaneously, the mind can be opened to experience a different and bigger way of knowing.

The Two Types of Wonder

Experiencing a magic trick often results in one of three responses. Some spectators experience the profundity of the mystery. Others find themselves trying to solve a puzzle. Most, however, feel a state of confusion as their brain struggles to reconcile the possible and the impossible.

In the English language, there are two types of wonder that one can experience. We can wonder about something or we can wonder at it. The first is akin to curiosity— the desire to know more and a call to inquiry and investigation. The latter is a profound human emotion– the psychological feeling of something greater than yourself. In these two forms of wonder, we clearly see at play the dualities explored in the previous section, as two sides of the thinking mind- the logical and the emotional.

Like the magic trick, the museum is highly effective at cultivating both types of wonder. It is just as easy for a visitor to feel a sense of curiosity and a longing for more information, as it is for them to feel lost in the mystery of the natural world or human accomplishment. Connecting to larger ideas of non-duality, embracing, celebrating, and fueling both types of wonder in a museum can facilitate deep interaction with the non-dual nature of the human experience.

Creativity Is King

Within the first five letters of the word imagination, we find the word MAGI, the plural of magician.

While the imagination is undoubtedly one of the great forces in the universe, of which we are all granted access as our birthright, the imagination itself exists purely in the unseen world. This formless swirling mass of infinite mental possibility is only given form through physical actions in the physical world. This transformative action, inspired by imagination, is known as creativity.

Alchemists lived by the motto solve et coagula, or dissolve and combine, as they would break down metals to their purest forms and recombine them into a new form. In the act of collage-making, the surrealists would transplant the metals of the alchemists with the pages of a newspaper, breaking words and images down to their essential elements, and recombining them into new and surprising forms.

In both alchemy and surrealism, the physical act of combining different and disparate ideas in fact mirrors the mental process of both imagination and creativity itself, as new form are created from the synthesis of the old.

We see the same process unfold in both ancient and modern divination practices. In divinatory forms such as throwing the bones, the tarot, runes, and the I-Ching, the magical power of the divination is grounded in the combinatory and metaphorical aspects of the divination process itself, combining through chance various symbols and their associated meanings.

In his book The Act of Creation, psychologist Arthur Koelster cites that all acts of creativity emerge from the synthesis of previously separate ideas. What Koestler refers to as “the commission of opposing matrices of thought” is the same non-dualistic approach explored above. Koestler also points out that comedy works in the same manner— when one reality unexpectedly butts up against another. And as any comedian will tell you, for the very same reasons, comedy is one of the best tools with which to be able to speak the truth and truly be heard. The dualities which comedy thrives on contain the very same power as all other form of non-dualistic experience.

In the practice of art therapy, creativity is used to provide a safe and creative platform for patients to explore the cause of their pain, trauma, or mental chaos. But content aside, this practice also recognizes the inherent healing powers of the creative act itself.

University of Chicago professor, speaker and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has introduced this idea from the perspective of modern psychology with his introduction of the concept of Flow, which he expounds upon in his book by the same title, he defines flow as at “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else matters.” In his later book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi turns his attention to the creative act as the supplier of such experiences, citing that when when artists and inventors are completely engrossed in the creative process, such engagement provided a direct pathway to an altered and heightened state of mind. Along with feelings of deep contentment, the flow state also embodies many of the other known attributes of other forms of altered states— the malleability of time and the lack of awareness of bodily needs.

In all of the above examples, the act of creativity quite literally places the creator directly between two worlds, as they open themselves to become a literal conduit between the seen and the unseen, while using the entirely of their mental processes, activating both sides of the brain simultaneously.

Infinite Games

What the alchemists referred to as “Children’s Games,” the Surrealists would embrace as one of their own core experiments. The playing of Surrealist games was a near daily activity for the early surrealists, and while many of the byproducts of these games now hang in the walls of major museums, for those who were playing, it was never about the product, but rather about the process of the game itself, the shared discovery of its results, and the particular mindset it evoked.

