Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Justine Roberts, Principal

As it does for many of us, the approach of January inspires me to review the past year for important ideas, and new insights to carry forward.  In that spirit I have been going through notebooks lying on my desk and reviewing old notes to myself.  This morning I came across a couple of pages about the North America Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) conference from a year ago.  The conference was held at my former high school (The Cambridge School of Weston) and hosted by my children's preschool (The Children's Garden).  

One of the sessions was presented by an art educator from the Eric Carle Museum who talked about their art making/studio space.  What she said has resonated with me for the past year and I recently returned to the notes I took to refresh my memory.  Her perspective on the atelier is unexpected and lovely.

The art studio at the Eric Carle Museum is the same size as the gallery space which displays Carle's own work, and of the reading library.  That in itself is unusual.  There is equal priority given to display of the master artist, visitor making and creating, and focused investigation.  In fact, it might be more accurate to say that looking at art, making art and reading about art are all seen as equally important means for delivering on the mission of the museum.

"To be a teacher, you need to be a learner and empower others to be learners with you."

This idea is at the heart of how the organization functions.  Although the museum is about illustration as an art form, and about elevating Carle's work, the museum is open to new ideas from all directions.  The focus is on meaning making and discovery.  And programs are intentionally designed to appeal to a broad age range.

"The Studio is a laboratory for thinking" - Gandini and Topal wrote in Beautiful Stuff.  And at the Carle Museum the art studio is seen as a space in which visitors are invited to talk about art and their response to it.  But within the galleries as well there is an emphasis on encouraging visitors to talk to one another, communicate about the art, and debate. The docents use facilitated discussion to ensure that groups participate actively.   The idea underlying this methodology is about doing something with the audience, not for them.  

The goal is not only to make the looking at art active (VTS), but also to learn what people are thinking - what is in their minds so that the museum can learn from its audience.  (There is a page on their website with links to documents discussing their philosophy in more detail).

The Studio

The studio functions as a What If . . .  space rather than a How To space.  The space is designed to support visitor-to-visitor conversation. There is display of visitor-made work, and a mail box in which visitors write postcards for future visitors to read.  

Large windows that look out on the garden provide a kind of living sculpture and backdrop to visitor work.  One recent project invited visitors to make their own garden mural on the window, interacting with the natural environment as well as with the collaborative work-in-progress.

Because the context is Eric Carle's work, and part of the concept is to find inspiration in his work, staff select a set of materials for visitors to work with, or set up a framework for them to add to.  These starting points are chosen to offer multiple entry points and to encourage visitors to think in new ways.  

Within the studio the staff are also playing around with how to organize and present materials.  They have been creating new categories such as thick and thin, or primary and secondary, rather than traditional ways of sorting art supplies.  

This act of setting up the space is an act of preparation for visitors and it seems staff are still finding the right mix of openness and structure that works philosophically and logistically.  For now, these starting points act as seeds which grow organically as visitors take them on and make them their own.

The Staff Role

The bigger picture is problem solving.  When visitors are stuck staff ask them "what are you trying to do and how can we do that with what we have?"  In fact, staff play a large role in the studio - asking questions, engaging adults and finding ways to include them.  They treat communication as another experiment.  They want displays to excite visitors and they want visitors to be curious.  Recently they have been focusing on collaborating on displays with visitors - treating these also as starting points and inviting visitors to document their activity in the space as part of the communication for future visitors.

Space, Stuff, Staff

To inspire interpretation and reinterpretation.  As the presenter in my NAREA panel said: 

Pedgogy is movement.  It is a journey of discovery. And it comes with responsibility to listen to others, solve problems and document the process.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Work in Progress

By Maria Mortati
One of our current projects, The Fort Collins Discovery Museum has posted a set of panoramic views of the job site. It's a lot of fun for us to see things progress. For those that live there in town, it must be really exciting.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

PALS at the Rancho Cucamonga CA library

Justine Roberts, Principal

Last week IMLS tweeted a video put together by clients of ours, the Rancho Cucamonga Library in southern California, about the PALS (Play And Learning Islands) which we designed and built.  The video is great and features library director Robert Karatsu who says: 

"We really think that our PALs in a small way start to bridge the worlds of public libraries (who are good at early literacy and programming) and children’s museum (who are so good at interactivity and sparking creativity among other things.)  Our missions are so similar that it just seems natural to try and find more common ground."

