Reflections on art in children’s and science museums

November 25th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Children's Museum of New Hampshire

Justine Roberts, executive director of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover, looked back at several case studies and reviews as she reflected on the many roles professional art can play in science and children’s museums.

At the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (left) we are home to the largest art gallery in Dover, right inside our museum. Gallery 6 changes three to four times a year and features regional 2D and 3D artists. It is literally the heart of the physical museum and also its conceptual center. So we think a great deal about the different ways art functions in other children’s and science museums, and how we want to use art in our space.

As the following examples — drawn in part from case studies and reviews on ExhibitFiles — show, the role and use of art in and by non-art museums is hugely variable:

• Glenn A. Walsh, in his case study about art in the original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh, talks about how the Buhl traditionally used art to “help explain science topics to the general public.” Artworks clarify and communicate ideas to the audience.

• Museums like the Exploratorium use art also to inspire curiosity, wonder, and awe. In this sense, as Paul Orselli puts it in his Bit about the Smart Art installation in the American Museum of Natural History’s Brain exhibition (right), art helps science museum visitors experience the way something works.

• But take the Chihuly installation at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Although it is clearly there to inspire, it is not there to teach about glass, color, luminosity, or structure. What it does is establish the museum as an environment with built in affordances, provocations, and opportunities for exploration. In this case, the art is not an element in the space but of-a-piece with the visitor experience.

• I understand the art program is similarly integrated throughout the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. What feels innovative to me in Pittsburgh is how art helps make the museum welcoming to adults — communicating that this is their place, too.

This isn’t just about science centers and children’s museums. Take Systema Metropolis and Who Am I? (both reviewed on ExhibitFiles) from two different London museums. These projects both use art to invite participation — to invite the visitor to organize and sort information.

• As Lynda Kelly explains it, Systema Metropolis, part of a contemporary art exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, combined art with graphics and other materials to create a layered exhibit that provoked and engaged visitors in the process of scientific inquiry – the “artistic process of enabling visitors to make their own meaning” (and did you know the London History Museum has a contemporary art program?!).

Identity Dolls in Who Am I? at London's Science MuseumWho Am I?, at London’s Science Museum, was similar but went another step and, in the lobby, installed a collection of Identity Dolls (left) made by community members. Art was not just about helping communicate complex ideas. The audience made their own art about the issues in the exhibit — they used art-making to organize their thoughts and express what they knew.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire’s Gallery 6 serves a combination of these roles. It provides inspiration to visitors, and helps establish the museum as a creative and interdisciplinary space. It also attracts adults who browse the work and often initiate conversations with their kids in a way we don’t see in other exhibits. The gallery also adds a dimension to our aesthetics that are not standard for a children’s museum. We show professional art in all it’s complexity and interest.

Just as importantly Gallery 6 establishes a visual link between visitors’ playful self-expression and that of professionals. You can see Gallery 6 from our studio space (pictured above), and children’s artwork is hung so that you can see it from the gallery. We are intentionally layering together what visitors do and what professional creatives in our community do. For us, integrating art into the museum is part of positioning the museum as a meeting place for ideas and people. We haven’t yet done a project like the Identity Dolls but it would be in keeping with how we understand the role of art in our work.

So . . . art and science are historical cousins but the story doesn’t end there. The dynamic is as complex, variable, and evolving as the field as a whole.

2 Responses to “Reflections on art in children’s and science museums”

  1. John Honey Says:

    This series will feature interviews with professionals examining their early childhood arts experiences, providing a personal perspective on art and childhood. They will illuminate the unique and important role art has in shaping our memories and cultivating our interests. I begin the series with a friend and former colleague, Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonians Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

  2. Frank Says:

    I think that using art as a way to teach children, especially with interactive and engaging exhibits like the Smart Art instillation, is the best way to go. Art and science can really benefit one another, with art making science making science more exciting for kids, and science making art more educational.

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