Seeking not only to foster individual creativity, Surrealism had a particular fascination and inclination towards co-creativity, wherein they not only synthesized their own mindset and ideas, but combined their minds with one another.  When collaboration is based not in the pursuit of solving a problem, but rather with the goal of joy and exploration, we could simply call it play.

In his fascinating book Finite & Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play & Possibility, author and philosopher James P. Carse expounds upon the paradigm crystalizing backbone of his ideas:

“There are at least two kinds of games: One could be called finite, and the other infinite.”

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

In the facilitation of the infinite game and the celebration of play above nearly all else, the Surrealists created and found their magic in ever new and exciting ways. The collaboration that was at the core of their most esteemed activities created a collective mindset of infinite possibility in their overarching pursuit to create a “permanent readiness for the marvelous.”

Opening Minds

So what is actually happening when we experience wonder, and engage in creativity or play? And how does achieving these states of non-duality apply to museum practice?

For the same reasons that mystics sought and continue seek the non-dual mindset, it can also serve as a useful if not critical tool within the cultural sector. When the entirety of the brain is active at once, the mind experiences a double receptiveness, experiencing multiple planes of information, as the senses increase, along with creativity and memory.

In its most simple terms, it could be said that these experiences and the mental states they induce are an opening of the mind to experience something beyond everyday existence. This not only assigns these experiences importance, while fostering a deep connection to them, but also, in the moment, allows for a deeper awareness of both the physical ideas being presented, as well as the emotional, psychological and creative response to such ideas.

Perhaps for simplicity, it is easiest to imagine the mind as if it was a box. Most of the time, the box may be closed, offering a comfortable and familiar way of understanding the world around us. But when that box is open, it suddenly becomes receptive, ready to receive and hold new information and ideas. And perhaps most importantly, because these new ideas are connected to an extra-ordinary experience, they are far more likely to be remembered and integrated into everyday life.

Part II – Practice

The Most Ample Theatre

Samuel Quiccheberg’s manuscript, published in 1565, is considered to be the first treatise on opening a museum, wherein he makes the case for how and more importantly why someone should go through the great effort and expense of accumulating a collection of objects for public display. Known today as Inscriptions, the full title of the work captures his vision for the role and importance of the museums:



That Houses Exemplary Objects and Exceptional Images of the Entire World, So That One Could Also Rightly Call It a:

Repository of artificial and marvelous things, and of every rare treasure, precious object, construction, and picture. It is recommended that these things be brought together here in the theater so that by their frequent viewing and handling one might quickly, easily, and confidently be able to acquire a unique knowledge of admirable understanding things.

As a performer, I am at first struck by referring to a museum as a “Theater.” The word theater stems from the Greek “theatro,” meaning roughly, “a place to behold.” The Greek is itself derived from the word theáomai (θεάομαι), ‎”I view.”

In his time, collections of this type were perhaps better known as the Wunderkammer, translated into Cabinet of Wonders, Wonder Room, or Cabinet of Curiosity. The Wunderkammern would collect, organize and present wonders of both the natural and man-made world, with the later development, the Kunstkammern, devoted specifically to displaying art.

In early engravings of these great halls, we see a departure from the modern museum display, where each object receives its own dedicated space, where it can be perceived without distraction. Instead, in the earliest museums of Quiccheberg’s time, objects filled nearly all available space, often overwhelming the visitor in seemingly chaotic display. But there was an oft unspoken magic in this type of presentation—and invitation of sorts to form mental connections through the analogy between objects and images whose proximity implied or fostered a meaningful connection.

In the presentation itself, these early cabinets of wonders mirrored and encouraged the workings of the imagination and creativity. In the very proximity of one object to another these displays genuinely evoked a mindset of creativity simply from the display itself.

Quiccheberg’s book also provides a detailed outline into how objects should be sorted and arranged, as well as how labels should be applied and presented to collections. Even in the very earliest days of museums, the physical object sat front and center, with the label— the objects story— taking a back seat.

