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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