BLOG-Tools and Treasures
- Published: January 17, 2016
For Christmas, my husband gave me a present that was both unusual and unexpected—a plane ticket to Washington DC.
Granted, in the months before the holiday, I expressed interest in traveling. I recently committed to establishing a children’s science center in Yellow Springs. In that commitment, I rejoiced over the considerable pleasure I’d find in doing the necessary market research. What a pleasant chore I’ve set myself. Spaces dedicated to surprise and wonder—museums and schools and playgrounds and gardens—call out to come play. I might wind my way across the United States—perhaps even beyond—readily answering their irresistible invitation.
My oldest child became an instant booster of the cause. She sat down immediately at the idea’s inception and, in the role of architect and marketer, began planning. Before bedtime, she had named the institute—The Science Castle of Yellow Springs—and gave me until her 10th birthday to open its gate.
My husband bought in also. Over the last year he’s submitted his own contributions: consulting on science projects, investing in materials, building apparatus, and organizing this week’s trip to Washington DC.
The nation’s capitol hosts a wide variety of museums on a terrific range of scales. My ambitions for the week were to visit old favorites—the Smithsonian American Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—and newer institutions that feature narratives and interactive experience.
Incentives to stand up our own interactive science center abound: A center would support project based learning at our public and private schools; It would enhance Yellow Springs standing as a destination spot; It would serve as incubator for economic development in the village. There are cautions to heed also. Interactive museums are experiencing a boom in the country at the moment. We shouldn’t attempt to follow the crest of an overwhelming wave. Instead, we should innovate.
As originally conceived, museums collected objects of wonder. They roped off treasures—trimmed in gilded cages—apart from their visitors. The next generation of museums took a more modern approach that foregoes the gilding so that the art speaks without distraction. Still, for the most part, visitors do not touch, cannot take pictures, and are obliged to maintain a reverent hush.
The third and fourth generation museums offer an open ended conversation with visitors and finally break down the vaulted walls to invite interaction. They curate more than culture. They cultivate community.
The community that I found in a warm embrace by DC museums is the maker movement. This grassroots movement invents new objects of wonder by combining traditional arts and crafts with engineering. Electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and computer controlled tools transform traditional do-it-yourself activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and textiles. The treasured objects on display in the maker community are the tools themselves openly exhibited and organized on pegboard with a curator’s eye.
Among the most intriguing displays in more traditional museums are the ones that give reverent treatment to tools. In the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on the last American dinosaurs, the field tools of a paleontologist stand proudly next to the 18 foot high Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nearby, we are given a window into the FossiLab where restoration work on petrified bones and other biology are performed in full view of visitor.
Across the mall at the National Museum of the American Indian, an interactive exhibition called the imagiNATIONS Activity Center offers young visitors to learn alternate techniques in basket weaving among other activities. Baskets hold textiles to intertwine in the cage of a basket. The basket is about the size of an average eight year old and on the scale at which young arms can easily toggle the cords back and forth through its spines.
The maker movement was present in its richest most engaging form during my visit to the Kid Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. Located on the lower level of the Davis Community Library, the museum offers open build workshops to kids age 6 to 16 after school and on the weekends.