But if we return to the idea of a theater, especially the enormous Roman theaters from which Quiccheberg’s gets the name, the story was required to be larger than the objects. Even if only due to scale alone, the objects of the theater— the actors, props and costumes— were and remain secondary to the emotion, drama and excitement that the story itself provided.

Of course, I am not proposing that museums start using larger labels, but rather that we explore ways in which the story can become larger than the object itself. As storytelling creatures, we are drawn to the ideas and emotions behind the objects, and if we find a genuine connection to an objects story, our whole brain becomes active in that relationship, and a far deeper connection can be formed.

Attention, Please

It is commonly accepted that one of the primary tools of the magician is the fine art of misdirection. A large motion, a subtle glance, a pointing finger, and even a women in a sequined dress, all serve to misdirect the audience from whatever secret action is taking place, necessary to create the magician’s illusion. If we extrapolate a bit, we can see that misdirection is simply directing attention away from something, which makes clear that one of the magicians primary pursuits is the understanding of how to direct attention.

Attention is equally important for museums to consider. Before we can even begin to talk about deep engagement with our institutions along with the ideas and stories we put forth, we must first lay the groundwork of attracting visitors, and once they are inside the doors, of holding their attention.

In his book How Attention Works, Stefan Van Der Stighel proposes a title for those who working in a variety of fields, ranging from designer to educators, to marketing executives, which may also be a valuable title with which to think of ourselves as museum professionals. In his mind, it is the job of the Attention Architect to build and focus the attention of those they serve.

Deep Engagement & The Art of Connection

Simply getting someone’s attention is just the first step. Imagine someone on the side of the road as you drive by, flagging you down for an unknown reason. At first you may acknowledge their existence, and if you decide to pull over, you have chosen to give them your attention. Cautiously you roll down your window to decide if you will offer your engagement and listen to their story. The duration of your engagement will then depend on how engrossed you become.

What all forms of engagement share is the feeling of connection. Whether it be to an idea, activity, place, self, and/or others, our level of engagement represents our commitment to continue to seek the particular connection.

The deepest levels of engagement are ones based in trust and consistency. In our personal relationships, brand loyalty, as well as the experiences we seek, as we move into deeper levels of trust, we will find our engagement, our willingness to commit our time and energy to be ever deepening.

Enhanced Learning

Many traditional museum institutions look at children’s museums or science museums as entirely different forms of cultural landmarks. Rarely serving the role of treasure house, these museums, traditionally designed to serve younger patrons, are founded on the idea of facilitating space for the intersection of play and learning. When visiting these types of museums, you often encounter a physical environment that is as far from the traditional museum setting as one could get. But in these settings you also encounter genuine play and with it, engaged learning.

Though proven as tried and true methods of institutions designed for younger audiences, the methods employed by children’s museums offer great insight for developing programming for all ages. While children share an inherent desire to play, it is a much larger challenge to get adults to do the same, especially when no children are present.

Like the innate desire to dance, sing and create, adults too have a deep-seated desire to play, but years of social conditioning and ego-driven self awareness has made it difficult for most. But what is known to be both the desire as well as the impact of play in children, remains true for adults: forming connections, fostering creativity abs empathy, facilitating healing.

To this, Scott Eberle, editor of the American Journal of Play adds that play has the ability to bring “surprise, pleasure, understanding—as skill and empathy—and strength of mind, body, and spirit.”

Part III – Application

Constructing Realities

I have long believed that my primary role as a magician is to construct realities. In order to create a successful illusion, I must carefully craft every aspect of a spectators experience, with the utmost attention to detail. Keeping in mind their sight lines, preconceived notions, their attitude and attention, along with their state of mind, I then present a carefully planned, scripted, and rehearsed series of actions and words in order to produce my desired effect—an alternate reality experiences as an illusion.

While museums are not trying to present an illusion to their visitors, the same attention to detail just be taken in crafting the experience intended for them, with an equal awareness and control of their vision and mindset. This is particularly true of the innate power that is generated, and the subsequent engagement that can occur, when visitors are given the opportunity to explore museums in non-dualistic ways, engaging both their mind and body, alongside their creative and logical selves.