As their name suggests, PALS are free-standing and movable elements that contain hands-on inquiry-based activities.  They live in and among the stacks of the Rancho Cucamonga, CA library.  And in fact, the PALS are intended as an encounter with interactive playful learning as a complement to the more expected cognitive learning libraries support.  The PALS bring together a combination of interactives + library materials (books and media) + supporting materials about learning through play.   Although they can be docked in the children's room, they can also be located outside, or placed strategically for users to discover as they browse for books. We have uploaded photos to our facebook site from the opening.

The PALS are essentially a smaller, fast-tracked part of a larger vision for a children's museum in the library.  In the first phase we completed a community needs assessment and master plan for a children's museum addition.  After completing that work, the library wrote a grant to move forward with the PALS as a way to build staff capacity and pilot some of the ideas about bringing play into the stacks.

In thinking about the design of the PALS we considered the scale of the library and the space available for activities. Each PAL is about 25-50SF.  Each is designed to support a range of play styles including imaginative play, experiential learning, constructive play, aesthetic exploration, and creative problem solving.  Their topics range from science and engineering, to visual and performing arts, to history, and to environmental science.  Although the themes were selected to support the interests of library users and staff, the library believed the PALS would spark additional interest and demand in these areas.  So prior to installing the PALS the library developed their collections on these specific topics - including 500 new books.

The PALS require minimal power, water and lighting. Overall, the PALS are low tech, modular, and portable.  They include space for books and graphics, and utilize green, sustainable materials.  The PALS’ are designed to not need crates for transportation or storage, but smaller units have their own tops which allows them to be "closed" like a “suitcase”. 

The PALS may be small but the vision is ambitious. For the Library the PALS have the potential to expand the range of learning styles and services available through the library, making the library more inviting to families, more inclusive, and more relevant.  In addition the goals included:
     *Pioneering new ways of engaging families in learning in libraries, using interactive museum exhibits as inspiration.  
     *Creating a scalable model which could spread to other libraries.
     *Offer activities that tie into the big themes of literacy, arts and culture.   
     *Change how people think of the library by expanding and enriching the library experience.
     *Support literacy through layered activities that allow users with many interests and skills to be successful.
     *Make the library more family friendly.

Goals for visitors included:
     *Providing experiences that motive users to learn, light a spark of interest, and build self-confidence about creative exploration.
     *Help families realize the role of play in the learning process.
     *Encourage families to consider the library the hub of the learning community, not just a place to borrow books.
     *Increase access to playful activities, the time people in the community spent playing, and broaden the types of playful activities they engaged in.  
     *Bring joy into families lives.

The PALS create a unique blend of reading, browsing and doing at the Rancho Cucamonga library. They are an experiment that is working. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finding Inspiration

Justine Roberts, Principal

We are always looking for new inspiration and points of reference.  What works? How are people innovating learning design? What new ideas are out there or exemplary projects that we can draw on?  So when friends of mine set off to visit some Reggio inspired pre-schools I asked them to take lots of pictures.  

Susan MacDonald is the former Director of The Children's Garden, a progressive preschool and Lucinda Burke was the head teacher for 4-5 year olds there for many years. They now work as consultants for other Reggio inspired schools and are starting their own school in Metro Boston.  One of the interesting thing about the schools they visited - The Blue School and La Petite Ecole in NYC - is that both are works in progress.  Both are in temporary quarters and both have the feel of an experiment in which the organization is learning alongside the students. 

