Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Why Can't Science Centers and Children's Museums Have More Contemplative Spaces?

And why can't Art Museums (the traditionally "hands-off" museums) have more physically interactive experiences and artworks inside?

A number of years ago, I worked on an exhibition entitled "The Animated Artwork of Laura Vaccaro Seeger" at the Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA) on Long Island. 

The exhibition included interactive exhibits and installations that naturally dovetailed with themes like light and color, metamorphosis, and negative space that show up in the award-winning children's books that Laura Vaccaro Seeger writes and illustrates. That would have definitely NOT been a big deal if I designed that sort of exhibition at a "hands-on" museum, but this was the first time that NCMA had put on a show with so many deliberately interactive exhibit pieces. Initially, the museum staff was even a little freaked out by having loose books in the gallery (in a show by an author!) so we compromised by mounting the books on "reading shelves" attached to the walls.

Exhibitions like "Take Your Time" by Olafur Eliasson incorporated stunning pieces that, with a little tweaking, could make equally amazing science museum exhibits. But since Eliasson's pieces are "Art," they are mostly not meant to be directly touched or interacted with physically, at least inside of an Art Museum.

At issue seems to be the context that people (with or without young children in tow) approach different types of museums. The atmosphere in most art museums is on the level of a library --- hushed tones, silent contemplation, and guards occasionally telling people to settle down. One of the complaints from guards (but not visitors!) in the Laura Vaccaro Seeger show was that some of the interactive pieces made noise or caused the visitors to make noise!

Of course, most Science Centers and Children's Museums often seem like a cross between a fun house and a race track --- frenetic busy activity and experiences that seem to invite chaos more than contemplation. So is it possible to introduce contemplative experiences into such active spaces?

I remember speaking with Bernie Zubrowski about a piece that he developed and displayed at the Exploratorium, entitled "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart." The piece incorporated a silky piece of fabric (Amelia's scarf?) immersed in a tank of water being gently swirled by currents. There are interesting moire patterns caused when the fabric overlaps, as well as mysterious shadows formed by the lighting inside the tank.

When I saw Bernie's piece at the Exploratorium, I loved it. Unfortunately, I was one of the very few visitors to take the time to pay attention to its subtle pleasures. Despite being a treasure trove of art, science, and perception exhibits, the Exploratorium wasn't really conducive to a piece like Bernie's, which required quiet concentration from the viewer. However, "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart" would likely have been very well received in an art museum or gallery show.

Can we get Art Museums to "loosen up" on their approach to exhibits and visitor interactions -- or should we?

What about getting "Interactive Museums" to provide more contemplative spaces and opportunities?

Or are all types of museums trapped by the "institutional images" that they have worked so hard to foster and promote?

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the "Comments Section" below!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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