In fostering new, intentionally built forms of engagement, museums will also discover that one of the great challenges of the 21st-century museum may be instantly addressed. From the earliest days of museums and up through the mid 20th century, the museum was able to serve its role as one of the only destinations where those driven by curiosity could experience the history of mankind and the earth itself, as well as be exposed to new ideas, inventions, and creative output.

With the advent of the internet, civilization for the first time has at their fingertips access to nearly every thought, invention and creative product that has been produced throughout human history. There has never been a greater need than today for the museum to evolve in the societal role it plays, and the types of experiences it offers. Doing so is, quite literally, essential for our survival.

The Show Business and The Experience Economy

While museum professionals typically do not like to consider themselves as part of the whole of show business, since the beginning of museum history, there has always been a very fine line between the educational and entertainment-based aspirations and business models of the museum. While I have found the phase “leisure-time activities” to be more palatable among others in the museum field, such a phrase also makes it crystal clear as to the current scope of our competition.

Whether we rely on direct ticket sales to stay afloat, or whether our attendance numbers impact our funding, without an active audience, museums will simply cease to exist. With ever-increasing options for our leisure time, perhaps the largest of which is starting at or scrolling through a tiny screen, if we do not explore new ways to engage the public, adapting to their changing desires and demands, they will simply choose to spend their time elsewhere.

In their 2008 book, The Experience Economy, authors Joseph Pine and Jame Gilmore lay out their argument that we have moved into a an experience driven economy, which  “requires a fundamental shift in how we look at everything, from revenue growth to personal happiness. Ultimately, the shift to an experience economy has the power not only to change how we spend our time and money, but also to promote inclusion and democratize happiness.”

A 2014 study by Eventbrite on Millennial experience likes at the Sorenson habits of Millennials: “For this group, the insights indicate that happiness isn’t about possessions. Living an epic and meaningful life is about creating, sharing and capturing memories earned through experiences that span the rich spectrum of life’s opportunities. Experiences, for millennials, are about identity-creation.”

Interestingly, Pine and Gilmore also set the stage for what is to come after the Experience Economy, which they call the “Transformation Economy.” A shift from just the seeking of experience, to prioritizing experiences that create genuine personal change and growth. While it is prudent for museums to embrace the ever-growing Experience Economy, with the stories and content we already possess, museums are uniquely positioned to find themselves ready to respond to the next great market demand— genuine transformation.

Novel Experiences and New Audiences

While the choice and quality of museum programs certainly has long-term affects on audience engagement and related loyalty, it is important to note the inherent and innate power of novelty. While the worldwide growth of escape rooms is diminishing, the number of museums now offering such experiences seems to be on the rise. Overnight stays, tours led by children, and a variety of performance types now being offered in museums are all a signpost that museums are actively experimenting with novel experiences as a method to attract new audiences.

With the traditional museum-going population aging out, attracting new patrons is becoming an increasingly time-sensitive requirement for museum survival. Responding to a younger, novelty-seeking generation offers the opportunity for museums to develop unique programming, while embracing the inherent mind-opening power of novelty to not only entertain but educate. The novelty seeking public is always looking for the next new thing, which afford museums the opportunity to experiment with new forms and methods of content delivery.


Immersion is one of the great buzz words of our time. Despite the origin of immersive spaces and experiences dating back over 1,000 years, today, across all industries, the number and variety of immersive experiences remain on an upward trend. It is my belief that the present-day demand for immersive experiences is directly tied to our feeling of disconnectedness from one another and an innate desire to engage with others in creative and playful ways. This desire to connect is leading worldwide audiences to seek all types of intimate, playful, and wonder-based experiences.

The earliest forms of immersive experience are religious in nature cathedrals, labyrinths, and sacred sites— intentionally constructed spaces designed  to facilitate and/or induce a religious experience. Today, immersion also requires, perhaps above all else, that the mindset of both individual audience members as well as the collective audience be considered and intentionally shaped in order to achieve such a state of immersion.