Reggio has been a touch stone for many children's museums, and for art rooms and workshops in other types of museums as well.  As these pictures show, the core ideas behind the Reggio approach continue to offer opportunities to create distinctive, inquiry based environments which honor learners and celebrate learning as a community.

I will let the images largely speak for themselves. 

The Blue School

I find this way of organizing types of learning and inquiry very interesting

Yup, they have blacklight painting directly on the wall in the hallway

 La Petite Ecole

This is Virgil, school founder

A kids' kitchen at child's scale but very sophisticated and REAL

Details like the dress up box lid make this space magical. The window is lined with mirror to double the view.

Every paint color has a thick and a thin brush

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 2

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London 

Last week brought you part 1 of current visitor participation exhibits in London and here comes part 2!

Adventure #3: MOVE: Choreographing YOU at the Hayward Gallery 

A few weeks ago I went off to the Hayward Gallery to see/dance my way through their current exhibition of sculptures and installations created by artists and choreographers. The exhibition had some great things, my favorite being a series of small rooms you go through filled with balloons and ball-pit balls that did really force you to move and think about your movements as you tried to navigate the space. 

 There was also a section of ceiling with gymnastics rings of different heights that posed the challenge of crossing the space without having your feet touch the floor. Loved this, but for some reason the day I was there you couldn’t hang from the rings. Wish this had been available! 
Sadly, the exhibition wasn’t very crowded on the day I went and I seemed to be suffering from a little too much self-awareness. Each area had Gallery staff posted there and one area actually had professional dancers dancing in the space. Because it was so quiet, I felt quite shy about using the objects with the Gallery staff staring at me as the only participant. I walked through all the exhibit areas a few times and there were some spaces that were empty the first time I visited but then had a visitor or two interacting the second time I was in. 

When the space was empty, it wasn’t necessarily clear what one could do there and it took some imagination to think about how the pieces might be used. Upon my return, I could see visitors climbing on and doing different things which provided some inspiration for thinking about what you might do with the items in the room. 

Among my favorite things were small items made of mesh and scrim that were used in dance productions that you could manipulate. I found these very approachable and interesting as you could pick them up and test the many ways the material could be manipulated in your hands (or with your feet..or head) and imagine how they could be used on stage by a dancer. 

I longed to return with my children because I knew they would run around using all the equipment but we have been unable to find a day to go downtown due to extra-curricular commitments on the weekends. Maybe during the winter break we’ll have a chance to go and I’ll have to write an addendum. 

Here’s a photo of one of the rooms – I found it hard to figure out what to do without models and when the objects were all static. The exhibition ended with a computer area that housed an amazing collection of videos, interviews and performances by various dancers and choreographers. I spent quite a bit of time going through a small percentage of the material, which is something I never would have been able to do with two children in tow. 

Adventure #4: The Museum of Everything 

OK, so the exhibition I went to last week wasn’t very participatory, but the concept of the Museum of Everything is so I thought it belonged in this round up. The Museum of Everything advertises itself as a space for artists and creators outside modern society. The first exhibition was a selection of 800 works by na├»ve and unknown artists and curated by leading art figures in London. The second was an exhibition at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in which the Museum of Everything invited unintentional, unseen, unexhibited and unknown artists of Greater Britain to bring their work in for display in one of the greatest museums in the world. In three days, they were able to display over 200 works to over 100,000 visitors, which provided exposure to artists who would otherwise not be seen by this audience at this venue. 

What is very participatory about the Museum of Everything is that they will take any idea from the world out there and consider it. Their website asks that “If you are a non-professional, non-traditional or non-exhibited artist, or if you know one living or long-gone, or if you have some work you think might float our boat, even if you're just a chancer who wants some work displayed in The Museum of Everything, please email us at” 

Which brings me to yesterday’s exhibition. Exhibition #3 is curated by Sir Peter Blake, a British artist and collector who has an impressive collection of naive art. This large exhibition, all based on a circus theme, includes collections of photos of circus freaks, Punch and Judy and puppet displays, miniature fairgrounds and large-scale side-show banners. Peter Blake’s best known work is the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and taking a look at that will give you an idea of the aesthetics of the exhibition. 

