Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Theory of Loose Parts: A Different Kind of Exhibit Design?

Is your museum "messy"?

I don't mean fetid restrooms or ketchupy hand prints outside the lunchroom walls --- I'm wondering if there is a certain level of chaos or disorder inside your exhibit halls --- or put another way, how tolerant are you and your visitors with "loose parts"?

The notion of "loose parts" has kept coming to mind over the past few weeks as I've been thinking and talking about playgrounds and playground projects of various sorts.  The July 5th issue of The New Yorker has an article entitled "State Of Play" by Rebecca Mead  (PDF available here) that outlines a brief history of playground design and the tension between tightly conscribed playspaces and the "adventure playground" movement that allows users much more freedom.  It's well worth a read.

Mead also cites an essay by architect Simon Nicholson with the excellent title "How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts."  (Not easily found on the Web, I'm afraid, but here's a downloadable PDF "cheat sheet" on the subject.)   Nicholson writes in his essay that, "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."

Museums aren't playgrounds (necessarily) but even many "hands-on" museums seem inordinately resistant to the notion of "loose parts."  Why is that?  Have we trained a generation of museum visitors (and staff!) that a little messiness or disorganization is a bad thing?  Or are museums resistant to loose parts because the best "loose parts environments" require more staffing? 

In any event, maybe one way to look at exceptional museums (like The Exploratorium or ¡Explora!) is their willingness to facilitate the use of loose parts in their exhibits.

In another part of Mead's New Yorker article, she discusses the "Imagination Playground" that architect David Rockwell is working on, and mentions the set of "loose parts" (in the form of hundreds of differently-shaped blue foam blocks) that will be deployed there.  It will be interesting to see how such an "unstructured" space plays out in New York City when the IP opens later this month.
One spin-off of the Imagination Playground process is the sale of "Imagination Playground in a Box"  a big kit of the blue foam blocks that you can bring to any spot and turn kids loose with.  Apparently children's museums and (affluent) elementary schools around the country have been purchasing the $25,000.00 set, but here's a link where you can nominate your local playground or park to win a set for free.

Do "loose parts" make sense for your museum? Why or why not?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!

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  1. As a science museum programs person, I have a big Ziploc bag in my desk that contains a diversity of "loose parts" from various exhibits created over the years at my institution.

    We use them for "show and tell" in exhibit planning meetings. All of the objects in the bag have been collected from live presentation areas where they have been hurled by visitors at presenters, during presentations.

    I like as many variables as possible in our exhibits, but designers need to be creative about making the pieces safe for everyone. Foam Blocks-GOOD! Metal Bolts & Nuts-BAD!

  2. I like exhibits with loose parts, and have learned from making lots of mistakes! My current rules of thumb (still evolving) include:
    - loose parts should be just nice enough, but not fancy enough to steal (even if the fanciness comes from a fictional "status" assigned in the exhibit, such as fake coins)
    - nice loose parts should be too big to fit in a pocket, but small enough to manipulate
    - loose parts should either be so cheap as to be practically disposable, or robust enough to rarely need replacing
    - with cheap loose parts check that you *actually* have operational staff time for making/buying the replacements
    - tethering loose parts only makes them into a "challenge" (which the visitor will win)
    There's probably more, but I hope you understand my pain...

  3. I grew up in an Imagination Playground -- we just called it a farm. But, serviously, every time I watch those shows that tell you how to organize and arrange your house, I get a little more worried. Without a little mess, there is no learning. And I like how you challenge museums to think about this in a constructive manner.

  4. At our children's museum, we've grown increasingly committed to loose parts. messy - yup. worth it - definitely. Our willingness to deal with the mess is due to our increasing understanding - and embracing - of our role as an advocate for children's free play.
    A decade ago, when we thought our role was to present information in an engaging and hands-on manner, loose parts were more of a problem for us. Finding the (fake) plantains or avocados from the Latino market in the colonial cottage was not okay. They didn't have avocados in colonial New England. But if we see our museums as more places where kids learn and play than places where we teach, that changes everything.

  5. State of NJ has an architecture exhibit in its newly constructed area (underground). It includes foam blocks with covering indicating the changes and additions to the State Capitol complex. The Blocks are loose. They do have a deep, properly shaped placed to be put when they are not being added by the visitor to explore development of the Buildings over time. Hook and loop (Velcro strips) make joining and disassembling the pieces easy. The blocks (building pieces) are large and would not fit into anyone's pockets as suggested by another writer. The exhibit is one that allows minimal variations, but it does a good job of conveying how what you are visiting today has changed over time and how those pieces fit together.