Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sometimes It Really Is About The Box ...

I'm inherently resistant to museum experiences that seem to put much more emphasis on "the box" than the stuff inside the box.  I cringe when I encounter a bad exhibit experience that seems like a five dollar idea stuffed inside a five thousand dollar container.

Similarly, it often seems that the resources poured into "starchitect" fees for many new museums would be much better spent on staffing, more creative exhibits --- or better yet, buildings with traffic flows that actually work and don't seem like crazy experiments in social engineering or dystopian sci-fi movie sets.

Despite my bias against pretty, empty experiences in cultural institutions, I went to an opening last week and found an instance where the emphasis on the high-level design aesthetics of the environments actually makes sense.

Those environments are part of Design Lab at the New York Hall of Science (NYSci) a collaboration between an amazing content team at NYSci and the talented designers at Situ Studio that totally transformed a core section of the original 1964 World's Fair building that formed the original part of the New York Hall of Science.

The design-based activities happening inside the five distinct areas or zones within Design Lab (and the adjoining Maker's Space) are, on one level, deceptively simple: building structures with long dowel rods and rubber bands, or creating parts of a "Happy City" using cardboard, tape, batteries, and LEDs.  But if Situ and NYSci had only deployed these activities by themselves (with simple fences or functional barriers around them) I don't think the experiences would have "worked" as well.

The combination of Situ's carefully-crafted "boxes" and the (on the surface at least) "less flashy" design activities combines to create an incredibly strong presence and makes the design-based activities inside much more attractive to visitors. (And from a practical matter, more attractive to funders as well.  I can't imagine the funders behind Design Lab ponying up the cash for simpler, utilitarian spaces.)

All of this makes me want to re-think my impressions of different "Maker's Spaces" I've encountered (like The Tinkering Studio or MAKESHOP® ).   How much of an impact are the "non-functional" environmental design considerations actually having on visitor experiences in these most ultilitarian and user-focused of museum activity spaces?

Could rough-and-ready Hacker/Maker Spaces and even Maker Faires benefit from additional, and intentional, interior/environmental design? Would it make the experiences and activities more satisfying for visitors in a way? 

It's a bit paradoxical (to me, at least) that activities that easily lend themselves to happening on workbenches in crowded shops, or portable tables under tents in parks (or parking lots) might actually become more effective or memorable when placed inside bespoke environmental surrounds.

But I think that's part of what makes Design Lab work.  If you find yourself around NYC, make sure to take the 7 train to Queens and check it out!

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