The interesting and approachable labels were written by Peter Blake and gave detailed explanations of who the artists were and why the objects were special to him. My two favourite collections were the needlework of Ted Wilcox and the dioramas by Walter Potter. Ted Wilcox was an ex-serviceman who learned how to sew while he was in the hospital recovering from injuries. He created embroidered versions of pin-up girls from magazines and also several versions of Alice in Wonderland. Ted Wilcox embroidered pin-up girl Walter Potter’s dioramas were really something to see. Walter Potter was a famous taxidermist and people would bring him animals that they found or that died on their farms. At some point, Mr. Potter became interested in creating dioramas that include stuffed animals in scenes mimicking human life. In other words, his dioramas are a lot like 3D versions of those paintings of cats or dogs playing cards. 

While he was a well known taxidermist at the time, some of the taxidermy is actually pretty bad and the whole thing has an amazing kitsch element to it. The gallery was full of children sketching different dioramas as they are in turn hilarious and grotesque. My favourites were a series of squirrel boxing scenes as well as a large diorama with squirrels sitting around a living room.

Every once in a while it’s important to attend an event like this because it reminds you that some of us in the Museum business can get a little too stuffy (no pun intended) and take ourselves too seriously and sometimes exhibitions should just be fun and open to whoever wants to make them. 

I would have taken more photos but these signs were posted throughout the space 
Here are some of additional take-aways from these adventures in participatory exhibition: 

• It is wonderful to encourage participation, but consideration should also allow for visitors who might be intimidated and not want to participate. Plan for voyeurs, too. 

• If you are advertising a participatory exhibition, make sure you let people know what they can and can’t interact with. It’s a disappointment to arrive at a Museum and something you are looking forward to trying is unavailable (at least put a sign at the front desk so expectations are in line before entering). 

• Don’t forget to have fun if you are working with a subject where it is appropriate. Visitors can tell whether or not the developers and designers actually enjoyed themselves during the process. 

Thanks for following along!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking Deeply in the Art Museum

By Maria Mortati

A few weeks ago, I again participated in an Enormous Microscopic Evening, this year at the Hammer Museum. It's an event created by the artist-run Critter Salon, and was supported by the Machine Project residency at the Hammer.

I ran the DIY Scope table, letting folks play and helping them assemble a variety of viewers from found objects. The audience was delighted that the Hammer was supporting this event, and I had countless folks asking me if they would "do this again".
Young participant chooses her lenses.
I've written a few times about the idea that artists make great public programmers. They are experts at exploring ideas and figuring out how to involve others.  The goal at this event was to "celebrate and demonstrate the range of equipment people are using to explore the invisible". Phil Ross, the force behind Critter, described the event as a "large microscope jam session".

The fact that this event was held at an art museum was a nice foil for Critter's objectives:
"CRITTER presents cultural events that focus on the way science is practiced in everyday life, taking form as talks, classes, demonstrations and workshops."
It underscored that point and caught an audience who typically comes to "look" in an art museum by surprise. Visitors were exposed to a variety of ways of looking and navigating in the barely visible, and often academic world.

It was a fantastic success. I had kids and adults coming back for more after making a loop around the room. The layout of which was arranged with the the DIY table in the center, with the full regalia of microscopists forming the edges. 

Feel free to visit the Flickr set by Machine Project here. Photo courtesy of Machine Project/Marianne Williams, poster by Critter Salon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Speaking of Humble Materials...