Above we spoke about attention, which serves as the precursor to immersion. Before one can become fully engrossed in the content, story, or experience being put before them, they first must surrender their attention. Sometimes this surrender is a conscious choice based on trust and willingness to let go. In the deepest forms of immersion, however, the surrender is not connected to a conscious decision, but rather occurs as a natural by-product of the experience itself. This type of unconscious immersion rarely happens by chance, and rather is the result of a carefully and strategically constructed reality, which considers, above all else, the mindset of the spectators, and the intentional steps required to get them to surrender to the reality being presented, keeping in mind that there is no one shoe fits all solution. Different audience members will require different levels of attention to coax then into the world that has been created.

Non-duality in 21st Century Museums

I would back where we began, with the idea of duality. Perhaps unknowingly, museums in the 21st century have already been busy exploring non-dualistic approaches to museum practice. Whether driven by market demands, innovation, necessity, or desire, these examples are glimpse into an entirely new approach to the purpose, function and techniques of the museum today.

Below are several examples of various initiatives that illustrate how modern museums are embracing ideas of non-duality in their programming to foster engagement and learning.


Active / Passive

As you may recall from a few sections prior, Quiccheberg labeled his museum as a “theater,” choosing a word which stemmed from the Greek, meaning “I view.” This longstanding notion of the museum clearly places the visitor into a passive role of looking at objects, but not actively fostering engagement. Whether through creative interpretation, immersive storytelling, or gamification, museums are beginning to experiment with ways to transform the role of the passive spectator into an active co-creator.

While the museum retains its place in society as a supplier of information and ideas, when visitors are given an active path to choose, their receptiveness to presented ideas can increase exponentially.

Examples :

Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati, OH
Heritage Village Museum is a living history museum depicting life in Southwestern Ohio throughout the 19th century.  Interpreters at the museum provide the facts and stories that bring the Village to life with nostalgic glances of days gone by, and demonstrate some of the historic tasks and crafts of the 19th century such as spinning, weaving, candle dipping, soap making, hearth cooking, carpentry work, herb lore, gardening, printing, trade and bartering, and communication.

Science Storms, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL
Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry engages visitors in large-scale experiments involving powerful natural events in its Science Storms exhibition. Visitors can test the vortex variables of a 40-foot tornado, set loose a tsunami in a 30-foot wave tank, or discover how fire reacts to different conditions.

#MeTimeMinday, Philbrook Museum if Art, Tulsa, OK
The Philbrook offers one lucky visitor per week to spend the entire day wandering the museum alone, without staff or other visitors.



Historically, traditional museums have been focused primarily on the preservation and presentation of objects. Accordingly, there was a clear and understood role for the museum visitor to serve as the observer of said object, thereby fulfilling the role of subject.

This distinction between subject and object has been a long-standing precept of museum visitorship. Traditionally, we visited museums in order to see and experience object that are outside of ourselves, and distinct from our everyday experiences.

A new trend in museum practice is the community first model, where programming and exhibitions are developed not from the traditional top-down model, but rather from the ground up, starting with the community itself.

Whether the ideas being presented have stemmed from, or received community input, or whether a museum has opened its walls to the community to quite literally share their own art, suddenly visitors are granted the opportunity to be both the subject as well as the object—the observer of their own ideas.


Woven Records, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Six months in the making, Woven Records presents small works of art made by 16 different community groups, in response to a single artists work. The woven quilt was on display for 6 months.

Prototyping at Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE
This process has involved asking the public to weigh in on temporary, handwritten wall texts— including Post-It notes!— exploring alternative ways the institution might talk about its American and Pre-Raphaelite art collections.

Community Input at Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
Community-based collaborations for programs and exhibitions, education programs serving widely diverse audiences, activities with our advisory councils, a family learning initiative, and visitor research in temporary exhibitions.


Past/ Future

The experience of history is also being reimagined by embracing tomorrow’s technology. The dualistic nature of experiencing the past with a novel technology, creates a living non-dual experience of the past illuminated by the future. These experiences gain further power by their use of technologies which remain novel to most visitors.

