Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do Humble Materials Belong in Museums?

Justine Roberts, Principal

There is a long-standing practice, tradition even, of using recycled and repurposed materials in museum exhibits.  Back in 1993 when I worked at the Bay Area Discovery Museum one of the most popular exhibits was a little diorama creation area where kids used cardboard boxes (new) and then cut up donated magazines, carpet samples, film canisters, cardboard tubes and other doodads and assembled entire worlds of their own invention. I was responsible for the donated supplies for this activity space and I would regularly contact new sources for scrap and left over material.  The challenge was to find pieces that were safe to handle, easy to manipulate and came in large enough quantities.  But the central criteria for success, which I discovered by watching how the visitors interacted with the exhibit, was that the materials needed to be humble. 

Familiar materials which visitors could easily identify – like bottle caps – lent themselves to reinterpretation whereas obscure small metal springs were not immediately understood.  In the museum setting, visitors actually responded enthusiastically to the possibilities inherent in the common, every day, leftover materials that they knew from home.  It was the context of the exhibit – the ability to make a mess, the scale of the work area, the social nature of the space, the examples left behind by other visitors which could serve as inspiration, and the explicit freedom to reinvent – all of which set visitors’ imaginations loose.
Providence Children's Museum
This past weekend at the Providence Children's Museum my own kids spent a long time building with bottle caps.  To be honest, I was really pleased.  I have one daughter who collects things and periodically I have to edit her own bottle cap collection. So what fun for her to encounter such abundance, variety and permission!


Over the years I have collected examples other museum exhibits that put everyday materials into visitors’ hands from science centers and children’s museums.  Here are a few other examples I really like that repurpose or reuse the familiar in surprising ways:
Invention at Play, The Lemelson Center invites kids to repurpose kitchen tools as design elements and create their own artwork, finding new ways to see the familiar world.

Paper airplanes at Columbia Memorial Space Center, in Downey CA encourage design, testing and redesign as visitors search for the perfect combination of loft, speed and accuracy in their creation.

Acton Discovery Museums, Rube Goldberg style ball runs turn humdrum hardware into a platform for play


Some of these are more designed than others, and some are more open-ended.  Clearly they have different learning goals, aesthetics, different target ages, and even different frames for thinking about how people learn in museums.  But in all of these examples the use of everyday materials is intentional, even central to the visitor experience.


The assumption behind these exhibits seems to be that visitors will be empowered by familiar and accessible materials.  They encourage visitors to think about how they can continue experimenting at home – as if saying “you too can make a contraption out of leftover hardware” or “look how easy it is to investigate the principles of flight”!  The materials take some of the mystery away from complex ideas and suggest that the key ingredient is actually the visitor, not fancy equipment or expensive supplies.  Science, art, design, engineering, creativity, imagination and understanding are all within visitors’ grasp.

Unfortunately, there are many museums that feel pressure (from donors, staff, trustees, and the audience . . .) to provide unique materials that are customized to their environment, and not commercially or otherwise available.  The argument I hear is that museums need to set themselves apart and justify the cost of admission.  Humble materials are just not different enough.  That view discounts the environment of the museum, the staff, the context, the space and time of a visit and all of the ways in which museums ARE different from home or school, the library or the park.  It is not just the stuff kids touch that makes the museum.

1 comment:

linda said...

Folks in the SF Bay Area should know about two (and more) small but mighty organizations doing similar work with "humble materials." They are the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, particularly the outreach workshops, Fantastic Trash and Art of Japanese American Internment Camps (but actually all 17 of them), and Trash Mash-Up, also based in SF and doing outreach to all ages. Then there's SCRAP...