RE-CREATE show entries spanned use and metaphor.
By Maria Mortati

How funny just after Justine's recent post on "do humble materials belong in museums" I happened upon Julia Storrs of the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA) setting up for an exhibit opening this Friday night called "RE-CREATE":
"Re-Create is a recycled art competition and exhibition that is open to student artists (K-12) in Oakland schools. Students are invited to create artwork using discarded or reused materials and compete for prizes."
The "museum" operates out of an empty storefront on Oakland's waterfront. For this exhibit, kids collaborated in teams to practice their 4 R's (reduce, reuse, recycle and... rot).
Julia Storrs,  curator, artist, and teacher, with one of the entries.
Using humble materials and backed up by a well-defined program, kids rose to the challenge– creating some wonderful collaborations on a variety of scales. This exhibit is ephemeral, and the raw storefront space is a perfect backdrop for the kid's art.

If you have the opportunity, go see it! Opens this Friday night, 54 Water Street (Jack London Square) 6 - 8 pm.
Visit their website for the skinny.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Asian Art Museum Wants Your Input

By Maria Mortati

Today I received a request to participate in a survey* for the SF-based Asian Art Museum. I always think what is most interesting are the questions asked. 

If you are so inclined, and especially if you live in the Bay Area, give it a try. What do you think they are thinking about?

*They are not a client of ours.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 1

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Artist Ai Weiwei at the Tate Turbine Gallery   
Despite the weather and some of the strange habits of the natives, London is a wonderful place to live. Particularly if you are a museum person. Every week I head out to some fabulous exhibition and feel very lucky to live in a city with such a rich variety of museum offerings and I always come home having learned and/or experienced something new.

The months of October and November were especially abundant in offerings. The latest crop of exhibitions has been highly interactive and participatory in different ways and has included visitors at various levels. In fact, there were so many great things to tell about that this blog entry became too cumbersome and has been broken into two parts. Look for Excellent Adventures Part 2 in the coming weeks!

Adventure #1: Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern 

First, I went off to the Tate Modern to see the new installation in the Turbine Gallery. I didn’t really know anything about what it was going to be, but have always loved the installations in this space and was prepared for something engaging. Indeed, I really enjoyed the exhibition.

The Turbine Gallery is an enormous, former power plant space and it was filled with ceramic sunflower seeds conceptualized by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. There are over 100 million of these hand-painted porcelain seeds laid out in a giant rectangle pattern throughout the Gallery. Artists worked in small-scale workshops in China hand-crafting and painting each seed, which is overwhelming if you really think about it. The exhibition calls for visitors to contemplate China’s export and manufacture of porcelain and about what “made in China” really means. The exhibition is also timely as Ai Weiwei has been under house arrest in his native China in order to stop him from holding a party to commemorate the forced demolition of his Shanghai art studio. The police were back at his house last Wednesday and Ai Weiwei currently feels that there is a very real possibility that he may go to jail.

The installation during my visit on October 13, 2010 
This was not top in my mind as I was walking and lying down on this vast field of sunflower seeds. The Gallery had the look of a beach. People were lying down, doing cartwheels, picking up the seeds and looking at them and taking a moment to immerse themselves in a work of art. A bank of videos is located adjacent to the installation allowing visitors to send the artist a video message or tweet (to which he will respond) or respond to questions that the artist has posed for visitors.

I came home and told my two daughters about the exhibition and how we should plan a day for all of us to go see it. But it was not to be. It turns out that it was deemed that there was too much porcelain dust being created through visitor interaction and that the exhibition is now hazardous – I was lucky because I happened to be there the last day visitors could see it without standing behind a wire fence. Very sad and I can’t imagine that there isn’t another way to handle the situation. Perhaps visitors could purchase a paper mask in order to interact with the piece as it was conceptualized?

What the exhibition currently looks like
I’m sure there are more complicated ramifications, such as visitors dragging the dust into the art galleries (and I am aware of how hazardous porcelain dust is) but it does make me wonder about our extreme fear of lawsuits these days.