Examples :

The Lost Palace, Palace at Whitehall, Whitehall England
The Lost Palace launched in summer 2016, as a brand new visitor experience exploring the once magnificent Whitehall Palace. A reworked and developed version also ran throughout summer 2017. Beginning at Banqueting House, the only surviving building of what was once the largest palace in Europe, visitors took to the streets of modern day Whitehall. Bespoke handheld devices, binaural 3D sound and haptic technology guided them on a digital adventure to discover a hidden history.

The Secret Annex VR Tour,  Anne Frank House,  Amsterdam, Netherlands
Explore the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family in virtual reality (VR) using the “Anne Frank House VR” app. The app provides a very special view into the Secret Annex where Anne Frank and the seven other people hid during WWII.

Terracotta Warriors, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA
Visitors can use the institution’s app to view augmented reality renderings and better understand the mystery of the Terracotta Army. The augmented reality (AR)-enhanced exhibition includes representations of how the sculptures, weapons, and artifacts are predicted to have appeared more than two thousand years ago. Downloadable trigger images allow for the exhibit and AR to be experienced remotely.


In historical definitions of the museum, the primacy of the museum building itself has always reigned supreme. As institutions tasked with preservation and presentation, the museums walls themselves served as a literal protective barrier to keep the objects safe.

As the very idea of the museum transforms alongside our overall relationship to ideas and images in the information age, museums are quite literally pushing the boundaries of the museum, often extending beyond the walls themselves.

One example of this can be seen in the growing trend in museums to digitize and freely share their connections online. With images and  information no longer held as sacred, museums are extending, without borders, throughout the world. In this way, the museum’s role as preservationist also expands beyond the object, to ensuring that objects themselves, as well as  this historical and cultural information they contain are also preserved in their digital form.

The inverse of this digitizing collections can be seen in digital first approach for contemporary museums— collections starting, and often ending, with digital assets without a physical  object at all. Whether out of necessity or desire, digital first collections find themselves free of the costly preservation of a physical collection, while offering the same worldwide access as a digitized collection.

Lastly, museums are exploring the inside/outside duality through programs known internally or externally as a “museum without walls”. In some examples of this approach, museums are establishing remote locations, or mobile units which can bring pieces of a museum directly into a community. In more extreme examples, museums can exist without any walls at all.

Examples :

Van of Enchantment, New Mexico
The mission is maintained and nourished through a number of actions, including collaboration and partnership with Department of Cultural Affairs and other state and community agencies, traveling to each of the 33 counties of the State of New Mexico with one or more outreach programs, gathering cultural information from New Mexicans through outreach activities, and maintain an interactive and informative website that encourages return visits on a regular bas

Mobile Museum of American Art
From 2014 – 2018, the MMOAA was a participatory, evolving installation— an ever-changing picture of American life cast from the objects and stories contributed by those who encounter the museum along its journey.

NOMA+, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
In spring 2018, NOMA embarked upon its own pop-up, a museum housed in a customized fold-out trailer that goes by the name NOMA+ (Plus). This bold new project, years in the making, brought many creative forces together to build and activate a “museum without walls,” one that will literally pop up in sites across metro New Orleans.



In a time when museums are faced with the necessity to adapt to the changing world around us, they are presented with the opportunity to reframe their approach and programming to respond to the demands and desires of the public. By embracing the idea of non-duality to infuse their programming, museums can not only remain relevant and revered culture houses, but once again stand at the forefront of knowledge.

With a shift towards story-first object displays, creativity-based offerings, experiential and play-based learning, immersion and wonder-based programming, museums can not only exist as part of the Experience Economy, but begin planting the seeds to be at the forefront of the pending Transformation Economy.

Most importantly, through the intentional construction of museum experiences, with a particular eye towards facilitating receptive states of mind, museums will find themselves not only attracting new audiences, but fostering deep and genuine engagement with their institutions, along with the ideas, objects, and stories of which they are the stewards.



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Cite as:
London, David. "Fostering deep engagement and enhanced learning through wonder, creativity, and play." MW20: MW 2020. Published March 14, 2020. Consulted .