PROBLEM: Show a kid a Big Wheel or rocking horse, and he'll want to ride. Provide a wooden bathtub on wheels, and she'll climb right in. Kid Size: The Material World of Childhood, an exhibit of more than 130 everyday objects for children from different cultures and time periods, cries “Touch me! Use me!”
But “don't touch” was the rule. Even exhibit designer Anne Mundell could not touch a single object. Curators from the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, originators of the show, sent a courier to supervise the setup at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, who was given the authority to pull the exhibit if any object was threatened. All paint treatments and scenic elements had to be in place before the exhibit arrived, and a staff trained in art packing and handling put objects where Mundell and assistant curator Elisabeth Agro wanted them.
How would Mundell make sure she achieved the show she had promised while staying clear of the art in it? And how would the Carnegie keep children safe from sharp or moving art while keeping the exhibit safe from them?
SOLUTION: When Carnegie curators asked Mundell, coordinator of design and associate professor of scene design at Carnegie Mellon University's Drama School, to create a playful and imaginative environment that told an involving story, the exhibit had been touring museums for seven years. It arrived with formal pedestals, “slats of wood with a roller coaster feel,” says Agro, organizer of the Pittsburgh presentation. There was nothing for young visitors to do but dream of using the objects.
“Almost all the items were three-dimensional things that were used as part of life or part of play,” Mundell says. Would hands-on activities help visitors appreciate the exhibit and keep hands off the art, they wondered.
The team left what Mundell calls “a trail of breadcrumbs” made of “Colorform-type things” along the stairs to attract museum-goers to the exhibit and to areas where they could become involved in related activities. A huge back-lit sign (by Dale McNutt of Soho Invention, Inc.) and written guides explained there were six distinct chapters:play, mobility, seating, sleep, formal learning, and basic functions (eating, grooming, toileting). Visitors could start anywhere, as you might when reading a book of related but non-sequential short stories.
Working from photos of the objects and with the help of Adobe® Photoshop®, Mundell created activity areas to accompany each chapter, each with its own palette and shapes.
The mobility exhibit, for instance, featured assorted baby strollers and sling carriers. Agro says they collected things that were similar to the objects on display, objects children could handle in this case, contemporary slings and baby dolls, weighted by sand to create the heaviness of a real infant when carried. Visitors could personalize model cribs, hear bedtime stories, or rest on pillows near the exhibit of cradles and other sleep-related objects.
It was important to keep activities in the activity areas. A replicated moving toy might not be valuable, but oh, the damage it could do by careening into an art object. Pencils and magnets seem harmless enough, but “they could be used for evil as well as good, and they had to be contained,” says Mundell, who created geography of the space, using visual cues and space divisions to delineate activity and exhibit areas. “There was always something on the floor [in activity areas], like a mat or a carpet,” she says. Signs on pedestals with exhibit objects helped make clear what couldn't be touched, and a sign with rules helped, too. Guards monitored each station to make sure visitors understood the rules.
It was also important to provide visual clues that told visitors when it was okay to participate. In the formal learning activity area, where visitors could do table activities at old school house desks similar to those displayed and write on a star-shaped blackboard, leaving children's drawings on the board helped.
Designing an exhibit also creates, well, design issues. It was important to put objects together in a way that pleased the eye and made sense to the story, and sometimes the two conflicted. Agro and Mundell wanted to put a Charles and Ray Eames mechanical rocking horse — wooden blocks glued together with hinges and springs — next to a modern rocking horse, but scale differences made that hard. Moreover, object placement was another safety variable. In one instance, Mundell painted a triangular platform with a sharp corner “a hideous bright neon color” to ensure visibility.
Mundell unified exhibit and activity areas, too, creating different moods for different chapters with light (by Todd Brown and Chris Kreche) and sound (by Joe Pino) as well as color. Vibrant color and bright light marked play activity and exhibit areas, for instance, with dimmer lights and cool colors in sleep areas. Ambient soundscapes included playground noises, school bells ringing, crickets, and other night sounds. Lighting that revealed objects and created mood would also have to be safe; using many footcandles was out.
Mundell also had concerns about carpeting, since new carpet releases chemicals that can damage finishes or change the composition of wood, and she placed a chemically neutral felt between the object and the carpet to protect objects.
Budget, too, was tricky. “Usually, we don't put additional money into a show [after paying the fee for it],” says Agro. “We were the only museum that encased the show in an environment…We provided skin and muscles to the bones.”
By punctuating the show with usable objects and design moments, “we created a world that visitors belonged in,” Agro says, adding that there were 54,000 interactions by at least by 26,000 separate individuals in activity areas during the exhibit's run.
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