Attempted Adventure #2: Things at the Wellcome Collection

Our next idea for family participation in a museum exhibit was to submit an item for the “Things” exhibit at the Wellcome Collection. My enthusiasm about this exhibition stems from having worked on an exhibition in the early 90s at the Bay Area Discovery Museum called “Kids Collect.” For this exhibition, Bay Area children would submit their collections to the Museum and it was always amazing what came in. There were the usual suspects: baseball cards, troll dolls, erasers, and random rocks. But there were always submissions that were wonderful surprises, such as a collection of items from nature that a two-year-old gathered on his weekly walks with Grandma and a beautiful collection of keys. The exhibition highlighted the basic human need to find meaning in objects, to collects things, and to pause and think about how something that we might view as trivial becomes really beautiful when cared about and curated. For these same reasons, this exhibition appealed to me.

Some of our erasers. 
My daughters really enjoyed creating knit self-portraits for the London Science Museum and they were eager to have another participatory experience.

They both spent a lot of time thinking about what objects were meaningful to them and what might be the best submission for this type of exhibit. After much deliberation, they decided that they wanted to submit their Japanese eraser collection because they both have items that they include and also because they are items that their friends in America collect (and send them) but are unusual here in London. I also have several old Japanese erasers (my favorite being an obento box) that a friend gave me in the early 90s, so this seemed like something we could all get around.

We gathered all our erasers together, but ended up getting foiled by life and the necessary parameters set out by the Museum. The exhibition was ten days long: visitors could drop off items (had to be smaller than your head) between the 12-19 of October and you had to come back and pick your item up between October 21-23. Items could be loaned or donated and my daughters were very clear that they wanted their erasers back. On the day I planned on dropping off our “Things,” I ended up needing to help a friend with her chickpoxed daughter, and we realized looking at the calendar that we wouldn’t be able to both drop off and pick up our erasers the following week. There was an option to submit a photo of your things, but my girls just weren’t that enthusiastic about a lesser level of participation.

I’m hoping that the Wellcome Collection turns this into an annual event and that we are able to participate in the future. We’ve already done the hard work of figuring out which object(s) we’d like to submit and maybe we’ll have better luck next time. We did really enjoy the task of thinking about our objects and particularly liked the videos on the website of selected folks talking about their objects. It’s delightful to be a voyeur into the world of people and their stuff!

Here are some of my take-aways from these two participatory exhibitions:

  • Logistics and process are necessary but try not to make the process too complicated for participants. Keep your audience and their abilities in mind. 
  • You never really know what hazards will present themselves so you need to always remain flexible. 
  • Don’t forget to have fun if you are working with a subject where it is appropriate. Visitors can tell whether or not the developers and designers actually enjoyed themselves during the process. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming to you soon......

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reasons Not To

Justine Roberts, Principal

A girl and her horse.
In my most recent post I talked about some of the reasons I love seeing familiar materials in museums.  Frankly, cardboard and make-dos and space to spread out can keep me and my family occupied for hours and deeply satisfied with the experience.  

But museums can be skittish about using recycled materials.  

Space, Time and Money

There are operating implications of using recyclables, and those have real impacts on staffing, budgets, and space.   Keeping exhibit areas supplied with repurposed materials does take staff time.  Someone has to build relationships with donors, sort materials when they come in, and keep track of what is needed.  Space is required for drop-off, sorting and storage.   

These are real, but I wondered what that commitment looks like in practice.  So I called the Recycle Shop at the Boston Children's Museum.

Boston Children’s Museum has run their Recycle Shop program since 1971.  They staff it with one full time Supervisor, and there are other folks who pitch in part time (either interns or art department staff).  So the program takes the equivalent of 2 FTEs. 

Generally they do not have problems stocking the shop.  There are things they do not take – 3-ring binders, books, computers eg – but they get a steady stream of supplies and have a sustainable roster of donors.  There are approx. 30 folks who contribute twice a year and many one-shot donors.  Twice a week they drive a van to pick up material from commercial donors.  These are all within a one-hour radius of the museum meaning that their relationships extend from Southern Maine and New Hampshire, West to Worcester and South into Rhode Island.  The only reward donors get is recognition in the annual report. If someone donates material of real value they can take a tax write-off and there are occasionally passes to the museum available, but the Recycle Shop Supervisor wisely gives those to the guys at the loading dock.

Now, BCM has taken this to a HIGH level of commitment by making these materials available to the general public through their shop.  The public can come into the museum and shop for supplies without paying admission - and the supplies are very affordable, sold by the bag for $4 or $7.  The museum does use the same supplies in house and the art department gets to pick what they want before they stock the store.  But the program is bigger than just supplying the art room.  It might sound like a lot of work to prep donations and ready them for sale to the public but the Supervisor estimates it takes 10% of his time to sort and break down materials.  That's only 4 hours a week.

As far as space required to run the program, BCM does maintain 1,500SF of off-site storage where they have a 6 month backlog of supplies, another 100SF of on-site storage, and the 400SF shop.

I'm not trying to say Boston is the model for a recycle art program, I realize its an investment.  But because of that it is a good reference point for understanding what you can do with less space, fewer FTEs, and no public store.  

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, CA
On the other hand, I can imagine a kind of swap shop event where a few times a year the museum throws open the doors to the public and sells materials, bringing the makers and doers and crafters and tinkerers into the museum and building audience while raising money at the same time.  Imagine the potential for relationships with corporate donors that can transition into other kinds of support over time.  Imagine the good will and public value that can be built by demonstrating that "green" is not something you buy - its something you do.  For one weekend the museum could become like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or Extras for Creative Learning in Boston, MA.

Loss of Predicability

Another operating issue I hear about is concern that recycled materials are less predictable and standardized.  Staff may need to spend time assessing what they have to work with and coming up with appropriate projects for visitors. This takes time, requires skills and flexibility that may not already be on staff, and means that staff have to split their time between interacting with the public and developing activities – effectively pulling them away from what is most likely their first priority.  

There are a host of related issues of course such as: Where are staff supposed to develop these activities?  Is it appropriate to have staff doing their own creative work in public?  Is it realistic to expect staff to juggle visitor needs in the moment with advance planning for the next day? Does this model require new or different people?  These are questions that need to be answered within the culture of each organization.  But the flip side is that staff who invent the programs they run have more at stake, and the goal would be that their own feelings of investment will spur them to be more creative and engaged.  Their job pushes more toward education, and they become more integral to the visitor experience.  And there are resources out there for inspiration and structure - my favorite being the book Beautiful Stuff.

Some museums have solved these challenges by allowing visitors to invent the project.  These museums are offering materials, context, workspace and a social environment.  Visitors bring the imagination required to figure out what to do. 

That is understandably anxiety provoking. What if visitors are lost in the space, or need help, or don’t know how to get started?  Well, it depends what you want them to learn. Is this about creative problem solving? About finding new ways to look at the familiar and seeing new opportunities in the everyday?  Is it about tapping into their inner genius and creativity?  Is it open-ended and process oriented?  If the answer to these questions is "yes" it seems like giving visitors more room to contribute is a net positive.

And what about the mess?

And what about how messy these materials looks to the public?  When you have lots of legos on the floor it looks messy. When you have scraps of fabric, wood and string the concern is that it looks dirty – like waste.  How do these pictures read to you?

Chicago Children's Museum
But the reasons to use repurposed materials extend beyond the sense of possibility they communicate.  Their presence in the museum also speaks to organizational values and ethics.  They embody sustainability.  Using everyday materials to reinvent with also challenges visitors to consider how the same energy and innovation used to create original products can be turned toward addressing leftover materials.  What should we do with the things we no longer need? With the waste products of our manufacturing processes?  With the used and old?  Working with these materials empowers visitors and gives them direct experience with their own ability to reimagine, and reinvent, what is, ultimately, their world.  And what a lesson that is!
Mega Model, Austin Children’s Museum Maker Faire 2008.  A collaborative city made from trash and leftover materials by visitors.